Here is some advice for fitting, using and maintaining your saddle, compiled by the Animal Health Trust, in collaboration with World Horse Welfare.

Their research has highlighted some areas that should be carefully considered when fitting a new saddle, which will help to maintain and develop the horse’s topline, and reduce the likelihood of back pain. It is also important to remember to maintain your saddle properly, and to make sure it fits both yourself and your horse throughout the year.

Buying and fitting a new saddle

Do use a qualified saddle fitter. The most widely recognised saddle-fit accreditation is from the United Kingdom’s Society of Master Saddlers,

Don’t buy a saddle without trying it on your horse.

Do make sure the fitting includes ridden exercise because horses may change shape as they work.

Do aim to fit a new saddle when your horse is in a shape and condition which they’re likely to maintain. There is no point buying a saddle when your horse is at their fittest if you do not have the time to keep them fit. Preliminary data indicate if a horse is not kept in a strict and consistent exercise and weight-maintaining programme, they will change shape over time.

Do make sure your horse moves well underneath the saddle.

Do make sure you, as the rider, feel comfortable in the saddle and in balance with your horse.

Do assess the combined fit if you intend to use your saddle with a pad or numhah, not the saddle alone.

Do test the saddle under the conditions that you expect it will be used, such as jumping, going up and down hills, galloping and riding long distance, etc.

What type of saddle to buy?

The style of saddle that you have depends on what type of riding you do and to what level you aspire to ride. For more advanced riding, a specialist saddle may help your position and effectiveness, but you may have to make a compromise depending on whether you can afford to buy more than one saddle. The position of the stirrup bars controls the position of the rider’s legs, which influences the shape of the saddle flaps.

A general purpose saddle is ideal for a pleasure rider that enjoys a variety of different types of riding. This type of saddle has a variably deep seat, but forward cut flaps without large knee rolls and can accommodate the rider for basic jumping, hacking, hunting and dressage.

A dressage saddle has straight flaps, and provides the rider with a closer leg contact essential for accurate and precise moves. It enables the rider to sit upright with a longer, straighter-legged position. There may be knee rolls and sometimes thigh rolls also to help to keep the legs well positioned.

A jumping saddle usually has a flatter seat and bigger, more forward cut flaps compared with dressage saddles to facilitate the two-point jumping position when going over fences. The shape of the seat varies and what is ideal for you depends somewhat on your jumping position. This is influenced by the length of stirrup which you prefer and, if riding cross country, how much you need to alter your position based on the type of fence that you are jumping.

Close contact saddles exist in all types of saddle and have been designed to put the rider closer to their horse. To obtain a close contact, the saddle has to have thin panels. Close contact saddles are potentially more difficult to fit properly. It is important to check frequently the panels are adequately thick to protect your horse’s back from the tree.

What to consider about the seat?

The top of the saddle consists of the sitting area, a narrower area in front under which the stirrup bars are located, the front (pommel) and the back (cantle).

The seat size should be based on both, the size of the rider’s buttocks and the length of their thighs.

The rider’s seat bones should point straight down, with the same amount of free space between the rider and the pommel, and between the rider and the cantle.

The horse’s shape determines the size and shape of the tree of the saddle, which also establishes the overall width of the saddle. If you have a narrow pelvis, it is best to avoid buying a very wide cob, which will need a wide tree, although a narrow seat can be built onto a wide tree, depending on the construction.

If the saddle is too wide for the rider it will be uncomfortable for the rider.

Be aware there are different designs of saddle to adapt to the different shapes of the rider’s pelvis. Therefore, a saddle that fits an adult male pelvis is unlikely to fit a female as well.

Manufacturers make saddle flaps for ‘average-sized legs’, and short- or long-legged people usually suffer. You should choose a saddle with an appropriate flap-length. Your knee should come approximately to the centre of the knee roll and the flap should be wide enough to enable your leg to move without leaving the flap if you shorten your stirrups. Saddle flaps can be changed to fit.

Saddle innovations

Treed saddles

Well-fitting treed saddles provide a stable seat for the rider and help distribute the rider’s weight over a large area of the horse’s back. However, ill-fitting treed saddles can cause pressure points, muscle atrophy and poor performance. A tree can be manufactured crookedly, or can break and cause back pain.

Treeless saddles

Some horses appear more comfortable in a treeless saddle compared with a treed saddle. Truly treeless saddles are completely flexible. However, they may have no gullet and, if a horse has a prominent spine, this may not be the best option. Weight fluctuation and the changing shape of the horse’s back are the most obvious reasons for choosing a treeless saddle. Many so-called ‘treeless’ saddles have some form of rigid structure to support the shape and stop it collapsing onto the back. There is often a rigid pommel arch which, although it gives the appearance of wither clearance, can leave the stirrup and girth attachments unsupported, causing peak pressure points over the back. Make sure a professional fitting service is available for the specific design that you select.

Air pockets

Some saddles have air pockets, which can be filled to mould to the horse’s back and, thus, adapt the saddle to asymmetries of the horse’s back. The amount of air can be adjusted to accommodate changes in back shape. Air is not subject to compression like conventional flocking and the risk of pressure points may be reduced. Air may leak over time, so regular checks are required.

Adjustable tree

Some saddles have an adjustable tree, so the angle at the front can be changed. This is a good option if your horse tends to change shape frequently under the front of the saddle, without changing shape further back beneath the saddle.

However, preliminary data indicate that, if a horse becomes narrower underneath the front of the saddle, this is often accompanied by a ‘wider’ shape at the level of the back of the saddle. Changing the width of the front of the tree will not necessarily allow the saddle to follow the shape of the horse’s entire back.

If only one part of the tree fits well, it is no better than having a saddle in which the whole tree doesn’t fit.

It is not easy to adjust the tree quickly and accurately.

Buying saddles with adjustable trees to fit many horses is not advisable.

Recognising saddle fitting problems

A lack of knowledge of how to recognise incorrect saddle fit can lead to pain, discomfort and, ultimately, poor performance.

Physical signs of poor saddle fit

The early warning signs…

  • Muscle soreness under or behind the saddle. The horse may flinch when being groomed or behave abnormally when being tacked up.
  • Dry patches under the front of the saddle surrounded by sweat following exercise.
  • Dry patches on the spine surrounded by sweat following exercise could indicate too many layers or too thick a layer beneath the saddle, filling up the gullet and pressing on the spine.
  • Areas of swelling under the saddle following exercise.

Long-term indicators…

  • Depressions behind the scapulae (shoulder blades) or elsewhere under the saddle. These may reflect a chronically poorly-fitted saddle and pressure points.
  • White hairs appear when pressure has injured the hair follicles. However, they usually do not appear until the hair coat changes.
  • Dry patches under the front of the saddle surrounded by sweat following exercise.
  • Scabby skin lesions under the front or back of the saddle.

How to assess saddle fit yourself

You should always get a qualified saddle fitter to fit and check saddles, but here are some things you can check yourself between visits…

The width and length of the tree of the saddle must be suitable for the shape of the horse’s back:

Check length: The tree of the saddle should not extend beyond the top of the last rib (T18).

Jumping saddles are longer in the seat than dressage saddles to allow for a more horizontal thigh position.

Some pony saddles are not adequately adapted to fit relatively large young people, without being too long for a pony’s back. The seat, knee rolls and flaps need to be designed to accommodate the rider’s growth.

Check width: The saddle should not tip back or forward on your horse’s back.

The saddle should remain central on your horse’s back in walk, trot and canter, with the seat parallel to the ground. A little movement from side to side is normal, but the saddle should not swing from side to side or lift off the back. The rider must be able to sit centrally in the seat, not tipping forward or back. When your legs hang, they should not drift forward or backward. You should be able to stand in the stirrups and maintain your balance.

The gullet is the central channel on the underside of the saddle, which fits over the top of the horse’s spine. It should not be in contact with the spine when a rider is on the saddle.

Check at least two fingers’ width aligned vertically (3cm) can be inserted under the pommel when the rider is standing in the stirrups, both before and after exercise.

Check you can see through the gullet of the saddle. The development of white hair on the top of your horse’s back can indicate lack of clearance.

The front of the tree (the point of the saddle) should stay approximately 5cm behind the top of the back of your horse’s scapulae.

Check the saddle stays behind the scapulae during exercise. Ruffling of the hair underneath the saddle could indicate undesirable movement.

The bearing area (panels) should be in contact all the way along the back.

Material used in panels differs, but this is not important provided the panels are soft and smooth against the back.

Feel under the saddle for any gaps. There should not be any areas where there is either reduced contact, or no contact between the panels and the horse’s back. This can also be checked by looking at the grease on the saddle, if using the saddle without a saddle blanket.

Alternatively, dust the bottom of the saddle with talcum powder and see how it is distributed on your horse’s back. You should not be able to run your hand under the front panel with a rider on the horse. Feel for excessive pressure, especially under the tree points. Look at the distribution of sweat on the saddle pad under the saddle, or look for the presence of dry spots on the back following exercise, which may indicate pressure points.

Fitting of the saddle relative to back shape

The panels of the saddle must smoothly follow the curve of your horse’s back to fit well.

Do recognise back shape can change within two months, the speed and direction of which are influenced by saddle fit, age of your horse, level and type of work and bodyweight. Frequent saddle fit checking is important, particularly when the grass starts to grow in the Spring. Saddles need to be adjusted to accommodate for these changes.

Horses having time off work are likely to change shape and saddle fit should be checked when regular work is resumed.

Should I use a saddle blanket, gel pad or riser pad?

A well-fitted saddle should not need anything underneath it.

A saddle pad can be used to keep the bottom of the saddle clean, to carry a sponsor’s logo or to change the appearance of the horse’s back.

A thick saddle pad can alter the fit of a saddle.

Saddle pads can change the balance of a saddle, and can narrow the space available between the gullet and your horse’s spine. Adding a thick pad can unbalance a saddle that is sitting level without a pad. If you do not want to change the balance of the saddle, you should only use a thin saddle pad. If you decide you want to use a thick pad, you need to be aware this could worsen the fit of one saddle and improve the fit of another saddle. You need to be aware of your horse and be aware that if you feel an initial improvement in performance when adding a pad, it can be due to a relocation of pressure points, rather than removing pressure points. Saddle fit needs to be changed.

A riser pad elevates the entire saddle – either uniformly or the front or the back of the saddle preferentially. For example, a riser pad, which raises the back of the saddle, may be used if the saddle slopes down toward the cantle during riding.

Alternatively, shims (wedge-shaped pads) can be used to selectively raise one part of the saddle. If the saddle slopes backward, shims can be placed under the back of the saddle. Usually, these saddles are too narrow and lifting the back of the saddle improves the balance. However, it may make the saddle tight under the tree points behind the shoulder; increasing pressure on the spine and creating a large ‘bridging’ area with reduced contact beneath the centre of the saddle.

If the saddle is too wide, you may add shims under the front until it can be re-flocked. You might need to change your shim configuration as often as every month if the horse is changing shape.

A gel pad will not improve the fit of a well-fitted saddle. It is claimed a gel pad acts as a shock absorber, but there is little scientific evidence to support this. It may limit movement of the saddle to some extent and, as a result, may result in over-heating of the back.

Always keep saddle pads off the wither. You should still be able to insert two fingers’ width (3cm) between the saddle pad and the spine with a rider on the horse. Select a well-cut saddle blanket or pad, with a ‘high wither cut’, especially for a horse with a prominent wither.

Never use a pad that is too small because it may create a ridge of pressure at the edge.

Saddle fit accessories

Girths are available in a number of materials, including with or without elastic inserts.

Worn elastic may result in the girth being over-tightened.

Elastic on only one end of the girth may result in the saddle being pulled to one side.

Leather girths may slip more than girths made of other materials.

A girth with curved contours in the elbow region may be more comfortable for the horse than a straight girth.

Saddle fit accessories, such as breast-plate, crupper or a foregirth, may be used to hold the saddle in position, but if you discover you need it every day to keep your saddle in position, the saddle may not fit your horse properly. However, the conformation of some horses makes perfect saddle fit impossible and additional accessories are required for correct fitting.

A breast-plate should not be used to lock the saddle in position. This may cause a continuous pressure on the chest and shoulder, and restrict the movement of the forelimbs. A breastplate must be fitted to the horse, so it does not interfere with the shoulder movement.

Saddle slip

Saddle slip is defined as the saddle consistently moving to one side while you are riding. Saddle slip may be due to an ill-fitting saddle, asymmetry in the horse’s back shape, a crooked rider or hindlimb lameness. We have demonstrated hindlimb lameness is, by far, the most common cause.

Detection of saddle slip provides owners, riders and trainers the opportunity to identify not only obvious lameness, but also low-grade and sub-clinical lameness. If your saddle starts to slip regularly, seek help from…

A qualified saddle fitter, a veterinarian experienced in lameness recognition and get someone to check you are sitting squarely. You must be observed in walk, trot and canter directly from behind. Help from a physiotherapist may be beneficial to teach you to sit more squarely.

Saddle use dos and don’ts

  • Do remember using layers to correct a poorly fitting saddle can temporarily reduce signs of discomfort because the pad relocates the pressure points. Improvement is usually transient, because new pressure points soon develop as a result.
  • Do be aware using the same saddle on more than one horse is not ideal and should be avoided, unless the horses have similar back shape.
  • Do recognise pain elicited by feeling or grooming the back may be an indicator that back shape changes have occurred and saddle-fit should be reassessed.
  • Don’t be afraid of seeking professional help if something doesn’t feel completely right regarding your saddle on your horse!

The best saddle to buy is one that fits both the horse and the rider. To ensure good welfare finding the correct fitting saddle is essential and may take some time. Teach yourself to evaluate saddle fit, so you know when something is not right. Check the fit regularly, and listen to your horse and your own comfort

More horse care advice can also be found by visiting World Horse Welfare’s Advice Library. To find out more, click here.