In recent years, the term “saddle fitting” has become a common topic of discussion. For many years I used the same two saddles and had the same four horses. Everything worked well – every horse fit with one of those saddles. I used twenty- five dollar pads and felt girths. I never had any saddle fitting issues and never a white mark on my horse’s back. Those were the years when a “ride” was a minimum of six hours, and I rode several days a week.
Fast forward to 2015. I started getting new horses into my herd to replace those that had died or retired. Suddenly I had horses with wide backs, weird backs and super short backs. I had eight saddles and struggled for a good fit on any of them. I was now part of the saddle fitting discussion.
Twenty years ago most saddles were rigid trees with semi-quarter horse bars or full quarter horse bars. The bar angle varied by the manufacturer but somehow these saddles worked well on most horses.
Saddle fitting is a big business. There are flex trees, treeless and rigid saddles. There are adjustable gullets, standard trees, wide trees, and trees for mules and drafts. You can also buy short trees, longer trees, and trees with memory foam right under the saddle. We have shims galore – shims for the gullet area, shims for the loin, and shims for under the end of the skirts.
A perfect fit may not be absolutely necessary, but proper saddle fit is an important piece of the equine performance and health puzzle. A poorly fitted saddle can cause all sorts of behavior problems and often makes a horse’s riding experience painful.
Many people focus only on gullet measurements, but gullet width is only one piece of the puzzle. Saddles that allow gullet adjustment are a great alternative to a fixed gullet, but keep in mind that the bars of the saddle alongside the spine may need adjustment too. While some saddle makers only address two dimensions of the horse’s back (side to side), they are missing the third dimension of curvature between the withers and loins.
When discussing saddle fitting, there are several key elements that are critical to a good fit for both horse and rider.
For the horse:
- Multidimensional back measurements are critical to a good fit. In order to get these back measurements, you will need a flexi-curve measurement tool. Some saddle fitters focus on measurements that incorporate the backswing of the scapula and the upward movement between wither and croup that occurs during movement. Others ask for measurements while the horse is standing still and square. Either way these measurements are taken, it will help determine the width and shape of the horse’s back and give you a very good idea of which saddle trees may or may not fit.
- Curvature of the top line is a measurement that is ignored by many saddle makers. If this measurement is not evaluated, you may get a saddle with too much or tool little rock for your horses back. If your horse has a strong, straight top line, then a saddle with even moderate rock may set you on an axis point and cause white hairs to appear along both sides of the spine. Tucker brand saddles offer two types of trees that take into consideration your horse’s topline.
- Spine clearance is extremely important on any saddle. When looking from the back of the horse, there should be daylight along the middle of the saddle above the horse’s spine.
- Tree length is a less common issue than most fitting factors but very important for extremely short-backed horses. A reputable saddle dealer will tell you the length of their trees, and you can measure your horse’s back to determine if it will fit properly.
- Gaited horses often have vertical and lateral action in their movements, so many saddle makers offer special saddles for gaited horses. These saddles are usually more flared in the front bars to allow for greater shoulder movement.
For the Human:
- Saddle seat width varies greatly, especially between men and women. Do you ever feel bruised in your pelvic area? Likely the saddle has a very narrow saddle seat area, and your bones are sitting on the out edge which causes bruising.
- Fender length is a big deal for anyone other than average. I am 5’5,” but my inseam is only 28 inches. I can actually use youth fenders, but short fenders are ideal. On the saddles I have had for years I have always had the stirrup leathers on the top hole!
- Seat padding has been popular for years. Some riders still prefer the traditional flat hard seat, but if a saddle maker offers extra padding, it is a good option to consider.
- Seat size varies by saddle maker and body type. A truly custom saddle maker will ask for your measurements to determine the correct seat size.
- Saddle weight has become very important to many people. If you are a roper, then a lightweight saddle is not an option. If you are a trail rider, the options for lighter weight are many. There are great saddles starting at 15lbs, and it is easy to find a fully rigged western saddle that weighs only about 25lbs.
When looking for a new saddle, make a list of what is important to you and then start researching saddles and the horse and human options offered. Also, ask to demo a saddle before buying so that you can be sure it is the right fit for you and your horse.
Thanks for reading! Happy trails from southwest Colorado.
About the Author
I currently reside in Durango Colorado. Durango is in the Four Corners area of southwest Colorado. Living in this corner of Colorado allows me access to riding in three states within an hour drive. Horses have been a passion in my life for 35 years. I currently have seven equines in my care, including a five-year-old mustang in for training, a feisty grade mare I bought eight months ago, a talented Arab/Mustang mare and a blue dun Icelandic pony.