Three Ways to Determine Your Saddle Doesn't Fit

Certified Equine Ergonomists from SaddleFit4Life are trained to evaluate over 80-points of saddle fit to horse and rider, covering both Western and English disciplines. The evaluation covers static fit, as shown in the photos, as well as dynamic fit during walk, trot, and canter under saddle. 

It is nearly impossible to find the perfect fit unless your equipment is customized to your horse. However, an animal in regular work will change muscle tone and balance, affecting the fit so it is important to have an evaluation at minimum one to two times per year, preferably every three months, even with custom saddles. 

The information can be daunting. 80 points of saddle fit! The good news you aren’t expected to know everything, that’s why I’m here for you. However, there are three major points of saddle fit that when fit improperly, cause long-lasting damage and pain to your horse and even the rider. 

Signs Your Horse May Need A Saddle Fit Evaluation

  • Reluctance to move forward
  • Stumbling
  • Girthiness
  • Rearing or bucking
  • High head and hollow back
  • Sore back
  • Pinned ears
  • Tail swishing
  • Hunter’s Bump
  • Lameness

*Read “My Saddle Is Cripping Me: The Effects of a Poor-Fitting Saddle On a Rider’s Body” in Horse Illustrated. 

Of course, these are only some signs. Many horses are stoic and you won’t know your equipment may be causing problems until a mystery lameness or even *gasp* kissing spine occurs. 

  1. Saddle Length

Saddles are meant to distribute the weight of the rider evenly across their strongest muscle, the Longissimus Dorsi, or back. This is the area where the panels of the saddle should sit evenly. More, the back is supported by the sternum and rib cage. The saddle length must be within the confines of these ribs, and no further. Equipment that rests on the delicate lumbar spine past the last rib can create bucking, slipping hind legs, hunter’s bumps, and misalignment of the vertebrae. 

This saddle sits just at the last rib, any further would put pressure on the delicate lumbar spine. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.

How do you know the saddle is too long? Trace the last rib of your horse up to the spine and if your saddle sits past this point, it’s too long! Alternately, you don’t want the saddle to be too short either so that your weight is compressed over a small area. Try to get as close to that last rib as possible without going over. 

This dressage saddle is great for short-back horses but is at least 1.5 inches shorter than the last rib, resulting in less dispersed weight-baring for the rider. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.

2. Wither Clearance

Most of the evaluations I’ve conducted reveal saddles that fit too wide for the horse. Over time, a wide-fitting saddle will create atrophy in the trapezius muscles (or wither) and create shoulder holes, which then cause the saddle to fall forward and down, further hampering shoulder movement and forward momentum. It’s a vicious cycle. The wither muscles moves from side to side in a beautiful S-shape (see video) but when a too-wide saddle puts pressure on the area this acts as a hand brake stalling movement. 

SLOW motion video of a horse under saddle to show you how much range of motion the wither area actively uses at the WALK. When a saddle fits too wide and falls onto the wither or a saddle pad doesn’t have wither relief, this area is immobilized and the horse is unable to move with any fluidity. In fact, they will be short-strided, slow to move forward, and actively raise their heads creating a hollow frame. Long-term damage includes muscle atrophy, muscle knots and lameness, misalignment of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar vertebrae and can even create kissing spine.


Does your horse lose steam quickly? Do they hollow their back and toss their head up at the trot? These are possible signs that your saddle fits too wide. 

3-4 fingers is ideal for clearance between wither and gullet of the saddle. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.
Two fingers means there is not enough wither clearance and this saddle is too wide, falling forward. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.

How do you know you have enough wither clearance? Ideally you will be able to fit 3-4 fingers between the wither and the saddle swell or gullet. Remember, once you are girthed and mounted, this distance will close to the weight. If you have 1-2 fingers before girthing, your saddle is going to pinch. 

3. Shoulder Angle

One of my favorite and often most surprising indications to most riders is matching the angle of the shoulder to the panel of the saddle. Why is this important? Because the shoulder moves up and back when extended, so must be able to slide through and under the panel. If the angles do not match then the shoulder, specifically the scapula, will slam into the saddle eroding the cartilage (which does not grow back). 

The English saddle is close but not a perfect parallel, instead it fits slightly too narrow at the top and too wide at the bottom of the panel. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.

There are a variety of trees and skirts available on the market: U- and V- shaped trees or shoulder cutaways. These are great to know. However, most important is does the angle match? 

Western saddle panels sit more closely on the shoulder. We know this saddle fits too wide, sitting on the wither and the shoulder angle verifies that the angle is slightly too narrow at the top. See photo below. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.
My pen should slide through with even contact top to the bottom of the panel, but gets stuck. This is a good indication there is pinching of this shoulder. Photo © Farm & Fir Co.

Tip: Starting in the middle of the shoulder at the top of the spine, line up a pen facing down. Next, flip the pen over so it’s now located two pen lengths from the spine. Align a second pen with the panel of the saddle on both shoulders. Do the angles appear parallel and match or are they off? Hint: one shoulder will always appear larger and affect the angle slightly. When in doubt, the larger shoulder is the most important measure to evaluate. 

These are the biggest factors for saddle fit among many. I’ve had saddles that were off for various reasons but still usable for the horse with some adjustments. If any of these three are incorrect, it’s time for a saddle fit evaluation and a new saddle. 

Watch me talk on Facebook Live with Horse Family Magazine.

The good news is that you don’t have to do this alone. Certified Equine Ergonomists are trained to evaluate the nuances and provide specific recommendations for your best possible saddle fit, to make for a healthier and happier animal. 

Contact Heather Wallace at info@animalbodywork.com to book your evaluation today. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.