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
- Rearing or bucking
- High head and hollow back
- Sore back
- Pinned ears
- Tail swishing
- Hunter’s Bump
*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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.