Saddle-Fit Guidelines

Learn how to fit your saddle to your horse to keep him pain free and ready to go with these guidelines from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
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Learn how to fit your saddle to your horse to keep him pain free and ready to go with these guidelines from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Your horse logs miles on the trail. He works hard as he travels up and down hills across challenging terrain. A well-fitting saddle will help keep him comfortable and sound. It'll also optimally distribute your weight across his back throughout those challenging rides to help keep his back pain-free.

Learn how to fit your saddle to your horse to keep him pain free and ready to go with these guidelines from top trainer/clinician Julie  Goodnight.

Learn how to fit your saddle to your horse to keep him pain free and ready to go with these guidelines from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.

Although your saddle needs to fit both your horse and you, put your horse’s comfort first.

“When it comes to saddle fit, your horse is a silent partner — it’s your job to check fit and make sure he is moving in comfort,” says top trainer/ clinician Julie Goodnight. “He can’t tell you in words if he has a problem with his saddle. It’s up to you to be a detective.”

Ensuring optimal saddle fit is an ongoing process. Your horse’s shape is always changing. When he gains muscle during the riding season, he loses fat and changes shape. On the off-season, he may gain weight and lose condition as you ride him less. He also changes shape as he ages.

Here, Goodnight will give you signs of poor saddle fit and tell you how to check whether your saddle fits your horse correctly. Then she’ll discuss how your horse’s conformation can make him hard to fit. Finally, she’ll tell you what to look for when saddleshopping for a hard-to-fit horse. 

Signs of Poor Fit

Your horse may not speak, but his body can give you clear signs of his saddle-fit woes. Here are five signs of a poor fitting saddle.

• White hairs. If your horse is solidcolored, look at his back. Are there white marks? These aren’t color markings. Rather, a saddle’s pressure points have caused the hair follicles to stop producing color. If they’ve just appeared, you may be able to correct your saddle’s fit before the hair permanently changes color. If he’s had a pressure point for many years, the hair may stay white, no matter what you do. Worse, those permanent white marks may mean that he’s experienced pain for long periods of time.

• Sweat patterns. After your ride, pull off the saddle, and look at your horse’s back. If he’s sweating from exertion, you should see an even sweat mark from front to back where the saddle tree (the saddle’s skeleton) contacts his back. If it’s dry under the tree, the tree is putting too much pressure on his back. However, his coat should be dry over his spine, where there should be airflow.

• Roughed-up coat. If your horse’s haircoat is roughed up after your ride, your saddle might be rubbing your horse’s back, another sign of poor fit.

• Shifting weight. Your horse may tell you his saddle doesn’t fit through his body language. Pay attention when he’s standing still and you’re resting on his back. If he’s shifting his weight and rocking side-to-side, he’s trying to move the saddle’s pressure points in an attempt to alleviate discomfort due to poor saddle fit.

• Acting out. “In the worst cases, horses try to communicate their pain by acting out,” says Goodnight. “I’ve seen horses bolt, spook, and buck because of poor saddle fit.” In fact, almost any behavior problem can be attributed to saddle fit, she says. “If the saddle doesn’t feel good to your horse, he won’t be able to do his best and move his best. Rule out poor saddle fit before addressing any training issue.”

5-Point Fit Check

Whether your horse is average or a saddle-fitting challenge, check fit from front to back and top to bottom. Here’s a five-point saddle-fit check.

1.Withers. First, check the clearance in the area under your saddle’s pommel, called the gullet. The gullet shouldn’t sit on your horse’s withers. In fact, your hand should fit in that space. If it doesn’t, the saddle tree is likely too wide for your horse. After you mount up and compress the pad, your saddle will move down onto your horse’s back. Make sure there’s plenty of clearance over his withers to allow for this compression.

2. Shoulders.Make sure that the saddle tree’s forward points don’t interfere with your horse’s shoulders. If they do, your horse won’t be able to move forward without pain. Feel beneath the saddle’s skirt at one shoulder. The point behind his shoulder and below his withers is called the pocketin saddle-fit terms. That’s where your saddle should sit to avoid impeding his shoulder’s range of motion.

Tip: On both Western and English saddles, there’s a visible screw below the pommel that indicates where the saddle tree’s forward point is located. Before you saddle up, place your saddle on your horse’s back without a pad. Make sure this screw sits behind his shoulder blade, in the pocket.

3. Spine. Standing to one side of your horse’s hindquarters, look at the back of the saddle, and make sure it isn’t placing pressure on his spine.

4. Loins/hips. Ask a helper to walk your horse, and turn him right and left as you observe the back of your saddle. The saddle’s skirt shouldn’t be pressing into your horse’s loins, digging into his hip as he moves. The back of the skirt should sit in front of his hip, with enough room for him to bend and turn without his hip running into the skirt. A round skirt can help resolve this issue. If your horse is very short-backed, opt for a gaited-horse saddle or an Australian stock saddle made with a short tree.

5. Position. Step back, and note your saddle’s overall position on your 

horse’s back. The seat should be level to the ground. If the seat looks uphill, your saddle may be too far forward; if the seat looks downhill, your saddle may be too far back.

Conformation Challenges

If your horse is a known saddle-fit challenge, he may have conformation issues that affect saddle fit. (This doesn’t mean your horse is poorly conformed; he just isn’t well-conformed to carry a saddle.) These conformation issues might include hip or shoulder asymmetry, a short back, or a slight sway back.

In these conformation types, bridging is common. Bridging occurs when the saddle’s tree places excessive pressure forward and aft, but doesn’t touch the middle of the back. Thus, the tree forms a “bridge” between pressure points, rather than coming into contact with the back.

Signs of bridging are white marks below the withers and chafing at the hip. If your horse shows signs of bridging, you can consider a custom saddle, but keep in mind that as he changes shape, the saddle may not fit perfectly forever.

Another option is to find the best fit you can and add a specially made bridge pad. A bridge pad is designed to cushion the area in the middle of the saddle where the tree doesn’t come in contact with your horse’s back.

Bridge pads and shim pads are good solutions for temporary body-shape changes. A shim padis a wedge-shaped pad that relieves pressure points.

Bridge and shim pads add protection to targeted areas where the saddle tree needs support; they don’t add bulk under the entire saddle. Too much padding only accentuates saddle-fit problems; your horse would be painfully pinched beneath an ill fitting saddle and a thick pad.

Saddle-Fit Solutions

If your saddle doesn’t fit your horse and targeted padding doesn’t help, it’s time to invest in a new saddle. Here are several possible solutions for the hard-to-fit horse.

• Flexible tree. A saddle with an up-todate flexible-tree design can help alleviate pressure points, allowing your horse to move more easily. For horses with a slight bridging problem, a flexible tree is often all you need. “My horse, Dually, performs much differently in a Flex 2 tree versus a solid tree,” notes Goodnight. “With the flexibility of the saddle, he relaxes his back and uses his hindquarters more.”

• Optimal weight distribution. Find a seat size that fits you to optimally distribute weight over your horse’s back. Western saddles, with their larger trees, offer better weight distribution than English saddles; longer saddle trees offer better weight distribution than shorter ones.

• Correct bar angles. The bars of a saddle tree are the parts that lie on either side of the horse’s spine. The angle of these bars needs to match the angle of your horse’s back. A saddle marked “wide tree” means the angle of the bars is two degrees wider than one marked “regular tree.” This can make all the difference to your horse, in terms of his comfort.

If the bars are too narrow for your horse, you can’t improve its fit with pads; the saddle will perch on top of his withers, pinching his withers and spine. If the bars are too wide, the saddle will sit down too far on his back, applying undue pressure to his topline.

Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-tounderstand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).

Heidi Melocco (www.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.