Over the past few years, awareness about saddle fit has increased dramatically as we look to get better performance from our horses, especially in the field of endurance. In any sport where long hours with a saddle and rider on board, a horse’s back, movement, expression and willingness will tell you the truth about your saddle fit.
Today there are a many new saddle designs that are catering for the increased size and broadness of the horses we are breeding now. There are a variety of flexible trees, treeless saddles, adjustable gullets and air panel systems that all help to achieve a good fit on most horses, mules and donkey’s.
So what do you look for with saddle fit?
Firstly, notice what your horse does when you approach with the saddle – is he/she trying to move away, pinning their ears, head tossing or even trying to nip you as you put the saddle on or girth it up? If so, they are probably trying to tell you that something is very uncomfortable for them.
Put the saddle on with a thin pad and girth it up to where you can get on so you will be able to see how it sits on your horse’s back.
Using a thick pad can be useful when your horse’s condition is lighter but shouldn’t be used to compensate for an ill-fitting saddle. It would be like putting thick socks on with shoes that are already too tight.
Saddle pads were originally designed to keep the underside of the saddle clean, but have now become a complicated choice and is a topic needing its own article.
Looking at the saddle from beside the horse – does it sit evenly? If it’s too high at the front then it’s probably too narrow and will tend to roll from side to side or slip when you mount no matter how tight the girth. If it sits up at the back, it may be too wide in the gullet and be unstable when you rock it from front to back.
It should also be easy to run your hand freely behind the shoulder as illustrated in the top photo. If you have trouble freely running your hand between the shoulder and the widest point of the gullet (see photo), then its probably too narrow for your horse.
Then view the saddle from the front – does it clear the wither by at least 4 fingers? Even treeless saddles should have good wither clearance like this popular western version below.
Another issue with fit is the placement of the saddle. The design should allow the saddle to fit far enough back from the shoulder to reduce interference when the horse moves. If your saddle does not girth up in the horse’s natural girth channel, when positioned back far enough, than it is not the right one.
Some saddle designs have a Y shaped girthing system that allows for the adjustment of the girth positioning.
Now its time to ride your horse so take notice of issues such as high head carriage, reluctance to transition down gaits, reluctance to travel down hill easily, reluctance to stride out freely, a sour expression and raising the head suddenly (even squealing) when you dismount.
Ride until your horse has a good sweat under the cloth and this will tell you even more about fit.
When you remove the saddle, there should be no sign of dry patches as seen above. This indicates that the pressure on the muscle in this area is restricting blood and sweat flow that will lead to muscle damage and dead tissue, eventually growing white hair (as seen below).
There are so many problems that develop from saddle fit that we can remove or reduce by being aware and listening to our horse. Many behavioural and even health issues start with physical discomfort so its up to us to become good detectives and do our research.
With so much information available today, we have no reason to be ignorant and compromise our horse’s enjoyment of being ridden.
For more information on saddle fit, visit www.chirovet.com.au where Dr Ian Bidstrup who is one of the principal lecturers at the Aust. Accredited Saddle Fitters Course, has written some in depth articles.
A rider’s story:
Jacky’s history- 4 1/2 year old endurance trained TBxQH with a tender back just in front of hips and dips with pressure from fingers…….
I rode Jacky last night just so I could set the saddle up before I ride on the weekend.
We put pressure on his back before saddling up and he was dropping away so gave it a good rub and warmed the muscles and relaxed them – put pressure on again and he was fine – put the saddle on and away we went.
The first interesting thing was he came ‘on the bit’ (was in a a halter) for the first time without his usual resistance.
The second thing was I actually got him moving sideways to the right at a walk and trot – haven’t done this before either as he always resisted me and I could only get sideways from a stand still.
The third difference was for the first time he was able to bend around my leg on circles instead of feeling like a riding a square that I was being pushed to the outside of.
The fourth difference was we took the saddle off after a lot of circles and sideways and making him trot really slow up the hill to work him and use his back muscles – he was not sore at all!! – no dipping – whereas when I took the old saddle off he would drop away if you put the pressure on until you rubbed his back out again then he would be OK.
So I was pretty happy with that but the 40km in it next week will be the real test.
In conclusion I do think Jacky is cold backed (as in needs muscles warmed up well and kept warm) and gets a little stiff – I do not think he has an injury as such – I think for his shape, the old saddle restricts the the movement and flexion of his spine and that obviously doesn’t help the muscles! So will keep riding in it and see how we go.
Also he hasn’t done his horrible short choppy trot and is so forward it is unbelievable and his canter has gone from a shove along with each stride to a gliding feeling!
I just wanted to let you know that this wasn’t even over a period of time with a different saddle – this was a instant difference!! Never underestimate what a saddle is doing or not doing for your horse.
Saddlefit 4 Life® shares the expertise of top trainers, physiotherapists, veterinarians, chiropractors, massage therapists, farriers, and saddle fitters.
It has good videos on saddle fit info and basics.