The challenge of fitting your western or english saddle stymies many horse owners but there is no reason for it to be a mystery. It can be expensive, but not mysterious!
A poorly-fitted saddle can cause a variety of problems for the horse, from unacceptable behavior such as bucking or running away, which comes from the horse trying to avoid the pain, to chronically sore backs and elusive lameness.
The first thing the horse owner needs to remember is that each horse is made just a bit differently. Just as you would not expect to wear your neighbor’s shoes, you should not expect your horse to wear the same saddle as his stable mate. That gorgeous saddle you are admiring at the tack shop might very well not be the best thing for your horse.
To decide if the saddle fits your horse, put it on his back with no pads. There should be a “pocket” just behind his shoulder blades where the saddle just wants to fit. The saddle should conform to the horse’s back, not rock and roll all around. Ideally, with a well-fitted saddle, you could ride with no girth! The gullet (W-L) needs to allow clearance for the withers. If the gullet sits right down on his withers, the saddle is too big. If it appears to pop up off his back or pinch in, it is too small. The saddle should sit level, neither high in the back nor low in front. Look at the horse from the front. If the saddle flares away from his body, it is a poor fit. The gullet should allow clearance along the horse’s spine. Look at it from the back, if the cantle (W-C) is elevated, the saddle is too big. Now gently tighten the girth (W-K). Run your fingers up under the front skirts (W-D) or flaps (E-F). Is it pinchy in there? Many less expensive saddles pinch in where the pommel (W-J and E-A) joins the tree. This pinch hurts the horse when the cinch is tight and the weight of the rider pushes the tree against his shoulders. Extra pads do not cure this problem. Extra pads only exacerbate it. If your neighbor’s boots were too small, adding an extra pair of socks would not make the boots any bigger. The only solution to this pinch is a larger saddle or one with a wider tree. The tree is the base on which the saddle is built and is hidden from view by leather and sheepskin or flocking in the finished saddle.
The saddle, especially a western saddle, must also fit from front to back. If the saddle is too long, when the horse tries to turn, the skirts will hit his hipbones. If the saddle is too short, the weight of the rider will push the tree down into sensitive areas of the horse’s back.
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Place your choice of pad under the saddle and mount the horse. If he throws his head up and looks at you with an injured expression, or drops his back out from under you, the saddle is hurting him. Get down and get a different saddle. If he accepts the mounting, ride long enough to turn a sweat, then remove the saddle. An even sweat pattern tells you the saddle fits evenly. Dry spots, especially near the shoulder blades, tell you the saddle is probably pinching those muscles and not allowing them to function normally.
Saddle fit is a two-fold challenge as the saddle must also fit the rider. A saddle with a seat (W-B and E-B) too small for the rider concentrates the weight of the rider in the wrong place for the horse, often pushing the end of the tree into the horse’s loins. It also makes the rider uncomfortable and throws the horse off balance as the rider wriggles around trying to get comfortable. Riders in saddles that are too small for them also tend to develop very bad riding habits such as propping up on the stirrups, leaning too far forward or sitting back too far on the cantle (W-C and E-C). A saddle that is too big has the rider floating around rather like an unmoored boat looking for a safe anchorage.
English stirrup leathers are purchased separately from the saddle, so the rider can choose the correct length for her legs. Click photo to see a large image. Photo by Connie Downes
In the English hunt seat saddle, the rider, when seated correctly, should be able to lay the palm of her hand between her buttocks and the end of the cantle. In the western saddle, there should be two fingers clearance between the front of the rider’s thigh and the pommel. The rider should look comfortable, not spilling out over the edges of the saddle and not all alone in a sea of leather. The seat needs to fit the rider’s seat bones. Some western saddles are too wide for the shorter legged rider. And of course, the rider needs to choose a saddle appropriate for the riding discipline – dressage, cutting, pleasure, jumping. The seats of saddles are constructed differently according to what the rider wants to do.
Another consideration is the length of the stirrup leathers on a western saddle. The stirrup leathers are located under the fenders (W-E). If the rider is very long in the leg, the stirrups may not go down far enough and if the rider is very short, they may not go up high enough. On the western saddle, there often is not room to add more holes for adjustment. The only answer to this problem is a visit to a saddle maker for custom leathers. English stirrup leathers are purchased separately from the saddle, so the rider can choose the correct length for her legs.
Interesting note on tack purchases: Western saddles come complete with stirrups and most often the seller includes a cinch as a courtesy; hunt seat saddles need to have leathers (E-E), irons (E-D) and a girth (E-G), called fittings, all purchased separately. Western bridles are purchased by the piece: headstall, reins, curb strap and bit; while English bridles come complete except for the bit.
Western cinches and English girths come in a variety of materials, from the good old string to the latest high-tech neoprene combinations. The idea behind a neoprene girth is that it creates some heat and therefore sweat, which helps lubricate the girth area. Some horses, however, cannot tolerate the extra heat and it will scald the hair right off them. Other horses seem to appreciate the softness and warmth of neoprene. The rider must choose a cinch comfortable for the horse.
When the cinch is properly fastened, you should be able to push your fingers between the horse’s body and the cinch buckle. Most people tend to over-tighten the girth and pinch the muscles along the rib cage. Think of it this way: pull your belt down to the very last hole, so it’s nice and tight, then go out and indulge in strenuous exercise. It won’t be long before you’re pitching that belt in the manure pile! Give your horse the same consideration.
And remember, having to yank that cinch up tighter to keep the saddle from rocking and rolling around probably means your saddle does not fit. No rocking and rolling allowed.