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Hot Tips (and Myths) About Saddle Fit

Saddle fitting in itself is a broad topic, and one which unfortunately is widely misunderstood in the horse world. With thousands of saddle styles, many tree styles and measurements, loads of opinions, and many old myths, it's no surprise that many find saddle fitting to be overwhelming. There are also a multitude of horses wearing poor-fitting saddles which result in restricted movement, muscular injury, or even severe injury over extended periods of time.


In this article, I'll share some tips that expert saddle makers and saddle fitters have shared with me in my equine journey over the last 20+ years, as well as some insight on common myths that must be dispelled in the equine world if we're going to put our horses' health and well-being at the forefront of our equestrian goals.



Note that the information I am sharing is meant to address Western saddle fit, as I am not particularly experienced with English saddle fitting. However different the two saddle styles may be, the general principles will apply to most situations when we are talking saddle fit.


First of all, as renowned saddle tree maker and saddle expert Rod Nikkel would say, when it comes to correct saddle fit, first we need to know the parts of a saddle, the parts of our horse, and how those parts need to fit together. We then need to consider the rider and how the rider fits saddle and vice versa. Rod's approach to saddle fitting is broken down into three principles PLUS ONE:

POSITION correctly

Distribute PRESSURE

No POKING

+1 = PADDING


Position. Perhaps most importantly, is saddle position. No matter what type of saddle you choose, ultimately, if you position it incorrectly, you absolutely WILL hurt your horse.

Saddles must be positioned BEHIND the scapula (shoulder blade) and must give clearance to the withers. Your saddle should always allow freedom of movement in the shoulder, so an excellent test of this, is to raise your horse's front leg to see exactly where his scapula will be once he is in motion.


Pressure. The pressure placed on the horse's back needs to be distributed over as wide an area as possible. No high-pressure areas. And this my friends, can only be determined by seeing the horse with the saddle in person. Online saddle fitting groups such as those on Facebook are an absolute waste of your time, money, and waste of a good horse's back. This is because you cannot possibly determine the amount of pressure a saddle is having on a horse's back from a few photos, no matter how good the photographer.




To achieve even pressure, we need a general understanding of a (western) saddle's construction. For example, the bar spread of the saddle tree will allow us to determine if the saddle is appropriate for a wider or a narrower horse. The "bar spread" is the terminology used to describe the width that the bars of the saddle tree are apart. Narrow horses require a narrower bar spread, and wider horses require a wider bar spread.


No Poking. The swells of the saddle should not be tilted too far forward. Note: pommels refer to English saddles; swells/forks refer to Western saddles, a common mistake made when discussing saddle parts.


The angle of the bars is a crucial aspect to fitting your horse, but there's a common misconception that the angle of the bars refers to just the front of the saddles. Bar angles are not identical throughout the body of the tree because the tree changes in shape to contour to the horse's body. This change that occurs in the angles of the bars from the front of the bars to the back is known as the "twist". The twist is essentially a change in the saddle's angle as it goes up horse's back. (Also different from English terminology.) The only way to determine angles for your horse's back is through feel. You must feel this with your hands, which is why trying saddles on your horse's back is imperative to finding appropriate fit, and can make saddle shopping quite labor intensive and cumbersome.


A good saddle tree will have rounded, smooth edges along the bars, not blunt sharp edges and the only way to determine a tree's quality is to SEE IT IN PERSON AND FEEL for the bar edges along the bottom of the saddle.


The cantle of your saddle needs to clear the horse's spine just as the gullet needs to provide ample clearance for the horse's withers.


The "rock" of your saddle tree is the way the tree is shaped to create even contact along the horse's back. Without enough rock in the bars, you end up with what is known as "bridging", which is air in the middle or in areas along the bars (uneven contact-and not enough contact). You can't see this either, and feeling for it requires trained hands, or tools such as the Saddle Gauge TM, that allow us to view these air gaps or bridging along the saddle tree. This is another reason why trying saddles on your horse to find the perfect fit is important.


Saddle experts like Bill Jessen (saddle maker) and Dana Golden (expert saddle fitter) explain rock, twist, bar spread, and angles in every saddle fit because you guessed it -- "gullet measurement" alone is no way to fit a saddle. Unfortunately, in the modern-day horse world, we've got a great deal of myth surrounding fitting a saddle to a horse based on labels like "FQHB" and "gullet measurement". That just doesn't cover all of the other areas of the parts of the saddle nor does the gullet measurement address your horse's unique body shape/back. Avoid marketing terminology like "Wade bars", "Arizona bars", "QH bars" and "semi-QH" bars as there is NO STANDARD for these terms. These are just labels saddle companies use and most companies' saddle trees are different even if they fall in the same "category". Again, you have to TRY the saddle on your horse.


For placement, the front tips of the bars should sit nicely in the horse's wither pocket and round nicely. Rigging is another important part of saddle placement. The rigging is what holds the saddle on the horse. Yet another misconception is that the saddle rigging should be set forward on the horse, causing the cinch to be nearly touching the horse's elbow. In fact, saddling your horse this way will cause a number of problems for your horse. Do not saddle a horse according to rigging; always saddle your horse in accordance with the tree. Always allow the saddle tree to make even contact throughout the horse's back. This means that sometimes, the cinch will appear further back on the horse's barrel/girth area, from the elbow, even up to several inches, and this is perfectly normal in order to achieve good saddle fit for many horses. Make sure your rigging is even on both sides. A well-made saddle is going to afford correct, even rigging throughout the tree.



The skirts of the saddle are what run underneath, and the way your saddle skirts are shaped, can impact your horse's movement and overall saddle fit.

A short-backed horse will do well with a shorter tree and often with a rounded skirt, for example. A skirt to long, and this can create problems for the horse in his hind end as he moves under rider weight.


+1 = Padding. There are many types of padding but not all are created equal. Invest in a saddle pad that contours to your horse's back, and does not cause your saddle to create pressure points or cause it to "lift". Remember -- even contact is important! Ensure your saddle pad is suitable for the job your horse will be performing, and ensure that it isn't too thick, or too thin. Material is important as well. Saddle pads should wick moisture, be breathable to an extent, be comfortable for the horse, and shouldn't slip or bunch.


We could spend hours talking about saddle pads and saddle fitting, but this is a good starting point. JLR Farms, which hosts saddle fitting certification courses, advises that padding should be evaluated regularly as your horse's body will change over time, as he gains muscle or loses weight, and even as he ages.


Broken Trees. Another important aspect of saddle fitting is knowing whether a saddle tree is broken or not. Damaged trees will cause improper fit, and worse, intense pain for your horse over time. Additionally, a damaged tree can be dangerous for the rider. To test if a tree is broken, you can place the saddle on the ground, on it's side, and from the ground, press on the saddle with a great deal of force. If the saddle gives, the tree is broken. You can also place the saddle with the swells down, and use your body weight to press into the cantle. If it gives, the tree is broken. A good saddle is sturdy and will not bend under pressure of your body weight.


Horse Age. Think you'll need just one saddle per horse for the rest of that horse's life? Think again. Saddle experts (not to be confused with salesmen) will advise that your horse's body will change over time, as he ages, and this often means that the saddle of your choosing now will need to be changed out (or in some cases, properly padded) again in future depending on a variety of factors.


The aforementioned are just some of the basic, yet crucial aspects of saddle fitting, and there is so much more we can discuss. I will save that for another time.


For now, I'll close by saying if you are reading this and thinking, "wow, that's a lot to take in" or need trained hands to help you learn to feel for correct saddle fit, please don't hesitate to reach out to a knowledgeable saddle fitter in your area. Also, ensure your saddle fitting advice is coming from someone who is familiar with the type of saddle you're using (Western or English) as they do have their differences. Consider using powerful tools like my "saddle fit tool" from Josh at Horse Saddle Shop or the Saddle Gauge TM, as the use of such tools can save you and your horse a world of trouble down the line. A small price to pay for your own safety, and your horse's health, comfort and performance down the line.


As always -- BALANCE matters. And a proper fitting saddle is a balanced saddle.


If you're in NWA and need assistance with Western saddle fit, please don't hesitate to reach out to me at hilltopequineconcepts@gmail.com.


Until next time, be well friends! And happy saddle hunting!













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