Saddle fitting basics
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a horse show with a couple of friends. A woman I’d never met before approached me to ask if I worked at The Horse of Course. I told her I did, and she smiled and said, “Great! My horse needs a new saddle- can you come look at him and tell me what you recommend?” I was caught totally off-guard; I’m not a saddle fitter and I’ve never claimed to be one! It seems that the store’s saddler’s reputation for excellence extends to all employees. Unfortunately, he’s very rarely back in Oklahoma- he stays with the East Coast mobile unit most of the time.
Since the store’s saddler was in town this week, I asked him if he’d come out to my barn and show me some very basic concepts of saddle fitting as well as how to do wither tracings. I will have a separate post on wither tracings, but today I thought I’d share with you what I learned from the saddler yesterday!
Candy was the guinea pig for the fitting, since she’s the horse I’m currently doing most of my riding on. We started by assessing Candy’s conformation.
As you can see, Candy has a big shoulder. By gently pressing along her shoulder blade I could feel where the scapula ended, which was a few inches below her withers. The fitter pointed out that Candy has long withers; you see can in the photo above that they start around where you can see her mane laying on the left side of her neck near the withers and end where the withers dip down to her back. That isn’t good or bad, just something to consider when assessing saddle fit. Candy also has a pretty straight, flat back that doesn’t curve upward much.
We took a withers tracing and a back tracing by using a flexible curve ruler, and the fitter discussed how taking and recording accurate measurements is a huge help in selecting a saddle or assessing how a saddle will fit a horse. Not only does it show you how wide your horse is, it will also reveal how symmetrical your horse is. If your horse is more developed on one side, flocking can typically be added to the less developed side to help your saddle fit better. The fitter stressed that accurate recording is essential when someone’s shipping a wither and/or back tracing and a saddle to fit based on the tracing. When he’s unable to see and touch the horse in person, all he has to go on is what they send him!
I brought out my dressage saddle first. It’s a well-used King’s Sandringham that I’ve had for a few years. I like it pretty well, but I wanted to know how well it fit Candy. To assess its fit, the saddler had me put it on Candy without a saddle pad beneath it. He checked the clearance between the saddle’s pommel and the withers; he was looking for approximately three fingers’ width, and my saddle passed that test. He also checked how level the saddle sat on her back and if it seemed to be sitting tilted forward or backward. He proclaimed the saddle’s balance to be good. Had the saddle seemed like it was too low in the back, more flocking could have been added to the panels to raise it up a little. This is also a problem that could be fixed with a half-pad.
He had me add a girth to the saddle and tighten as I normally would for riding. Once it was girthed, the saddler ran his hand between the saddle’s underside and Candy’s shoulder. He was checking to see if it was tight or pinching. When I ran my hand between saddle and horse, I could feel that there was a tight spot right around where Candy’s scapula ended; below that, there was lots of space between her body and the saddle. The saddler told me that this was something that was pretty easily addressed by adding more flocking to the lower part of the saddle’s panels; adding more flocking to this area would relieve the pressure on the upper part of the panel that was pinching Candy.
That’s exactly what he did, too! He got out some flocking and a tool that looked like a very long curved screwdriver, showed me a little slit near the point of the saddle and proceeded to stuff more flocking than I ever would have guessed would fit into my saddle. It took him maybe 15 minutes. I resaddled Candy and felt the area that had been pinching- now there was even, gentle pressure the length of the front panel! Magic.
I had the fitter look at my jumping saddle next. It’s an Ainsley Pro National Cross Country saddle; it’s my favorite saddle and features a very forward flap that’s I’ve always felt like put my leg in a good position. I have been very paranoid about how it fits Candy because it seems like the flap is so forward that it would interfere with the movement of her shoulder. I’ve also been concerned that it’s too long for her short back.
It turns out that my fears were unfounded. The saddle fits Candy just fine, though I need to move it forward (toward her withers) more. The point of the saddle is far enough back that it does not interfere with her shoulder, and the leather in front of the point will simply move when she’s galloping or jumping. The back of the saddle is a little low on Candy, so the fitter recommended a fleecy half pad. He liked my T3 Matrix half pad with the Pro-Impact inserts.
It was a really educational morning for me. Some other odds and ends from yesterday:
- A saddle’s rear panels are supposed to be kind of firm. If they’re too soft, they’ll simply flatten to nothing when the rider’s weight is in the saddle.
- In this saddler’s opinion, memory foam half pads are useless. He said, “Take one of those memory foam pads, put your hand underneath it, and sit on it. You’ll still feel your hand.” You’re not going to hurt the horse using one, but if you need a half pad for fitting reasons, he recommends a sheepskin or fleece pad because they don’t squish so much.
- Gullet width is important. If the gullet is too narrow, the horse’s spine could get pinched. If it’s too wide, the muscles that support the saddle won’t be able to do so (because the saddle won’t really be sitting on them).
Have you ever had a saddle fitted? What did you learn?