The saddle should position the rider correctly in balance with the horse, so he can carry the rider with as little interference as possible. When the saddle fits correctly, the horse can get into a rounded frame and his shoulder can move freely in an elliptical motion. This will help the horse to perform to the best of his ability in a pain-free manner. Another benefit is a good attitude.
Good saddle fit is essential to performance, soundness and attitude. Saying that most saddles will fit most horses is like saying that most shoes will fit most people! Saddles are the same as shoes – some fit and some don’t. Training and behavioral issues are usually blamed on the horse, but I believe that you have to look at things like saddle fit first. For example, a saddle that doesn’t fit right can create shoulder stiffness and soreness, making it harder for the horse to perform properly. If they are in pain, they won’t have a good attitude either. You have to look at the shape and quality of the saddle, and how it interacts with the horse. I got started in saddle fitting because I used to do endurance riding, and that is when you can really see the effects of poor fitting tack. For example, going on a 50-mile ride for three hours is a much more intense work out compared to a 30 or 60-minute ride that most people do.
What are some signs that the saddle does not fit the horse?
The saddle may tip forward, roll from side to side and/or doesn’t sit level. The rider may be unbalanced and the horse will be unable to get into a rounded frame. There may be dry spots where the saddle pad sits on the horse after working, and white hair or raw spots where the saddle has rubbed. The horse will tend to hollow his back and move with his head up. Other signs may include bucking, tossing head, bit chomping, wrinkled hair along the shoulder blade, declining performance and unbalanced movement. The longer a horse is ridden in a poor fitting saddle, the more you are training poor, upside-down posture in the horse, resulting in incorrect muscle memory. It is also important to note that many of these symptoms can be caused by other things too, like a back problem for instance, so it is important to do a full performance evaluation.
And we must also consider saddle fit for the rider – what are some signs of a poor match between saddle and rider?
If the saddle is too small, the rider may tip forward, their knee may be too far forward, there will not be enough room in the seat for them to sit comfortably, and it may put pressure on the front of the rider’s pelvis. If it is too big, the rider may slide back and find it hard to maintain position. There should be a few fingers width (about 4 inches) between the rider’s thigh and the swell of the saddle. The average adult seat size for a western saddle is 15.5 to 16 inches, and 17 to 18 inches for an English saddle.
Saddle fitting is an essential part of horsemanship. It is important to develop an eye for how well the saddle fits the horse and rider. You also have to look at where the tension is coming from in the back. The pain may be coming from the saddle, but it might also be coming from imbalanced rider posture, shoeing issues, sore feet, or any number of other things. If the saddle doesn’t fit right, it can lead to a hollow carriage and poor muscle memory. It can also compress the thoracic spine, which can lead to kissing spine and other back issues. Watch out when trying to fit a saddle to an unhealthy back. It is best to correct the poor muscle memory first with physical therapy and bodywork, and then fit the saddle.
More information to come on future blogs regarding proper saddle fit & the role of saddle pads! Stay tuned...