Saddle Fitting – A Quick Guide
Common Saddle Fitting Problems
The following assume a basically correct saddle fit in terms of design, size and width for both horse and rider and the discipline being undertaken. If the overall fit is wrong, no amount of ‘maintenance’ will make it right.
- The most common reason for saddles slipping is uneven saddle panels. Turn your saddle over and look along the length of the panel from the front and the rear, ensure each side is level and even in comparison to the other side. Feel along the length of each side to make sure the composition is even, panels can often look even but one side may be flocked softer than the other causing the saddle to tilt to one side when weight is applied. Badly and/or over flocked panels may cause bruising, soft tissue damage, soft lumps, hair loss from rubbing and other skin related problems for your horse.
- Dry leather is slippery, it is important to keep the panel of the saddle clean, however it is equally important to treat the leather with a good quality leather feed or balm regularly. Using saddle soap cleans the surface of leather, a leather balm will penetrate and be absorbed into the fibres of the leather, softening and prolonging the life of your saddle, giving grip and preventing the leather from becoming dry and slippery. A soft supple panel will also conform to the shape of your horse better thus helping to stop the saddle slipping and minimise the risk of pressure points.
- Make sure your stirrup leathers are even – being on the same hole does not mean they are level. It is a good idea to swap sides with your stirrup leathers regularly to minimise difference in length caused by stretch.
- Make sure the tension on the girth straps is even both sides, even if they are on different holes.
- Make sure you have sensible tension on your girth, a saddle slipping sideways is often caused by having the girth too loose, many horses expand the chest when the girth is first tightened, once mounted circle a couple of times then re-tighten the girth.
- Elastic on one end of your girth may cause the saddle to slip sideways, especially on broad horses, try turning the girth around or replacing with a girth with elastic both ends or no elastic.
- Some saddles are supplied with a ‘Balance Strap’ (an extra strap behind the conventional centre straps that attaches to the rear of the saddle and comes under the flap at a forward angle). These can be very useful on horses with an uneven gait or conformation. If your saddle does not have balance straps, ask your saddler to assess the saddle for conversion.
- To prevent your saddle slipping forwards up on top of or tight behind the shoulder use the Point Straps if fitted to your saddle or ask your saddlers if your saddle is suitable for conversion, this is a proven method of reducing forward movement, (Point Straps are girth straps that are attached to the point of the tree (saddle frame) each side that locate into small pockets under the flap and above the knee block at the front of the saddle)
- Consider using a gel-type pad such as Acavallo or Gel-Eze on their own or with a numnah. It is vitally important that these are cleaned to the manufacturer’s instructions each time they are used, any build-up of dust, sweat and grime will seriously affect the performance of the product and may cause health issues for your horse.
- Use quality numnahs and saddle cloths, avoid cheap man-made fabrics, especially those with a shiny, slippery surface. Consider one of the modern designs that incorporate non-slip grip panels built into the surface of the fabric, these are available with a grip surface on the saddle side, the skin side or both.
- Some modern shaped girth designs, for example the Fairfax Performance Girth or the Prolite Girth, are designed to angle the girth further back and are proven to be effective with forward slipping problems.
Excessive Movement at The Back of The Saddle
- The most common reason for excessive movement and bounce at the back of the saddle is panel related. If, as above, the panel is badly flocked, uneven in fit and consistency or over or under flocked the saddle will not conform to the shape of the horse’s back and movement may occur.
How Often Should a Saddle Fit be Checked?
We recommend that a professional assessment of the fit is carried out at least twice a year, three times for competitions horses, to allow for seasonal condition, diet and work changes in your horse’s life, which can result in changes to the fit of the saddle.
Flocked panels should have a complete change of wool at least every two years to maintain an even and absorbing contact. For horses in competition this may well be reduced to eighteen months. This is outside of normal adjustment and management of the fit of the saddle.
It is particularly important to have the fit of the saddle checked if there is a major change in how you use your horse, if you progress from light hacking to competition, your horse will increase fitness his muscle structure will alter accordingly, thus altering his shape. The opposite also applies, a competition horse that is changed to light hacking, or a stabled horse that is turned out, will lose condition which will change the fit of his saddle.
Factors That Affect The Fit of The Saddle
- Always mounting from the ground, on the same side can cause the saddle to sit unevenly over time. It is always preferable to use a mounting block.
- Some riders sit more heavily to one side or collapse a hip putting more weight on one side of the saddle, this can cause the saddle to settle unevenly.
- Changes in type, frequency and amount of work the horse is doing.
- Changes in diet, grazing and turnout.
- Changes in weight and size of the rider, the type of rider, the experience of the rider.
- Seasonal weather changes, horses gain condition in the spring and early summer and lose condition in winter.
- Numnahs & Pads need to be large enough so that the edging is clear of the saddle at all times, to avoid rubbing or chaffing on the bindings.
- It’s important to use at least a basic thin numnah at all times to keep the saddle clean, this will stop the panel leather and flocking from absorbing perspiration and dirt, causing the saddle panel to become hard and uncomfortable on the horse.
- When girthing your saddle ensure you use the two outside girth straps, keep the middle strap as a spare. In most circumstances, this will ensure the best girth line and keep the saddle more secure.
- Avoid using elastic ended girths on big rotund/fat type horses, one of the best girths to consider for these horses is the Humane type which have self-levelling buckle ends.
- If you are using an elastic girth, make sure the elastic has 3 layers of elastic thickness, 2 layers rarely provide enough tension when the girth is tightened. Weak or insufficient elastic can pull saddles off centre and such girths are best avoided.
- Ensure stirrup leathers are even in length
Indications of a Badly Fitting Saddle
- Normally sensible horses may start rushing over jumps, become strong in the mouth
- Reluctant to jump, or canter.
- Bucking is often a sign of pain caused by a badly fitting saddle, as is tail swishing.
- A horse may react when approached with a saddle, or try to nip as it is tacked up.
- Normally easy to catch horses may become difficult or evasive in the field.
- He may ‘sink’ suddenly when mounted or rush away from the mounting block
- Previously easy loaders suddenly become reluctant to go up the ramp when loading
- Some horses become agitated or nervy when mounted and set off on a hack or to start work.
- He may feel slightly uneven, pottery or obviously worse on one of his leads.
- Excessive movement and poor balance in the saddle
Indications of a Well Fitted Saddle
- With the rider mounted and without a numnah or pad, there is a minimum of 3 to 4 cm clearance between the underside of the pommel and the top of the horse’s spine.
- The points of the tree are parallel to the horse’s side
- The points of the tree sit about two to three fingers’ width behind the horse’s scapula, not on top of it.
- The gullet is wide enough so that the panels sit on either side of the spine, not on it.
- The panels should be smooth and symmetrical and follow the contours of the horse’s back to spread the rider’s weight evenly.
- The saddle should ride and sit evenly either side of the spine with the rider’s weight centred.
- The saddle is stable. It does not bounce excessively or slip to one side.
- A well-fitting saddle moves with the horse’s motion. A saddle that rocks will often “chase” the rider’s seat on a rising trot. That is, the cantle will actually move up faster than the rider and the action of the horse’s hip.
Avoid storing your saddle on the common frame type of saddle rack, they crease the panels and distort the pressure immediately behind the shoulder, the most important area of contact in the fit of your saddle. We suggest you consider for example a pole rack or saddle horse.