Understanding Saddle Fit, Part III: Is It a Fit?

Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic

Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. The present design of saddles has been primarily for the comfort of the rider; riders want close contact with the horse. However, in trying to achieve that effect, manufacturers have removed most of the support the horse needs in the panels. The riders then try various pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit better, but in doing so the close contact is lost.

In horses, skin or muscle damage and the pain associated with it usually shows up as performance problems, rather than overt sores. Performance problems range from a mildly “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between those two extremes is a whole host of symptoms most of us consider training problems, such as resisting, jumping poorly, being slow to warm up or not paying attention to the rider. Most of the time these behaviour problems are related to pain and poorly fitting saddles.

Position and shape of the girth

The girth will always end up in the narrowest point of the rib cage perpendicular to the ground. Because the girth is attached to the saddle, it is important that the girth drop naturally down into the narrowest part of the thorax or the saddle will move either forward or back as the girth finds its natural spot. Some horses’ girth spots are just behind the elbows, while others are one to two hand-breadths behind the elbow. An otherwise well-fitting saddle can become a poorly-fitting saddle just by having the girth attached in the wrong place.

The short girths (both the western girths and the short dressage girths) can often cause discomfort just behind the shoulders and elbows. The correct length to have the girth is so it ends just below the saddle, just out of the rider’s way and along as possible for the horse.

Rider fit

If the saddle does not fit the rider, the rider becomes the saddle fitting problem. The most common fault is having the seat too small for the rider, forcing them to sit at the back of the saddle. This puts excessive pressure on the horse’s back concentrated at the rear of the saddle, even if the saddle fits well. The correct way to determine seat size is to measure the rider from the hip joint to the knee. The riders knee should be at the center of the knee roll in an English saddle. The difficulty arises when the rider has a long thigh and a small buttock because they will find the large seat needed for their leg too large to sit in. A properly designed custom saddle would add a block of foam at the rear of the seat, and riders could try to do that in their own saddles using a seat saver with foam sewed under the back part.

The position of the stirrup bars or stirrup placement is critical to the comfort and balance of the rider. Stirrup bars places too far forward will cause the rider’s legs to drift forward, leaving them in a chair-seat position. Many riders suffer from instructors yelling at them to keep their legs back under them when the problem is that the saddle does not fit the rider.

On western saddles particularly, the ground seat is made too wide for the rider’s legs to drop comfortably down to the side. The wide ground seat places the legs the same way riding bareback does. The thigh is pushed out to the side so the knees cannot lie against the horse’s side. This rolls the pelvis back and prevents the correct use of the lower leg, forcing riders to brace with their legs out in front of them. It is almost impossible to find western saddles with a correct ground seat for the rider.

Locating pressure points

If white hairs are appearing under the saddle there will be a pressure point above them. On a Western saddle, the sheepskin covering of the panels will become worn down over the pressure points. Another way to locate pressure points is to ride with a thin, clean, white saddle pad. Where there are dark spots after 15 or 20 minutes there will generally be pressure points. Light areas or areas with no sweat are generally from a lack of pressure, but be careful: these can also be caused by excess pressure which decreases the amount of sweat produced.

Measuring the back

To measure the horse’s back for some assistance in fitting saddles a flexible ruler from a stationery store is a tool that is easy to use and works well as a rough guide to the fit of the tree. Such a ruler can be moulded to the shape of the horse’s withers, then a drawing made on cardboard and cut out. If this is done at four-inch intervals along the saddle area, a basic diagram of the horses back can be constructed. By holding the cut-out shapes of the back inside a saddle, a very general idea of whether the saddle may fit can be obtained. Several new methods, including computerized pressure analysis and thermography, are becoming available which will help with fitting saddles.

In the final installment, Dr. Harman will discuss changing variables, including therapeutic pads and shims.

About Joyce Harman: Dr. Joyce Harman opened Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd in 1990, bringing holistic healing to horses from all walks of life, backyard retirees to Olympic competitors. Over the years, Dr. Joyce Harman has observed and adapted to the changing needs of the industry. Twenty-plus years ago, no one had heard of Lyme disease or Insulin Resistance, yet today that makes up a large part of her clinical practice.

In 2001, she wrote the first paper in a peer-reviewed journal about the possibility that horses have insulin resistance (IR), and now it is part of our everyday conversation. In 2004 she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800s, with the western version of the book following in 2006. To this date, these books are the only books written by an author who is independent of a saddle company, which brings unbiased information to the horse world.

In 2015, Dr. Harman released the Harmony Muzzle, a customizable and breathable grazing muzzle designed with the horse in mind. Because she deals extensively with metabolic and insulin resistant horses, she felt it was her duty to offer them a comfortable muzzle option.

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