Understanding Saddle Fit, Part I: An Overview

Dr. Joyce Harman introduces us to the basics of fit.

 Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. In the last twenty years, great strides have been made in the running shoe industry, while the saddle industry has stood still or even lost ground since saddle manufacturers are generally fairly far removed from the horse industry. Most saddles are manufactured in factories by people who have never been near a horse, much less ridden on one competitively.

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. 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, performing poorly, being slow to warm up or not paying attention to the rider. Most of the time these behavior problems are related to pain and poorly fitting saddles.

Saddle Fit

When evaluating a horse for a performance problem, examine the saddle on and off the horse. Saddle fit should be considered as important as, and similar to, shoe fit in a person. The basic factors to be considered when examining a saddle are:

  • The structure of the saddle
  • The position of the saddle on the back
  • The contact of the bars or panels against the horse’s back; absence of bridging
  • Must have enough rocker and twist to the bars to conform to the horse’s back
  • Whether the bars are wide enough and not too much cup for good support
  • Whether the gullet is the correct width and tall enough to clear the withers
  • The fit of the tree to the horse’s back, especially across the withers
  • Whether the saddle sits squarely in the center of the back
  • The levelness of the seat
  • The placement of the girth
  • How the rider fits in the saddle
  • Position of the stirrup bars or stirrup placement
Structure

The structure of the saddle is extremely important and the manufacture of saddles has seldom included quality control. Therefore many new saddles are purchased with serious defects such as asymmetrically and/or twisted trees. The initial cost of the saddle seems to have no bearing on the number or severity of structural defects to be found. Examine the saddle carefully from all angles to check for balance and symmetry. Minor differences from one side to the other can be tolerated, but most differences that can be seen will cause pressure points on the horse’s back or cause the rider difficulty in finding the correct position in the saddle.

Position

The position of the saddle on the back is the most critical aspect of saddle fit. The most common mistake made is to place the saddle too far forward. This position places the rigid tree over the top of the shoulder blade, which significantly restricts the movement of the front legs. If the saddle is moved back to the correct position the stride will generally lengthen immediately.

When an English saddle is placed too far forward, the pommel is too high. This causes the seat to slope down towards the cantle and places the rider’s legs too far forward in an unbalanced position. The rider then tries to level the seat with pads under the back of the saddle. When a properly fitting saddle is in the correct position the seat becomes level.

Western saddles when too far forward exert enormous pressure on the top of the scapula. The bars are too long and too straight for most horses’ backs so moving the saddle back to the correct position frees the scapula but puts the rider and the saddle too far back on the horse’s back. When the saddle is moved off of the shoulders the rider will often be tipped forward. Also, it is common for the fork to become too close to the withers after moving the saddle back. Saddles with shorter bars, such as those used in barrel racing and those designed for Arabians, can be easier to move back into the correct position due to the shorter bar. Many of the shorter bars are still too straight so the bars dig into the back and do not spread the rider’s weight out. Barrel saddles are more difficult to ride in as they are designed for a specific type of riding.

If the saddle, no matter what type it is, does not fit, no change in position will correct the problem.

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 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 every day conversation. In 2004 she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800’s, 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 from a saddle company, which brings unbiased information to the horse world.

In 2015, Dr. Harman released the Harmany 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.