Does Saddle Fit really matter?
We know that proper saddle fit is important to the well being of our horses. They are precious to us, and most of us would never dream of hurting them intentionally. The problem is, if your saddle doesn’t fit your horse well, you could be unintentionally causing them unnecessary, and often severe pain. It’s even possible that bad saddle fit is responsible for your horse’s training problems, or even lameness issues.
“Bad behavior is the most common problem I see as a result of improper saddle fit. It’s a sad thing, but a lot of people have a really nice horse that was an appropriate horse for them when they bought him. The horse then gets grumpy or nasty, and they feel they have to sell him because his behavior gets worse as time goes by,” says saddle fit expert Joyce Harman, DVM, a veterinarian since 1984 and also a certified veterinary acupuncturist, whose Harmany Equine Clinic is located in Virginia.
Harman has written “the” books on saddle fit for English and Western horses (The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book and The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book, both from Trafalgar Square Publishing). I highly recommend both books if you want to gain a deeper understanding of how saddles are supposed to fit your horse!
It seems obvious that bad saddle fit can affect the horse, but a poorly fitting saddle can also impede the rider’s ability to ride their horse well. How much money have you spent on lessons trying to fix your position, when really, you’re fighting the forces of physics?
“When the saddle doesn’t fit the horse, the rider ends up spending money on riding lessons because you’re trying to ride a saddle that puts you out of balance,” notes Harman. “As humans, we are always going to go where gravity sends us, so if a saddle is too wide for the horse’s back, that saddle will pitch the rider down and forward. If the saddle is too narrow for the horse and sits too high in front, it will push the rider to the back of the saddle. This puts you behind your horse’s motion and puts your legs out too far in front of you.”
“When the saddle fits both the rider and horse, it’s fun to ride, the horse is happy and you feel safe,” she says. “When things are not right, the rider often feels unsafe. They might not know why their horse is acting up, but it makes them feel scared. What I often see—particularly with saddles that are too wide—is that people start to feel unsafe. This is because the saddle makes them tip forward, affecting their balance.”
“Tipping forward is very common in Western saddles that don’t fit right,” Harman notes. “People buy a quarter horse, so they get a saddle that has quarter horse bars, which are a very wide fit. Many quarter horses today have more thoroughbred in their bloodlines and are not wide across their topline.”
You’re probably asking yourself, ‘how can I tell if the saddle I like actually fits my horse?’
Ideally, you’ll have a saddle fit expert, like MJ Stewart of MJS Saddles come out in person to see the saddle on your horse and evaluate fit. If this is not possible, you should educate yourself and check key areas to determine fit. Again, I can’t recommend Dr. Harman’s books on saddle fitting enough. They are truly the gold standard.
So, does your saddle fit? Are the panels making even contact, or is your saddle bridging on your horse’s back? Is the channel wide enough to give the spinous processes room, and not sitting on them? Is there enough clearance for the horse’s withers?
You’ll hear some people say you have to have three fingers’ space between the saddle and withers, but this is a fallacy,” says Harman. “With a high-withered horse, you might only have room for two fingers, and with a low-withered horse, you might be able to fit five fingers between the saddle and withers. The key is that there should be NO contact, and this is with the rider in the saddle.”
Even if your saddle fits your horse well today, as you advance your training and the horse muscles up, their bodies will change, sometimes necessitating an adjustment to the flocking of your saddle (the stuffing inside a saddle panel). A saddle fitter can determine if your saddle needs a flocking adjustment and can do that for you. A good rule of thumb is to have a fitter evaluate your saddle at least once a year if not more often. Wool compresses, and sometimes needs to be changed out.
A correctly fitting saddle won’t magically transform your horse into an Olympic contender, but a bad fit will definitely negatively affect your horse’s attitude and performance!
Signs Your Saddle May Not Fit Properly:
Any of the following may be signs that your saddle doesn’t fit your horse correctly:
- Horse objects to being saddled
- Sensitivity to brushing or being touched in back area
- Tail swishing
- Change in behavior when ridden, including bucking and acting up
- Pinning the ears
- Tossing the head
- Slow to warm up or relax
- Reluctance or refusal to change leads
- Lack of extension
- Excessive concussive or choppy movement
- Inability to use back and hindquarters properly
- Muscle atrophy or lack of development despite exercise
- Uneven hoof wear
- Hard-to-diagnose lameness problems
Can a pad help? The short answer is ‘maybe’. If your saddle is the wrong size for your horse, even the most expensive pad won’t help the problem. “Changing pads can initially give the horse relief because you move the pressure point to a new location, but if you have a problem, it will find its way through the pad,” says Joyce Harman, DVM, a widely respected expert on saddle fit. “I call it the Princess and Pea Syndrome. It may take three weeks or it may take six months, but the problem will find its way through the pad and your horse will feel it the whole time.”
Don’t you owe it to your horses to ensure the saddle you use is appropriate for, and not harming your horse?