Saddle fitting is a mystery to a lot of riders and for a long time I didn’t have a very good understanding of saddle fit myself. I thought if the saddle didn’t slide forwards, backwards or sideways, it must be an adequate fit, and would often try to remedy those problems with a variety of half pads and non-slip pads.
That changed in 2019 when one of my horses fractured her spinous processes in a paddock accident, effectively flattening her withers. The vet said she was likely to recover but in what turned out to be a massive understatement, warned it would be a “challenge” to find a saddle that fit. When I reached out to friends on facebook for help with my saddle fitting issues, I learned that many professionals knew as little as I did about saddle fit.
Ruby's fractured withers: the start of my saddle fitting journey
In the months it took to find a saddle that worked for Ruby, I learned a lot about properly fitting saddles, and was able to apply that knowledge to identify saddle fit issues with my other horses I hadn't previously been aware of. Like many aspects of horsemanship, we learn the most when problem-solving and not when everything goes right.
I notice a lot of horses being ridden in saddles that obviously don't fit them, and would like to take this opportunity to share some of what I learned about saddle fitting with anyone who is interested. This post is focused entirely on fitting a saddle to a horse, but if anyone is interested in learning about how to properly fit a saddle to a rider, please let me know and I can cover that next!
The first thing to note is that there is a difference between a “saddle fitter” and a “saddle rep”, the latter more likely having been trained by a particular company to sell their saddles. If you are looking for objective input on the fit of a saddle, you are better off seeking advice from a saddle fitter who is not affiliated with a particular brand rather than someone who is trying to make a sale and may not even know enough to be forthright about whether a particular saddle fits your horse.
Saddles are not “one size fits all” and I would be wary of anyone who makes blanket statements about a particular brand of saddle being “good”, “bad”, or “best or worst for all horses.” Each horse is an individual and in order to find a saddle that fits, you must take into account their unique size and shape.
With that said, let’s get into the basics of saddle fit so you can develop an eye to determine yourself whether or not a saddle fits a horse. A well-fitting saddle will have an appropriately shaped tree and panels for the horse in question, as well as adequate wither clearance, channel width, and tree points. I’ll get into each point in finer detail below:
A saddle with a "curvier" tree
The tree is the load-bearing structure of the saddle. It’s what keeps the saddle off the horse’s spine, and distributes the rider’s weight evenly across the horse’s longitudinal muscles. Most horse owners are familiar with the concept of a tree being narrow, medium, or wide, but the shape of a tree is as important as its width. Some trees are more flared in front, while others have more of an A-frame shape. Further, some trees lay flatter across a horse’s back, while other trees are more curved.
A saddle with a flatter tree shape
For a saddle to fit properly, the shape of the tree must match the shape of the horse’s back: a horse with a flat back will be more comfortable in a flatter tree, whereas a horse with a curvier back will be more comfortable in a curvy tree. Putting a flat tree on a curvy horse will result in “bridging”, where there is space between the panels and the horse’s back muscles, and putting a curvy tree on a flat-backed horse will cause “rocking”, where the rider’s weight is concentrated on a small portion of the tree. The height, length and slope of a horse's withers and topline will factor into the type of tree that would best suit them.
A curvy tree on a flat-backed horse: note the gap between the panels and the horse's back
Notice the difference in shape between Seamus, above, who has a curvy back, and Parker, pictured below, who has a flatter back. The same saddle will not fit both these horses!
2. Tree Points
The tree points are the lowest part of the front of the tree, and should sit behind the horse’s shoulder. Tree points that sit too far forward can impede the horse’s motion, while tree points that are too short will cause the saddle to sit too high, keeping it off the load bearing muscles of the horse’s back, which can cause back soreness and muscle atrophy. Further, tree points that are too short can cause the saddle to lift off the horse’s back at the base of the jump. A properly fitting saddle should sit behind the horse’s shoulder. The front of a jump saddle with forward flaps may sit slightly ahead of the trapezius muscle, but the tree points should always be behind this area for the horse to be comfortable carrying the weight of the rider.
An illustration of the tree showing the location of the tree points. A saddle with too-short tree points can lift off the horse's back over fences, as seen below:
English saddles generally come with one of two types of flocking: wool or foam. Most popular French saddles (ie. CWD, Antares) have panels flocked with foam, whereas saddles such as Stubben and County are flocked with wool.
The major difference is that foam panels are shaped the way they are, and won't change from one horse to another except over time when the foam eventually hardens or compacts. Wool, on the other hand, tends to take on the shape of the horse and can be adjusted to accommodate changes in the horse’s musculature.
One type of flocking is not better than the other, and both have advantages and disadvantages: foam-flocked saddles often have a “closer contact” feel and might work for a broader variety of horses, whereas a wool flocked saddle is generally more tailored to a particular horse but in my experience tends to feel more substantial to the rider.
The important thing with panels is that they make appropriate, even contact across the horse’s back. Since you can’t actually see the saddle’s internal structure when you are looking at a saddle, you will have to judge the fit based on the contact the panels make with the horse.
These panels are not a good fit for this horse, based on the uneven contact demonstrated in this photo. Below, a saddle with a more flared shape that would likely fit this horse better:
Compare this panel shape to the saddle shown below, which has a more "A-framed" shape:
A horse with a ribcage shaped like a triangle will likely be comfortable in an A-shaped tree whereas a horse with a rounder shape may require a flared tree. If you put the wrong shaped tree on a horse, the saddle will pinch or put pressure on certain areas of the horse’s shoulders, which can result in poor behaviour under saddle, an unwillingness to move forward, girthiness, or difficulty holding a good balance and contact. Note: At the extreme end of roundness, horses like traditional cobs or fjords may require a “hoop” tree, shaped like an upside-down U.
These panels are appropriate for this horse: they are the same shape as his rib cage and make even contact
4. Wither Clearance
For a saddle to be comfortable and not impede the horse’s motion, it must have adequate clearance between the pommel and the withers. When the rider is mounted, there should be space to fit a few fingers between the saddle and the horse’s wither. Half pads and saddle pads should also be pulled into the gullet of the saddle so they do not pinch or rub the horse’s withers. Inadequate wither clearance is often (but not always) indicative of a saddle being too wide for a horse.
A saddle with adequate wither clearance will have room for you to place 2-3 fingers between the horse's wither and the pommel
A saddle that sits in proper balance on a horse will have the pommel and cantle at a more or less equal height when the saddle is appropriately positioned on the horse’s back. A saddle that is too wide is likely to be lower at the front while a saddle that is too narrow will likely sit pommel-high. Another thing to watch for is that the billets are lined up with the horse’s natural girth groove: if the billets sit too far back when the saddle is correctly placed behind the horse’s trapezius muscles, it is liable to slide forward in motion.
This saddle's billets sit too far behind the horse's girth groove, and the saddle will slide forward when the horse is ridden. This saddle is also too wide for this horse - you can see that the cantle sits noticeably higher than the pommel.
6. Channel Width and Saddle Length
Older saddles often have a narrow “channel” between the panels, which can place pressure on the non-weight bearing structures of the horse’s back. Channel width is something to be mindful of when looking at older saddles.
Compare this older saddle, above, with a channel that gets progressively narrower towards the cantle, with the newer saddle below:
The length of the panels is also something to take into consideration, especially if you are a larger rider on a smaller or short-backed horse: horses have a finite number of “supporting” ribs and a saddle that encroaches on the horse’s lumbar area can cause back pain or behaviour issues such as bucking. If you are a rider requiring a larger seat size on a small horse, you may want to look for saddles with "upswept" panels that can accommodate a bigger seat on the horse's supporting ribs.
This image depicts the weight-bearing portion of the horse's back
A Final Note on Saddle Fit:
As a rule of thumb, a high-quality used saddle is a better purchase than an inexpensive new saddle, but price does not correlate to fit and the most expensive saddle may be a poor fit for your horse. Horses are also liable to change shape over time, so a saddle that fits your horse when they are young or out of work may not fit the same horse when they are at peak fitness or have finished growing. An adjustable tree will only remedy this problem if the tree is the right shape for the horse and widening the tree does not have a negative impact on the balance of the saddle.
A slim half pad used appropriately can help fix minor flaws in saddle fit, but a bulky pad (such as an Ogilvy half pad) will not make a too-narrow saddle fit a horse better and often disguises issues with saddle fit.
Hopefully this post helps illuminate some basic points of saddle fit that don’t get discussed often!