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Why Saddle Fit Matters

posted 22 Dec 2011, 16:14 by Selina Serbin   [ updated 26 Dec 2011, 23:09 ]

......its effects on the back, movement & behaviour

when considering the types of ponies and horses Queens see on a daily basis - i found there is no stereo-type for me to base this blog on. My clients are all so very individual, from competition horses, to happy hackers, to companions. All of whom at some point during their equine careers have needed a little assisstance in translating their 'opinion' to their human counterpart.

While bad saddle fit often causes a variety of 'opinionated' behaviour, and physical problems in horses, it isn't the only factor to look at when a horse demonstrates back pain or exhibits resistance behaviors; sometimes significant detective work is required on the part of the owner, working alongside their trainer, vet, osteopath, farrier, and dentist to determine what is bothering that horse.

Sure it would be so much easier if horses could talk to us. But since they can't, we need to listen to their body language and explore our options to find the right equation for the right saddle fit.

A good saddle fit is the same as a comfy, well fitting pair of shoes for us. Our shoes have to fit the length of our foot, be the right width at toe and heal, have the right arch support and be a comfortable shape for our toes. Even wether you wear heals or trainers makes a massive difference to your performance. You need to invest in the right shoe for the job, for example a runner, waitress, builder or horse rider - you're really not going to get away with wearing flip flops are you? - its the same with saddles.

When we go to try on shoes however, immediatley we are able to feel what is comfortable and what isn't. Every size 5 for instance will be pretty close to every other size 5 - this is not the case with saddles. There is a huge variety - which again causes small saddle fit issues. They're all categorised narrow through to extra wide fit, but vary greatly between each maker. Differences which are difficult for an in-experienced eye to see. When we try saddles, the horse feels it - but sometimes the owners are unable to interpret what the horse feels - and all too often poor performance is simply pain or discomfort, frequently caused through badly fitting saddles. Sometimes un-productive months can be lost trying to train a horse which is limited through back pain.

Equine welfare is not just about saving the starving equines, it is also about preventing pain and discomfort. So many horses are treated unfairly and roughly for behaviour problems which in truth are just reactions to pain. We all need to understand that a large proportion of disobedient behaviour actually stems from such preventable sources.

The Horses back

The horses back is central to the function of his musculo-skeletal system and his ability to carry a rider. When considering a horses gait, balance and movement, the connection between the head, neck back and hindquarters; sometimes reffered to as 'the circle of muscles'; work together. When working correctly the horse sld move in a manner that feels and looks forward and upward, with light footfall, compared to heavy pounding footsteps.

When a horse is in pain, his back muscles contract, his back drops and becomes hollow. In this way of moving - unatural strain is put upon the stifle, hock tendon, suspensory ligaments and the foot, causing lameness and soreness. The circle of muscles do not develop correctly if the horse has been in-effectively ridden in an ill fiting saddle for any length of time.

Different saddle fit problems affect the horse's back in different ways based on the area where they apply damaging focused pressure. Some of these problems can be caused by a poorly fitting saddle, some by a poorly placed saddle, some by an unbalanced rider, some by poor conformation of the horse--and some are caused by a combination of these factors. Additionally, a significant change in your horse's body condition can create saddle fit problems where none existed before.

                Here are some of the more common saddle fit problems and the areas of the back they affect.          


Saddle pads can be used to help solve the problem of an improper saddle fit, but they are capable of doing more harm than good. For example, placing a thick pad on a round-backed horse--under a saddle with a narrow gullet--is a lot like putting on a thick, heavy sock when a boot already fits too tightly.

We also have to admit, I'm afraid, that some problems accuse an alleged ill-fitting saddle, when actually it rests instead with the conformation and/or posture of the rider. As a trainer i watch rider and horse combinations - not just the horse. I constantly assess my clients on the floor aswell as in their ridden work, as for example, if i have a rider in front of me who walks with shoulder and hip on one side of their body higher than the other side - then there is a stron probability of them riding off balance too. This in turn also causes saddle pressure and back pain for our horses. As much as our saddle makers and remedial saddlers strive to fit the saddle to the rider as much as to the type of horse on which it will be used - a saddle will not correct your own posture, or riding ability. This comes only with hard work and dedication.

I have no intention of delving into the science of fitting a saddle - that is the Saddle Fitters Job! though what follows is some helpful reminders of how we should be placing our saddle om our horse before we ride:

  • Firstly, place the saddle slightly forward of the horse's wither, and then slide the saddle back as far as it will comfortably go till it rests in the lowest point of the horses back.
  • The points of the saddle tree should now be located in the natural depression that is found directly behind the horse's shoulder and must not rest on, or impede any part of the shoulder. This is for the horse's comfort and to allow you to adopt an effective riding position. A common mistake is to place the saddle too far forward over the horse's withers. This will have the effect of placing the points of the saddle-tree over the horse's shoulder (or part of), causing pressure which will then impede the horse's movement and may cause injury.
  • The channel of the saddle gullet must be wide enough to ensure that it does not to press against the horse's spine, as this is another extremely sensitive area. The panel of the saddle should be designed so that it enables the rider's weight to be distributed evenly over the full extent of the horse's bearing surfaces on muscles either side of the vertebrae giving the spinal column sufficient clearance.
  • When girthing up a common mistake is to want to bring the girth round directly behind the elbow, when actually this is not a suitable area for 'girthing up' as again the saddle then needs to be brought forward, and will infinge on shoulder movement.

Queens have spent years working alongside equine proffessionals from different spheres of the industry, striving to find a team of practitioners and specialists we feel confident in taking advice from, and can work closely with. We have a small network of experts who we can rely on to help us forward with any obsticles we come accross.

Should you have any concerns regarding your horses movement, behaviour or saddle fit - please don't hesitate to contact us, we're here to help.