So you are in the market for a new saddle. Fitting saddles to horses is not always easy. Saddles are not cheap and making a bad decision could be very costly. Not only that, but an ill-fitting saddle could ruin your horse. Saddles that fit badly cause pain and discomfort. These often lead to the horse reacting in ways that are usually interpreted by humans as misbehaving – rearing, evading aids and generally trying to tell his rider all is not right in the only ways he knows how.

The following is written regarding English-style saddles. Some of the points pertain to Western saddles as well. The most important point is that the saddle must fit the horse. Hopefully it will fit the rider too but it must fit the horse. It takes more to make a saddle comfortable for a horse than a thick saddle blanket. Tack shops nowadays will usually let you take a saddle home to try on your horse. It might be an option to float your horse to the shop. It is difficult to judge how the saddle will fit without actually trying it on the horse.

There are a few points which will narrow your search. Look at your horse's back. Is it broad with a flat wither? Some Quarter horses have quite a fat wither and a horse that always carries a lot of condition may also have a broad back and flat wither. Thoroughbreds are more likely to have a narrow back and high wither. Eighty percent of horses fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Saddle Too Big For The Rider
Credit: By Montanabw (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons

An example of a saddle which is really too big for the rider.

Saddle Too Small
Credit: By Montanabw (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

This saddle is too small for the rider.

A Correctly Sized Saddle
Credit: By IMG_3707-1-.jpeg: Kleopatra4 derivative work: Montanabw (IMG_3707-1-.jpeg) [GFDL ( via Wikimedia Commons

This saddle is a good match for the rider and appears to fit the horse nicely too.

Before you take the saddle home to try, sit in it with the stirrups at your usual length. You should feel comfortable in the saddle. The knee roll should be in the correct position for you. Don't buy a too small saddle simply for vanity's sake. You should be able to place the flat of your hand comfortably between your seat and the cantle. For dressage, the saddle should be an exact fit.

When you try the saddle on your horse, use a thin cloth under the saddle simply to keep it clean. Don't put stirrup leathers on the saddle until you are sure you are going to buy it. Saddle shops may not take a saddle back if there are marks from stirrup leathers. The arch must clear the horse's spine from front to back. Check this is still the case when you are mounted.

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The heavier the rider, the more important it is that the saddle is clear of the spine. The back panels should bear weight and not be so severely cut away that weight is transferred and concentrated over a smaller area of the back. The saddle should conform well to the horse's back. When a horse is fit, he will have muscled up over the back and the saddle will fit better.

When you remove a saddle from your horse, look for dry areas on the back. These will most likely be seen around the wither or on the back under the rear panels of the saddle. Dry areas mean there is too much pressure at those points and the sweat glands have not been able to activate properly. Over time, scurf will appear over the pressure patches, the hair will fall out and eventually the skin will also come away leaving a saddle sore.

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When the skin does eventually grow back after rest or use of a different saddle, the hair will be white. This is because the hair cells in that area has been permanently damaged. It is often recommended that, after a hard work-out, the girth should be loosened a hole at a time. This allows the blood flow to return slowly to the area without damaging surrounding blood vessels.

A well-made saddle will rarely need restuffing in its lifetime. Indications that re-stuffing is required are hard, flat panels. Lumps may develop within the panels. A saddle can be ruined by bad re-stuffing so find a reputable saddler if you want to go down this path.

It is now possible to purchase saddles which have interchangeable bars which adjust the shape of the gullet. The bar  converts the saddle arch from something suitable for a high wither to one that will fit a flat wither. Pads within the panels are also interchangeable allowing for optimum balance and clearance.

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Some Bates and Wintec saddles now feature the Easy-Change™ Fit Solution is a combination of the Easy-Change™ Gullet System and the Easy-Change™ Riser System. With the Easy-Change™ Fit Solution, a saddle will fit a range of horses. A special Easy-Change tool and a Phillips head screwdriver are the only tools required. The first time you alter your saddle may take you fifteen minutes but, as you become more practised, adjustments will become faster and easier.

 As a temporary measure to avoid back problems, two saddle blankets or an extra thick blanket may be used but, in fairness to your horse, it is important that the saddle fits as comfortably as possible. Your horse will never be able to give of his best if his back is hurting.