Saddle fitting advice (Part 3)

Step 1: Before Ken even gets his saddles out of the car he gives the horse a thorough check by feeling along his back and monitoring the reaction. The application of gentle but firm pressure enables him to pinpoint any sensitive areas and assess the horse's muscle tone.

The front of the tree and the points have to be at a similar angle to the trapezius area upon which they will rest. The tolerance level is certainly no more than 10 degrees. At this point, care must be taken to ensure that the angle is that of the tree and not of the fencing at the front of the panel, as these two angles do not necessarily coincide.

As one can see quite readily, if the saddle is too wide a fitting, there are two major problems for the horse and one major problem for the rider. First, the underside of the arch may well be in contact with the horse's withers. Additionally, there may be too much pressure exerted at the base of the arch on each side of the gullet. 


This, of course, will depend upon the horse's conformation - some Thoroughbred types are very narrow throughout the whole trapezius area but an aged Cob for example, may broaden rapidly at the base of the withers. In any event, the saddle will sit too low in front, which will throw the rider's weight forward, causing pressure on the front of the saddle to be increased drastically and throwing the rider off the seat bones onto the fork.

If the saddle is too narrow, the probability is that the area directly underneath the points of the tree will be subject to extreme pressure in this very small region and the saddle will appear to be sitting uphill, with the rider's weight being thrown back onto the buttocks and the horse's lumbar area. Saddles with this fitting fault will often also bridge. It is not always possible to get good sight of the tree itself as, on some saddles, the tree is inside the panel - but a competent saddle fitter will know how best to judge this.

Step 2:
With the saddle off load, that is without a rider on and without being grithed up, one should be able to slide one hand evenly and easily the length of the tree from the gullet to the point without undue pressure.


If this pressure is uneven or has any 'hot spots' this will probably indicate that the tree itself is either too wide or too narrow. 

Note that this is an off-load test.

It is absolutely not correct to do as many riders do - trying to slip a hand between the horse's trapezius area and the front of the saddle when the horse is girthed up and the rider is on board and then declare it too tight. What we are testing for is an uneven angle, and this can only be discerned properly with the saddle off load.

Step 3:
The next point is to ensure that the gullet is wide enough not to impinge on either side of the spine.  This is particularly important with horses with high withers, for example, aged thoroughbreds. However, this is where saddle design and fitting are very specific - while 'wide enough' is very important, 'too wide' creates a new set of problems. At the one extreme, with a narrow gullet, the edges of the gullet may clamp tightly each side of the vertebrae, causing extreme discomfort and trauma. However, a gullet which is far too wide must inevitably reduce the sides of the panel. That is to say, there is a far smaller area to support the weight of the rider and, the greater the loading per square inch, the more chance there is of bruising.


Thus there is a median to be found: a gullet wide enough so that the spinal processes are not contacted directly, but not so wide as to significantly reduce the weight bearing area. Further to this, the gullet must be of an adequate width along its entire length and not just across the front - this is of particular importance to those horses with a fairly prominent spine throughout the whole of the saddle region.

Step 4:
This is the test which everyone 'knows' and almost everyone gets wrong - how many fingers shouls fit between the top of the withers and the underside of the saddle arch?

Some riding organizations will tell you a minimum of three fingers. This is total tosh! The answer is that there should be sufficient clearance under load under all circumstances. It may well be three fingers. On close-contact saddles, it may be one and a half. Plainly, on a very deepseated saddle, there is likely to be rather more clearance than with a flat saddle, so one cannot be pedantic. In any event whose fingers are we talking about - a large man with fat fingers or a small girl with slim fingers?

With reference to a small girl's fingers, and to illustrate my point further, I might add that I was once asked to check a saddle that had been fitted by an eleven year old girl. I'm serious!


The mother told me, quite firmly, that her daughter was a member of the local Pony Club and therefore 'knows about these things' and that she was sure that it was 'perfect'!
Fortunately, the secondhand saddle was on approval. Asked to explain her saddle fitting procedure and how she had appplied her knowledge of saddle fitting, the little girl proudly inserted three of her fingers under the arch of the saddle. That was it! This particular saddle sat up in front but produced pressure points elsewhere on the pony's back. I felt sorry for the little girl, who had only been putting into practice what she had been told. I explained that 'three fingers' had absolutely nothing to do with checking the fit of a saddle, that 'adequate clearance throughout the entire gullet' was the measure and that much depends on the saddle type and design. For example, being able to insert three fingers under the arch of a close-contact saddle would mean that it didn't fit! I was later contacted by the DC of the Pony Club to which the little girl belongs - could I please give a talk on saddle fitting? So, I will repeat that the requirement is sufficient clearance under all circumstances. Also, the initial test will be done without the rider’s weight, but then checked again after the rider has ridden on the saddle for a few minutes, as some saddle flocking can compress very quickly and some synthetic trees are designed to widen after only a few minutes riding. So this clearance test is more properly carried out at the end of the testing period under load and occasionally can disqualify what was previously thought to be a good candidate for the short list.


Step 5. It is essential the saddle should sit in balance. This generally means that the candidate will sit slightly higher than the pommel. ‘In balance’ signifies that the rider can sit in the centre of the saddle, with weight divided evenly throughout the length of the panel.


This particular test requires a really experienced eye as some very deep-seated saddles require the cantle to be a lot higher than the pommel to be in correct balance. This is most often apparent on dressage saddles as so many jumping saddles nowadays have medium to flat seats.

Step 6.
The panel should fit evenly all the way through its length and breadth. If the panel is a correct fit it will utilize all of its area – as mentioned previously, the larger the area in contact with the horse, the less pounds per square inch of rider’s weight will be transmitted to the horse’s back. This should never exceed one and a half pounds per square inch at any point. This is where the type of panel is crucial.


e.g. a well-filled panel will rapidly mould to the horse’s individual contours, therefore maximising the bearing surface, whereas a close-contact saddle with a moulded panel will need to fit much more precisely as, in some instances, the fillings are hard and unyielding. It is essential, therefore, that close-contact saddles should have a panel fit that mirrors the horse’s back – it should not be assumed that they will change shape with work and condition.

Step 7. The length of panel should not extend beyond the horse’s eighteenth rib.

Note that this does not extend vertically and therefore this measurement must be gauged directly underneath the rear of the panel.
This is an area which often gives problems, particularly when the horse has a short or dipped back and the rider is technically too large for the animal.


If a rider is too large or heavy for a particular horse, there may be a temptation to fit a saddle slightly long in the hope of reducing the panel pressure. However, if this is not done with extreme care, bruising of the lumbar area is almost certain. Hopefully, having carried out these tests the saddle fitter will have a short list of saddles which will pass on all seven points.  The next step is to proceed to the dynamic part of the saddle fitting.