Saddle fit is extremely important in the comfort, health, happiness, and performance of your horse. Painful consequences will arise for horses that must endure improperly fitted saddles. It is imperative that the horse owner become well educated on the subject of saddle fitting so as to avoid potential problems in the future. Doing so will ensure not only a happy, healthy horse but a content rider as well. Horses suffering from the effects of improper saddle fit will display a wide array of signs so it is important that the horse owner be aware of them so as to be able to identify them immediately.
The weight of a saddle needs to be evenly distributed over a horse’s back. Areas marked with patches of white hairs or evident friction rubbing suggest these areas are serving as pressure points. Pressure points demonstrate that the saddle is not evenly distributing the weight across the horse’s back.
Upon removing the saddle and saddle pad from your horse after a ride check the pattern of moisture across the back. The spinal channel which runs down the middle of the horse’s back should remain dry. The areas of the back that are in contact with the saddle should demonstrate an even wetness. If you notice any dry spots in the area where the saddle sits it suggests improper saddle fitting.
More obvious physical signs may include saddle sores, scars, and calluses. Be wary for these areas will be extremely sensitive and painful to your horse. He or she may react unfavorably by biting, kicking, bucking, or bolting when touching this area by hand or placing a saddle atop the horse. There are also muscle and ligament problems associated with improper saddle fitting that may not be readily visible. In this case the horse’s performance is severely affected.
When riding a horse take note that the saddle is not rolling from side to side, that it is not tipping forward, or that it does not otherwise appear awkward and unnatural. If possible have someone observe from the ground for potential problems that may indicate improper saddle fitting. Riders are often times able to detect a change in their horse’s gait or movement. A short, choppy stride, stumbling, or lack of coordination may indicate a horse is suffering from back problems.
When a horse experiences pain and discomfort they more than likely will act up. Often times back pain from an improper fitting saddle is diagnosed as a behavioral problem. It is important to rule out potential back or health problems before concluding that a horse is suffering from an attitude problem.
To recap, signs that you saddle may not fit properly:
White hair patches
Function points or points of wear
Dry spots where saddle makes contact that should be wet after exercise
Saddle sores, scars, calluses
Horse is acting up with behavioral problems
Flinching when touched along back
Ear pinned back
Refusal to work or exercise
Refusal to be saddled
Saddle tilts forward instead of being stable
When attempting to find the proper fit make certain that the saddle does not sit too far forward so as to hinder movement of the front end. The front of the saddle called the gullet in western and the pommel in English should be of appropriate width and height. With a western saddle you should be able to fit two to four fingers between the withers and the gullet. With an English saddle you should be able to fit two to three fingers between the pommel and the withers. If it is too narrow it will pinch the withers whereas if it is too wide it will cause friction rubbing. In both cases this will result in the development of sores.
Some things to look for are that the saddle does not contact the hip or the loin area. It should only sit above the rib cage. A length of at least four inches should exist between the hip and the back of the saddle. A rider should acquire a saddle with an appropriate sized seat so as to avoid sitting on the back of the saddle. If you are still uncertain consult with someone more experienced in saddle fitting to help you make sure your saddle fits properly on your horse.