This article is part of our Saddle Up With Comfort Awareness Campaign, brought to you by 5 Star Equine Products.
Whether you have a hard-to-fit horse, or your equine friend made saddle shopping easy, a saddle that fits is important to your horse’s health. An ill-fitting saddle can cause discomfort, irritation, pain, and even behavioral problems. Avoid costly vet bills and setbacks to your training, by double-checking your saddle fit.
Get it Centered
Stand your horse square on level ground. Then, place your Western saddle on your horse’s back without a pad and without tightening the cinch. Check that your saddle is sitting in the middle of your horse’s back and not sliding off to one side or the other.
Free the Withers
Your horse’s withers and shoulders need room to move. To check your saddle’s wither clearance, hold your index, middle, and ring fingers straight out with your thumb pointing to the sky. Then slide your hand between the underside of your saddle pommel and the top of the withers. You should not only have clearance on top of the withers but also on the sides so that when your horse bends, his withers can move. If your saddle is too tight against his withers on both sides, he’s not able to bend.
Red flag: If your saddle has insufficient wither clearance on the top or sides, your saddle is too wide for your horse’s back.
Investigate the Gullet
The hollow down the middle of the underside of your saddle is called the gullet channel. With your hand still under the pommel of your saddle, turn your palm so it’s facing downward and straighten your four fingers. Then slide your hand and arm along your horse’s back and into the gullet channel. When you’re checking for gullet-channel width, you want to allow enough room for the spinal ligament, which is about four fingers wide. There should be enough clearance for the width of your hand all the way down the middle of the saddle.
Red flag: If your saddle is too wide, there may not be enough room down the middle of the gullet channel, which means your saddle may end up sitting on top of your horse’s spinal ligament.
Check the Bars
Saddle trees consist of five basic parts. The swell, which sits on top of the fork, the two parallel bars that form the body of the tree, the horn, and the cantle. The bars are the only part of the tree in contact with your horse. These serve to distribute your weight in the saddle.
When checking your saddle’s bars, the angle of the bar in front needs to match the angle of your horse’s shoulders. You can see that angle pretty clearly just by looking. But, to ensure a perfect fit, you should also slide your hand down your horse’s shoulders under the saddle and feel whether the angle is right and if there’s enough room for his shoulders to move back and forth. Check all along the underside of the saddle on both sides—not just in front—for full contact from the saddle bars.
Note: There’s no industry standard among saddle makers for the angle or width of a saddle tree’s bars. Saddles may be advertised as having regular, semi-, full, or extra-wide Quarter Horse bars, but these measurements may vary widely.
Consider the Length
Western saddles are designed to go over your horse’s shoulder and over the lumbar portion of his back. Your weight should be distributed in the area starting from behind your horse’s shoulder and ending before his last rib. While there will always be a portion of the saddle extending past your horse’s last rib, you need to evaluate where you’re positioned in the seat. If you end up seated too far back, it’ll make it more difficult for your horse to carry you.
Red flag: If your Western saddle tree is too long for your horse’s back, your weight may end up being distributed beyond the last rib. Your horse will tighten his back muscles to support you, making it virtually impossible for him to round his back.
Go on a Test Ride
Take your horse into the arena, and ride without a pad to see exactly how the saddle moves on his back. Walk, jog, and lope in both directions, and complete a few figure eights at the jog. Notice any discomfort your horse may have. Dismount once you’ve had a chance to feel for how your horse performs with the saddle on his back.
Look at the Impression
After you dismount, pull your saddle off and evaluate the impression it left on your horse’s back. You want to see that all of your horse’s hair is flattened equally from front to back and on both sides, but not down the middle. If his hair is flattened down the middle, that means your saddle was touching the spinal ligament. This is something you want to avoid. You also want to make sure the impression is as even at the top of the bars as it is at the bottom. If there’s a lot of contact at the top of the bars, but you can’t tell where the bottom of the saddle was, your saddle isn’t fitting your horse properly.
Red flag: Ruffled or damaged hair, which is caused by friction, is a sign of poor saddle fit.
Signs of an Ill-fitting Saddle
Sign #1: Withers Swelling
What you see: A small, raised area on either side of your horse’s withers. It will most likely shows up every time you ride. And that often disappears before you ride again. If you press firmly on the swelling, you can make a dent in the middle, as if you’re pressing on a firm loaf of bread dough. This swelling is edema, or fluid that’s accumulated under his skin. Although edema is most common on the withers, it’s also possible to see this type of swelling at any point along the edges of a horse’s spine. In more serious cases, these swellings will be hot and painful, and
Sign #2: Armpit Pinch
What you see: Patches of hair loss or crusty skin on his side, underneath the girth. In some cases, this area can develop a hot, painful, weepy sore. This is known in horseman’s circles as a “girth gall” or “cinch sore”—even after a single ride.
Sign #3: Dead Back
What you see: When you run your flat palm along your horse’s back, underneath where the saddle sits, you detect a flattened, “dead-feeling” area. This will be most commonly located right under where you’d be centered in the seat of the saddle. Sometimes you can even see these flattened areas.
Sign #4: Going Bald
What you see: Bald spots or patches of broken hair underneath your saddle. This is where your saddle is rubbing against your horse’s skin, causing the hair to break. This can happen if your saddle doesn’t fit properly and moves too much when your horse is working. These types of rubs can occur in almost any area, although they’re especially common under your seat. Isolated rubs also can appear if there’s a piece of loose leather or hardware.
Sign #5: Bumpy Back
What you see: Look for hard nodules on your horse’s back. Similar to dead spots and rubs, equestrians commonly observe these nodules beneath where you sit. They’re also common on either side of the withers. You may see them only on one side, especially if your horse is asymmetrical or you have a tendency to sit crookedly in the saddle. These hard nodules are rarely painful for your horse.
Sign #6: Ouch!
What you see: Your horse’s back is very painful when you run your hand along where the saddle sits. He may express his discomfort with pinned ears, snapping teeth, and a swishing tail when you place the saddle on his back. Although this, too, can be related to saddle fit, it’s also possible that your horse has a primary back problem causing him pain. For example, a condition known as “kissing spines,” where the bony processes extending up from each vertebra come in contact with one another, can cause this type of pain.