Checklist: The nine points of saddle fit to keep your horse (and you) happy

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If your horse has had any time off you will need to ensure that the saddle is fitted properly to allow him comfort and freedom to muscle up again when you begin training in earnest.

While it can take four weeks for a muscle to build up with consistent training, it takes only one week for the muscle to regain its original shape (which is negative development). Thus, even if you have given your horse just a week off from training, you will find that your saddle may not fit the way it did and the way it should, so that you should have a diagnostic evaluation done and the saddle adjusted by a certified fitter before you begin training again.

A quick diagnostic can be done using our 9 points of saddle fit evaluation. Below are very brief points – this information cannot be repeated often enough and is truly evergreen.

1. Saddle Balance

A saddle too high in the pommel and too low in the cantle causes pressure on the horse’s back. It will be very difficult for your horse to engage his back because too much of your weight is on his last two floating ribs.

This dressage saddle shows where the center of balance is.
This dressage saddle shows where the center of balance is.

If your saddle is too low in the front it will pinch into the horse’s shoulder – which is very restrictive for your horse. Your saddle is too high in the back so your leg goes forward and you fall into a chair seat to balance which can strain the discs in your lower back. It should sit so that the pommel and cantle are even.

2. Wither Clearance

The saddle should have 2-3 fingers clearance on the top and around the side of the withers.  The saddle must have be an opening (clearance) on the sides of his withers to accommodate the shoulder rotation upwards and backwards during movement.

A horse whose saddle pinches his withers may be reluctant to go forward. Other more extreme signs of insufficient wither clearance are patches of white hairs (not scattered individual white hairs) or sores on the top or on one or both sides of the withers.

The distance between the top of the withers and the sides of the withers should be 2-3 fingers all around.
The distance between the top of the withers and the sides of the withers should be 2-3 fingers all around.

3. Channel/Gullet Width

A saddle with a channel or gullet that is too narrow or too wide can cause permanent damage to your horse’s back. The width of each horse’s spine will determine how wide his saddle’s gullet must be, and it must be the same throughout the entire length of the saddle.

This saddle has a wide gullet channel with good distribution of the rider’s weight on the horse’s saddle support area.
This saddle has a wide gullet channel with good distribution of the rider’s weight on the horse’s saddle support area.

4. Full Panel Contact

Ensure that your saddle’s panels make even contact with your horse’s back all the way down to distribute the rider’s weight over an area that equals about 220 square inches and ends at the last rib. Ensure that it doesn’t bridge or rocks (contact only in the middle.)

This saddle is positioned behind the shoulder but a) is too long for the horse’s back as it extends past the 18th thoracic vertebra and b) the billets are too far back and will pull the saddle onto the shoulder in motion.
This saddle is positioned behind the shoulder but a) is too long for the horse’s back as it extends past the 18th thoracic vertebra and b) the billets are too far back and will pull the saddle onto the shoulder in motion.

5. Billet Alignment

Billets should hang perpendicular to the ground in the girth area.  If the billets hang too far back, gravity will pull the billets (and the saddle) forward into the girth area.  The girth will always find its position at the narrowest point of the rib cage, driving the saddle forward onto your horse’s shoulders.

If the billets hang too far forward into your horse’s elbow area, they may make him sore in the elbows.  Gravity will drag them (and the girth and saddle along with them) back into the girth area.  There will now be too much pressure on the panels at the rear of the saddle.

This saddle is positioned behind the shoulder but a) is too long for the horse’s back as it extends past the 18th thoracic vertebra and b) the billets are too far back and will pull the saddle onto the shoulder in motion.
This saddle is positioned behind the shoulder but a) is too long for the horse’s back as it extends past the 18th thoracic vertebra and b) the billets are too far back and will pull the saddle onto the shoulder in motion.

6. Saddle Straightness

Straightness means that the center of the saddle is in alignment with your horse’s spine.  Horses are by nature uneven. Most horses have a left shoulder that is larger and more developed than their right shoulder.  The larger shoulder kicks the saddle over to the other side during motion.

A rider who sits unevenly can compress the stuffing more on one side of the saddle, and drag it over to that side.

A crooked rider resulting from the saddle slipping.
This rider is sitting on a saddle which has shifted to the right – presumably having been moved by the larger left shoulder during movement.

7. Saddle Length (see image #5 above)

The length of the saddle support area will determine how long the panels must be.

The saddle must sit behind the shoulder. A saddle that is too long often will get driven forward into the shoulder. The saddle cannot extend past the last floating rib at the 18th thoracic vertebra.

8. Tree Angle

The angle of the tree (at the tree points for the gullet plate) must be adjusted to match the angle of the horse’s shoulder.  As the horse moves, his shoulder rotates upward and backwards. Check if the angle of the piping on the saddle matches the angle of your horse’s shoulder.  If it does, the angle of your saddle’s tree is correctly adjusted for your horse.

The angle of this saddle is the same as the shoulder angle of the horse which is desirable.
The angle of this saddle is the same as the shoulder angle of the horse which is desirable.

9. Tree Width

The tree width at the gullet plate must be wide enough for the horse’s shoulders to rotate freely under the tree.

If the tree width is too wide, the entire saddle may rock or slip from side to side when the horse is being ridden, or the back half of the saddle may twist to one side or the other.

The three diagrams on the left illustrate identical tree angles with different tree widths; the three on the right illustrate identical tree widths with different tree angles (such as can be effected with the ‘self-adjusting’ trees of various companies – but changing angle without changing width is not always a good thing).
The three diagrams on the left illustrate identical tree angles with different tree widths; the three on the right illustrate identical tree widths with different tree angles (such as can be affected with the ‘self-adjusting’ trees of various companies – but changing angle without changing width is not always a good thing).

Tree width and tree angle need to be adjusted together. Adding flocking to or removing flocking from the vertical panels of the saddle will not solve the problem – it is the gullet plate that needs to be adjusted. Some of the self-adjustable gullet plates will accommodate angle adjustment, but will not allow width adjustment (over the wither area).

Hopefully these basic tips will help you ensure your horse has the freedom to perform at its potential.

Happy Riding!

» Further reading: Fitting, using and maintaining your saddle, from the Animal Health Trust and World Horse Welfare.

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Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of “Suffering in Silence” and “The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses”. 
Visit www.schleese.com

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