Saddle Fitting Guide for English Style Saddles

by Maureen Webb

When you mention Saddle Fitting to many riders they only consider ONE thing, the angle of the tree at the front of the saddle which usually come in various sizes, narrow, medium, wide, extra-wide, etc. People wrongly assume that if you can get 3 fingers wither clearance with the rider on board then the saddle fits.

 

This guide shows the 12 essential points to check for a correctly fitting saddle for both horse and rider.

1. Saddle Tree Angle

The tree angle must be the same as the angle of the horse's shoulder at a point 2 to 3 inches behind the rear edge of the shoulder blade. This is determined by doing a wither tracing at this point and matching it to the angle of the tree of the saddle. The saddle must then be checked with a rider on board and a second person runs their flat hand from top to bottom of the front of the tree under the front panels. There should be an equal even pressure all the way down - not tighter at the top than the bottom or vice versa. If the saddle has a changeable gullet and it matches the wither tracing, adjustments should be made to the flock not the gullet bar.

2. Saddle Tree Width

This is one of the points of saddle fit that I see incorrectly fitted very often. The Tree width is the wideness of the tree at the front of the saddle, between the panels. It has nothing to do with tree angle. It is possible to have a horse that needs a wide tree width, but a narrow tree angle at the same time. Look at the 3 saddles in the photo. They are all sold as 'Wide' as the tree angles are the same but the bottom one has almost double the tree width between the top of the panels.

This tree width is important as the horse must be able to rotate the shoulder backwards without the tree being in the way. On a wide shouldered horse the wide saddle in the centre would prevent all rotation. The shoulder blade would hit the front of the tree and the points and the horse would soon start evasions such as being reluctant to do sharp turns, resistance going into trot and canter, Pig-rooting etc.

Saddles that are too narrow in either tree angle or width can cause hollows to develop behind the horse's shoulder. These hollows are caused by the death of the muscle fibres due to pressure and constant trapping between the shoulder blade and the tree.  This is NOT normal and would never be seen on an unbroken horse. If your horse is developing these hollows, get a different saddle QUICKLY. This muscle damage is permanent.

3. Wither Clearance

Most people know that a saddle must have 2 to 3 fingers wither clearance at the top of the withers, with the rider on board but did you know that it also has to have at least 2 fingers distance all around the withers, at the sides as well?

(This rule does not apply to hoop tree saddles, they should sit very close to the horse.)

4. Channel Width

The gullet must be wide enough not to interfere with the spinal processes or musculature of the horse's back (3-5 fingers), all the way from front to back.  Many very old saddles have a channel that is far too narrow especially towards the back.

Buy a saddle like the one on the right of the photo, NOT like the one on the left! 

5. Full Panel Contact

 The panel should be in full contact with the horse's back evenly all the way from front to back. This is determined by the shape of the tree from front to back. Saddle trees vary from flat, which suits a lot of cob types to banana shaped trees for older and sway backed horses, in the middle is a standard tree, with a gentle curve. It is vital that you choose the right shape for your horse or the weight will not be carried evenly on his back.
To test, saddle up with the girth done up and run your hand from front to back under each side of the panels. There should be even pressure all the way along, not less in the middle, more in the middle, etc.   

6. Panel Length

The rear of the panels should never sit behind the last rib of the horse when the saddle is in the correct position. To find this point, find where his hairlines come together in the area of his flank and draw a line straight up to his spine.

The loins must never carry any weight as they are the weakest part of the back. 

7. Saddle Straightness

 Horses are usually NOT symmetrical. Most horses have one shoulder that is bigger than the other, just as we are right or left handed. This is important as the back of the saddle will always be pushed by the larger shoulder to the side of the smaller shoulder and no matter how you ride, there is nothing you can do about it - unless you have the saddle re-fitted to that horse.
Sometimes, a saddle that is straight when standing, is not straight after it has been ridden in for a few minutes. This can be due to the rider, but is often due to the uneven shoulders. The saddle must be reflocked or a saddle cloth with pockets and shims used to balance out the unevenness.

8. Girth Point Alignment

  The girth points, when the saddle is positioned correctly on the horse should hang perpendicular to the ground when they are positioned to be in the girth groove of the horse. They must not be at an angle either forwards or backwards when the girth is done up. 
So many people have problems with saddles that constantly move forwards or backwards and many times this is due to the girth points being positioned either too far backwards or forwards on the saddle for that particular horse's girth groove.
Roly-Poly ponies almost always have a forward girth groove but its not only ponies, many quarter horses, arabs and warmbloods have a forward girth groove too.

The pony in this picture has a very short forward girth groove. The saddle will ALWAYS move to the position where the girth hangs vertically and in this case with this saddle, where the girthing points are too far back the saddle ends up on his shoulders!! For this pony the girth straps would need to be attached to the saddle much further forwards to stop this happening. The girth points can be moved on most sadddles, a fairly simple job for your saddler.

9. Saddle Balance

The text book rule is that the lowest part of the seat should be the centre on the saddle.

If the balance point of the saddle is too far forward the rider will feel like they are being tipped forward, if the balance point is too far back the rider will find they naturally sit in a chair position. However some disciplines and saddle styles do require the balance to be a little forward or back for example an Australian stock saddle used on a horse that is working cattle with a low head carriage and therefore riding on the forehand will benefit from a further back balance point while a jump saddle has a balance point further forward to enable the rider to stay balanced in a forward jump position.

By bringing a rider into better balance, the horse is more comfortable and able to move more freely as well.

10. Seat Twist and Seat Width

The Twist of the saddle is the part of the seat that is the narrowest.

Women often have problems with saddles rubbing and putting pressure on the 'bits' that are unmentionable. This prevents the rider from sitting deep and in comfort as the rider is constantly moving forwards and backwards to gain relief as the discomfort becomes more intense. I know as I have this problem with a great many saddles!!!

The problem is that most saddles are designed by men. Men have a distance between their seatbones of about 4" but women can vary from 4" to 8" and the wider apart your seatbones, the worse the problem becomes if the Twist is too narrow or high. The pubic bone is also much lower in women than in men. This causes pressure on the soft female bits if the twist is too high or too hard.

The seatbones are meant to sit on the seat of the saddle and with many saddles that I sit on, (my seatbones are 6.5" apart) that part of the seat is too narrow. My seatbones miss the seat altogether and are sitting on the ridge or with some saddles past the seat itself!! This then lowers the sensitive bits down onto the saddle as the saddle seat falls away the lower down you go. Your bits are then crunched against the narrow or high twist and it is hell after 20 minutes or so.

You must always choose a saddle that fits your own conformation in this area. I myself need a saddle with a wider twist, a shallow rise towards the pommel and a wider seat or I can't ride in it for very long! The saddle in the next photo would kill me!! It is very narrow where my seatbones sit – my seatbones would be wider than the seat in this area. The narrow, high upward curve of the twist would mush my bits. 

I could ride in this one though. 

11. Stirrup Bar Placement 

 

This is very important and the main reason why some riders really struggle to attain the shoulder/hip/heel alignment and a quiet lower leg. The fact is on many saddles they simply can't.

The stirrups will always want to hang vertically. It is the "Law of Gravity".

On most gp saddles and some dressage saddles the stirrup bar is positioned too far forward and the rider is forced into a chair seat as a result. In order to have shoulder/hip/heel alignment with these saddles the rider would have to bring the lower leg back but then the stirrup no longer hangs vertically, but slopes backwards as well. Then the rider goes to trot and with every rise and fall the leg swings back and forward in an effort to stand with a stirrup which is not aligned.

Meanwhile, the Instructor is shouting “Keep your lower leg still” but the rider cannot as it is impossible due to the stirrup bar position being too far forwards on the saddle.

If you want to do dressage at any level, make sure that the saddle you choose has the stirrup bar position far enough back for you to have a vertical stirrup leather when you are in the correct shoulder/hip/heel position. You will then find it easy – a miracle – and your lower leg will be still as well.

Many newer dressage saddles now feature extended stirrup bars as standard and a few brands have adjustable stirrup bars.

These next two photos show the same rider in two different saddles, one in a chair position and the other in near perfect alignment. 

12. Seat Size

 

The seat must be the correct size for the rider. 
The size of the seat must to be selected based on the weight and leg length of the rider and giving consideration to the saddle style, brand and model as well. Normally in flatter seat saddles the seat size could be smaller than in a deep seat one for the same rider. The rider should be able to place 3 fingers between their bum and the rear of the cantle, when sitting in his correct seat size saddle. The rider must also feel that they are sitting 'IN' the saddle, not perched 'ON' it and this aspect is very rider-shape dependent and only trying the saddle can decide if the saddle seat fits the rider.

 I hope that this has been useful and that it helps you to understand saddle fitting criteria, to choose a good saddle for your horse and yourself