A correctly fitted saddle allows both human and horse to move freely and in balance. And while a horse might withstand an ill-fitting saddle short term, over time, pain, behavioural issues and poor performance may result.

Ultimately, riders should seek help from a professional to find the best for their needs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do some of the preliminary legwork themselves by following a few fundamental fitting principles.

Since 1986, Schleese Saddlery Service of Holland Landing, Ontario, has become an international leader in the English saddlery, particularly in creating products for female equestrians. Founder and director of global education and sales, Jochen Schleese, has developed a nine-point assessment system (below). “The nine-point checklist is very much a do-it-yourself thing,” said Sabine Schleese, director of corporate affairs. “It’s a self-diagnosis and then you work with a saddle fitter to address any issues.”

And while the lingo may be a bit different from English to western, fitting boils down to the same general concepts. Having built and sold western saddles for 50 years, Vic Bennett of Sherwood Park, Alberta, said, he too, has customers evaluate fit on their own. “It’s a question of making an assessment and deciding if you have a problem. If you don’t have a problem, don’t look for one.”

Proper Position

First, the saddle needs to be positioned on the strongest part of the horse’s back, often called the saddle support area, over the ribcage. “You want to fit as much of the horse’s back without poking him up in the front or at the back in the loin,” said Vic.

With the horse standing square on level ground, place the saddle, without a pad, on the withers and slide it back until it settles into a spot that feels like “home.” It should be level, parallel to the ground with the deepest part of the seat in the centre, and symmetrically balanced from side to side.

An English saddle’s tree points (the parts of the tree that extend into the saddle flap) must be about five centimetres (two inches) behind the shoulder joints. Same for the western saddle’s bar fronts (the bars are the horizontal parts of the tree that rest on the horse’s back to distribute the rider’s weight). Many riders place the saddle too far forward, causing shoulder movement interference and girth/cinch pinching at the sensitive skin near the elbow.

At the back end, the bars or panels can’t extend beyond the last rib (the 18th thoracic vertebrae) or the rider will sit on a part of the horse’s back that has no anatomical support. With riders by and large becoming heavier over the years, and horses being bred with shorter backs, “It’s kind of a disparity between the ultimate goal,” said Sabine. “You want to make sure the rider is comfortable in a seat that’s big enough, and you want to make sure the panels don’t go past the saddle support area.” Therefore, it isn’t uncommon for Schleese Saddlery to create a saddle for a client with an 18-inch seat and 17-inch panels “just to make sure it works for both parties because the top of the saddle is for the rider, the bottom is for the horse,” she explained.

Wither Clearance

Two to three finger-widths from the underside of the pommel to both the top and sides of the withers is a good amount of clearance in an English saddle, and allows for unimpeded shoulder rotation, said Sabine.

With western saddles, the amount of room between the swell (also known as the fork) and the withers often depends on the riding discipline, explained Vic. For example, riders on cutting horses want generous clearance for a high swell and horn placement so when the horse drops down to work the rider “still has saddle in front of them.” Alternatively, ropers want to fit the saddle as close as possible to avoid the torque on the horn. But, for the average pleasure rider, Vic said, “If you have clearance, well then, you’ve got clearance. Whether it’s an inch, half an inch or six inches, you’re not poking the wither,” he said. “One thing’s for sure is you don’t want any pressure on the wither. No clearance will hurt and damage your horse.”

Gullet Width

The gullet, the channel between the panels/bars, is another important element of saddle fit. The gullet should always be wide enough to allow the sensitive spine full freedom from pressure. However, too-wide and the saddle will pitch forward, pinching and hindering movement of the shoulders; too narrow and the saddle will tip at the cantle, putting pressure on the horse’s back.

Tree Angle

The tree angle (English) or bar angle (western) should correspond to the angle of the horse’s shoulder to allow its rotation up and back during movement. In his fitting tips, Jochen likens a proper tree angle to two sliding doors. Properly aligned, the shoulder and the tree point will slide easily past one another; misaligned, they will jam.

On the topic of interchangeable gullet plates in English saddles, Sabine said they are “good to a certain extent, but they only change the angle of the gullet, they don’t change the width.” And, as Jochen stresses in his fitting tips, “The tree width and angle must be adjusted together.”

Panel/Bar Contact

The panels/bars must sit on the muscles on either side of the spinal column, making even contact along the back to properly distribute the rider’s weight. The surface should be smooth without bumps or uneven areas.

Western saddles have a bit more leeway, said Vic, who likes to see the bars raised off the back slightly at the front and back edges and in the loin area to allow for movement.

Finding one that works for your horse may turn out to be a long process. But even a little bit of knowledge can go a long way to helping you narrow down the possibilities before you make the big purchase.

Schleese’s 9-Point Fit Checklist

1. Balance: Is the center of the saddle (seat area) parallel to the ground while on the horse’s back?

2. Wither Clearance: Is the clearance all around the withers two to three fingers?

3. Gullet Channel Width: Is the gullet wide enough (three to five fingers) to not interfere with the spinal processes or musculature of the horse’s back?

4. Full Panel Contact: Does the panel touch the horse’s back evenly all the way from front to back?

5. Billet Alignment: Do the billets hang perpendicular towards the girthing area of the horse?

6. Saddle Length: Does your saddle sit in the saddle support area?

7. Saddle Straightness: Does the saddle fall off to one side when viewed from back or front?

8. Saddle Tree Angle: Are the panel tree points parallel to the shoulder angle?

9. Saddle Tree Width: Is the tree wide enough for the saddle to fit during dynamic movement of the horse?

Ideally, saddle fit should be assessed every three to six months.

Physical Clues Your Saddle Doesn’t Fit:

  • White hair spots
  • Skin sores
  • Bumps, temporary swellingsRuffled, worn hair
  • Abnormal sweat patterns such as dry spots on the back
  • Uneven saddle pad sweat distribution (dry areas may indicate pressure points)
  • Atrophied wither or back muscles
  • Tender back

Indications of Poor Saddle Fit Include:

  • Tail swishing
  • Ear pinning
  • Teeth grinding
  • Head tossing
  • Bucking
  • Stiffness
  • Resistance to grooming, saddling
  • Persistent lameness
  • Under saddle: reluctance to move forward or perform tasks, shortened stride, rushing transitions

Adjustability Comes to Western Saddles

English saddles are way more adjustable than ever before, but what about western saddles?

“Not so much,” admits Vic Bennett. “I can do it, but it’s a big job. I will reshape the bars to conform to certain horses. I’m doing it right now with several saddles, so it’s not foreign to me, but it’s not my first approach.”

However, things are changing. For instance, English saddle specialists Schleese Saddlery Service recently entered the western market with a model called the Devin (shown above). Although geared toward female riders, it has interchangeable ground seats (the part of the saddle the rider sits astride) to fit males as well.

“Up to now, the adjustability of western saddles has been very limited,” said Sabine Schleese. “So, we’ve developed a saddle line where that becomes easier to accommodate. It’s adjustable for the horse as well, which is pretty unique in the western world.”

Before its launch in September 2016, 600 Schleese clients had already signed up to buy the Devin, which sells for about $4,000. Sabine noted many are dressage riders seeking a comfortable trail/pleasure saddle.

Putting the Cart, er, the Saddle Before the Horse?

Riders often approach fitting “backwards,” said Vic Bennett. “People buy horses for every reason. You’ll hear about their disposition, how much money they won, how pretty they are, their colour, their mane and tail, but never a comment about how good their back is for a saddle,” he said. “If you make that assessment of the horse’s back, as suitable for a saddle from the outset, we would have much less trouble and much less discussion about this saddle fit issue.”

Vic suggests taking a “very critical look” at the animal’s conformation related to saddle fit, particularly if your horse will be competing or ridden for long hours.

“If you’ve identified a problem, then you need to go to somebody to figure out how to circumvent or address it,” he added. “The other approach is endlessly putting saddles on and you haven’t even recognized the problem.”

Vic said it also bothers him that he frequently doesn’t get to see the horse during the fitting process. “[The owner] can’t bring the horse to the saddle maker, that would be too hard,” he said wryly. “But in the meantime, there are comments from the horse shoer, the veterinarian, the massage therapist, the trainer. Everybody has their opinion. The only poor sucker who never saw the horse was the guy who built the saddle for it.”