It’s one of the most important pieces of tack riders use, and yet too often we don’t pay enough attention to if it’s the right one or the right fit for us or our horse.

We’re talking about the saddle, of course. It’s an expensive piece of sporting equipment than can run into the thousands of dollars, we sit in it for every ride, and our horses must perform to their best ability while wearing it. A poorly-fitting saddle can contribute to back soreness and also behavioral issues.

Ontario-based Joe Boustead has been a saddle fitter for over 30 years. His company, Canterbury Outpost Saddlery Service, is an independent, meaning he’s not affiliated with a particular brand of saddle and therefore he’s worked on pretty much every type of saddle you can imagine. Horse-Canada spoke to Joe about the work he does, and what owners and riders should know about getting their saddle fitted.

Horse-Canada: What are the most common issues you see in an ill-fitting saddle?

Joe Boustead: Mainly back pain for the horse, lower back pain especially, followed closely by soreness in the wither area. Bad-fitting saddles can cause bucking, rearing, refusals to move forward off of the leg, and not standing at the mounting block or in the crossties.

How does a poorly fitting saddle cause back soreness?

Pressure points are the most common. Too low in the rear (caused by a ‘chair seat’ by the rider) causes pressure on the lower back. Too low in the front pinches the withers.

How often should an owner have their saddle fitted?

Every six months is probably ideal, but many factors can alter that, including injuries or stall rest that can cause muscle atrophy, or moving to a new location, a new exercise regime, new trainer, weight gain or loss.

What are the signs that your saddle needs to be looked at or is badly fitted?

There are several signs, but these are the most common:

  • refusal to move forward
  • bucking and rearing
  • biting at your feet or acting up in the crossties
  • stride gets shortened
  • feeling as though you are tipping forward or back or twisting in the saddle
  • rub marks on the horse’s back
  • horse can’t engage its back or hind end
  • back drops before saddle goes on

A poorly-fitted saddle can cause a host of behavioural issues such as refusal to move forward, bucking, rearing and snapping at your feet.

Can one saddle ever last a horse through its entire life?

Honestly, that is a hard question to answer because it will depend on how much change the horse goes through during its growing years and then the type of training it will receive over time. It also depends on the brand of saddle, as some are very adjustable and might be able to be with the horse during its entire lifetime and just be adjusted to fit. And if the rider changes discipline that will obviously require a new saddle, or if the rider’s body changes over time. That being said, I’ve seen saddles go through a horse’s entire career while others have to be changed out every two years.

What about western saddles?

Western saddles are a challenge to fit as they cannot be stuffed out like a wool-flocked English saddle. Custom trees are often needed, or shim pads. Sometimes, depending on the tree, we can add shims directly to the tree itself to fill in gaps somewhat like a wool adjustment.

Joe advises that your best bet is to approach a saddle fitter in your area so that you can discuss your particular situation. To find one, consult your local tack shop, or the brand website of your particular saddle. Most brands have their own exclusive fitters who travel various territories to do fittings. Some fitters will work on other saddle brands, depending on their contract. Word of mouth within your own local riding community also can be a reliable source!