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Finding the right saddle for your horse is a mix of high-tech and hands-on approaches

Lectures on how to fit a saddle are staples at equine expos and for good reason: It’s a complicated subject to master.

When you try on a pair of shoes, you know right away whether they feel good on your feet. Your horse knows if his saddle fits, too, but unfortunately he can’t tell you what he thinks—at least not in words. So it’s your job to try to see through the fancy padding and accessories and determine whether the underlying structure fits his back correctly.

As you likely know, it’s much better (and more cost-effective) to fit a saddle correctly than to try to fix a back-pain issue or retrofit an existing saddle. To that end, we asked three leading researchers on the subject of saddle fit to share their latest findings and advice. 

Saddle-Fit Basics

Let’s start with a brief refresher course on the ABCs of saddle fit. Traditional saddles are built on a “tree,” which is the saddle’s skeleton. Trees come in various materials and designs, as well as different lengths and widths. To fit well, a tree’s shape must mirror the horse’s back conformation: wither height; back length, width, and outline; and shoulder angles and prominence.

Just as too-narrow or too-wide shoes hurt your feet, a saddle whose tree is too narrow or too wide impairs your horse’s back. Insufficient wither clearance causes pain. A tree that’s too narrow or whose shape doesn’t suit the horse’s back might cause the saddle to “bridge”—-putting pressure mostly on the front and back instead of distributing it throughout the saddle’s panels. A short-backed horse with a too-long saddle tree might experience uncomfortable pressure in the loin region. If the tree points (the downward projections off the front of an English saddle) are too narrow for your horse’s shoulders, they can hamper his shoulder blades’ freedom and his forelimbs’ forward movement. Even billet (cinch) strap placement matters: If they don’t coincide with where the “girth groove” on his barrel naturally wants to position the girth or cinch, the saddle might shift or he might become girthy or cold-backed.

Of these fitting problems, “bridging is probably the most common,” says researcher Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, who heads the Clinical Orthopaedics department at the Animal Health Trust’s Centre for Equine Studies, in Suffolk, England. 

In addition to the problems of tree width and length (the latter generally being a too-long saddle), her list of other common saddle-fit faux pas include:

  • Saddle tipping forward or backward instead of sitting level;
  • Gullet or channel (the space between the panels that allows clearance for the spine) too narrow; and
  • Compressed, lumpy, or asymmetrical flocking (the wool stuffing in the panels of many English saddles).

Well-meaning riders can make matters worse by doing the following, says Dyson:

  • Using saddle pads that put pressure on the horse’s spine; and
  • Spoiling the fit of an otherwise well-fitting saddle by using inappropriate or too many saddle pads.

A saddle must fit both rider and horse. Dyson says the placement of some stirrup bars, knee rolls, or thigh blocks forces the rider into an incorrect position—which increases the horse’s risk of developing back pain. Ditto for a saddle whose seat is too small for the rider’s bottom. (Tip: The deeper the seat, the larger the seat size might have to be to accommodate the rider.)

The anatomy of a Western saddle is somewhat different. A Western saddle tree contacts the horse’s back along two bars, which rest on either side of the spine. Besides bar length, gullet width, and wither clearance, there are three bar contours that determine a Western saddle’s fit: rocker (overall front-to-back curvature of the saddle), twist (back-to-front curvature of the individual bars), and flare (upward curvature at the front and rear of the bars). Although the terms and structure differ from those of English saddles, the fit principles remain the same.

You can get a high-end saddle that fits poorly and a cheap saddle that fits well.

Dr. Kevin Haussler

Calculating Comfort

Gone, mostly, are the days when one saddle had to make do for an entire string of horses, supported by a tack room arsenal of pads and other accessories to achieve fit. As recent findings indicate, proper saddle fit is even more crucial than once thought.

Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, of Colorado State University (CSU), in Fort Collins, is the lead developer of a pressure-sensing device called an instrumented saddle. The weighted wooden saddle is equipped with a force transducer that simultaneously creates and measures localized pressure on the horse’s back as the horse moves on a high-speed treadmill. Researchers and veterinarians can -measure any aberrations in movement by video analysis or assess induced lameness by trotting the horse across force plates.

Indeed, an ill-fitting saddle can lead to altered gaits or outright lameness, Haussler says. The big question he wants to answer: “What specific threshold of saddle pressure is detrimental and increases the risk for back pain?” 

To that end, besides the instrumented saddle, Haussler uses thermography to measure temperature changes in the horse’s skin and visual assessment of sweat patterns beneath the saddle. He also notes any behavioral changes that might signal discomfort or pain: “How does the horse greet us? Does he come forward eagerly, or does he retreat to the back of the stall? Is he pinning his ears when the girth tightens?” 

Advice for the Saddle Shopper

First, know that equine back pain is an equal-opportunity malady. Dyson and Haussler emphasize that proper saddle fit is essential, whether you ride Western or English. 

To find the right fit, “you need the horse and the saddle together in the same place,” Haussler says. “Ideally the saddler comes out and brings lots of models and sizes for you to try (test ride), and the people are qualified to give fitting advice.” 

Dyson concurs on the importance of the test ride. A saddle that appears to fit when the horse is stationary might suffer by comparison when he starts moving. And some horses aren’t shy about making their opinions known: They’ll move freely forward in some saddles but not others, and a few horses will refuse to move at all if the saddle isn’t to their liking.

Haussler reminds riders that the main purpose of the saddle pad for an English saddle—Western pads are thicker—is to absorb sweat and keep the underside of the saddle clean. 

“If the saddle fits, you should need only a very thin pad,” he says. “Putting extra socks on won’t make a too-large shoe fit better. And a pad should not be the primary way of protecting the horse’s back.” 

Look for ample clearance over the withers and plenty of room for the shoulder blades, Haussler advises. Positioned correctly on the horse’s back, the saddle should sit level, with the deepest point of the seat over the horse’s center of gravity, just behind the withers, he says.

When it comes to fit, don’t be swayed by lavish advertising and high price tags. “You can get a high-end saddle that fits poorly and a cheap saddle that fits well,” Haussler says. “Some ‘custom’ saddles are made only for the rider’s hind end. And some manufacturers don’t seem to understand how a horse’s back moves.

“Saddle quality is not the problem. The problem is lack of standardization,” he continues. “If I wear a size 10 shoe, I can be reasonably sure that a size 10 will fit me, regardless of the manufacturer. But every saddle manufacturer makes its own lines and sizing.” That’s why, unfortunately, finding the right saddle inevitably involves some trial and error, he concludes.

After You Buy the Saddle 

The best-fitting saddle can cause your horse discomfort if you don’t position it properly on his back—a surprisingly -common rider error, says Haussler.

“Many English riders slide the saddle too far forward. It should be at the back edge of the shoulder blades. A Western saddle is positioned over the shoulder blades, but they should be able to move freely under the front of the tree,” he says.

Periodic saddle-fit checks are a must, Dyson says: “There can be dramatic changes in back shape within two months, depending on work history, the fit of the saddle, and dietary management.” 

In addition, flocking in an English saddle compresses over time and might occasionally need restuffing by a qualified saddler.

On the Horizon 

When she spoke with us, Dyson hadn’t yet finished analyzing the data from her two latest saddle-fit studies, but she was willing to reveal the subject matter. 

In the first study, “We are assessing how horses’ back shapes change during a half-hour exercise period,” she says. In the other, “We are assessing how horses’ back shapes change over time, by remeasuring them every two months over a period of one year.”

There can be dramatic changes in back shape within two months, depending on work history, the fit of the saddle, and dietary management.

Dr. Sue Dyson

Another researcher who has studied saddle fit and pressure extensively is Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRVCS. Clayton, who holds the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and lectures worldwide on subjects pertaining to equine biomechanics and sport-horse performance. One of her areas of study is the use of electronic pressure mats to measure the force and pressure saddles create. 

This sophisticated technology can offer insights into a saddle’s effects on the horse’s back, supplying valuable fitting guidance. For example: “If a saddle bridges, it’s often because the tree size is wrong,” she says. Trying a size wider might alleviate the problem. On the other hand, “a tree that is too wide will put more pressure close to the spine. You’ll see ridges (of pressure) close to the spinous processes,” Clayton says.

For his part, Haussler hopes to expand his instrumented saddle research but, when we spoke to him, he hadn’t yet secured the necessary funding. In a 2011 study, however, Haussler and fellow CSU researchers tested an equine-back--measuring system developed by Australian stock saddle maker Dennis Lane. Lane’s Equine Back Profiling System (EBPS) consists of 30 contoured “cards” mirroring various equine wither profiles and back shapes. Using the EBPS, the researchers mapped the backs of 216 mature Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Warmbloods, and Morgans used for showing, reining, dressage, cutting, and jumping. They found that the EBPS cards matched the backs of 87% of the horses and that the horses could be classified into three or four basic body types. 

“The EBPS has the potential to provide a standardized method to quantify the shape of a horse’s trunk related to saddle fit,” Haussler says. (Just think: Maybe someday you’ll be able to say, “My horse takes a size 12 narrow saddle.”)

But that’s not all for Haussler. He’s looking at the uses of laser therapy in treating horses with sore backs (usually caused by a combination of poor saddle fit and intense exercise, he says) and applying the technology used in the Lameness -Locator—a system of body-mounted inertial sensors that provide quantified, location-specific unsoundness data—to his saddle-fit studies.

“I want to attach inertial sensors to the rider, the saddle, and the horse’s back to assess movement differences in the three different components,” he says. “That’s the next step after we figure out some of the saddle-pressure issues.”

But wait, there’s more …

“I think, in the future, we’ll be able to have (equestrian-related) technology on our iPhones. Siri (Apple’s computer-voice “digital assistant”) will be able to tell us whether our horses are lame or not (in response to saddle fit, among other causes). She’ll be able to tell us whether we’re a good rider or not.”

Saddle-fit feedback and riding critiques to boot? Someday there might indeed be an app for that.