My Saddle Doesn't Fit My Horse...Now What?

My Saddle Doesn't Fit My Horse...Now What?

A saddle is a big investment, and finding one that helps you and your horse perform at your best can be a daunting process.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

How to find a fitter, buy or modify a saddle, and recognize the right fit

It’s clear from the dry pressure spots and general back soreness that the saddle you bought a decade ago for your now-retired show horse doesn’t fit your new prospect. But you don’t want to rush out and buy a new one for a horse whose body is still changing as he matures. 

How can you find a saddle that fits or modify your existing one for the time being? How do you know when you’ve found the right fit—for both you and your horse? It’s probably time to seek a saddle fitter’s help.

Finding a Saddle Fitter

Mike Scott, an equine massage therapist and Master Saddlers Association--certified saddle fitter based in South Carolina, has trained extensively with saddlers in England and the United States. He opened his own School of Saddle Fitting and Flocking in 2006. He explains that while there are no standard qualifications for calling oneself a “saddle fitter,” in the U.K. fitters can get certified with the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) and in the United States with the Master Saddlers Association (MSA) program. 

Some saddle fitters are affiliated with certain brands, selling one company’s saddles to their clients—these are known as company reps. “The MSA claims to be independent but trains their fitters to sell a certain brand of saddle,” Scott says, adding that the course he teaches is an independent program involving all types of saddles and focusing on equine anatomy and physiology. “We are not claiming to diagnose physical problems but to be aware of what is going on with a horse—to determine whether a problem is caused by the saddle or if it’s something we need to get a veterinarian involved with to help the horse.”

When choosing a saddle fitter, ask about that individual’s credentials and where he or she went to school or with whom he or she trained. “If they trained with a fitter or saddler who knows what they are doing and did an internship, worked in the shop, and gained experience and understanding, they certainly could be a good saddle fitter without a piece of paper stating their certification,” says Scott.

Sarah Odell Fredrickson is a horse trainer and equine massage therapist who became a saddle fitter through MSA to help her clients. She trains and rehabs horses of all breeds and disciplines at her farm on Bainbridge Island, Washington. “While rehabbing and reschooling horses, I started saddle fitting because that is part of the whole picture,” she says. 

If you know your saddle doesn’t fit but think it can be altered and improved, she suggests first going to your existing saddle company’s rep. If you’re in the market for an entirely new saddle, she says to contact several brands’ reps and try different saddle lines to see which best fits both you and the horse.

“It is worth the time and investment in demo rides and fittings to find a saddle that fits and feels good for you,” says Odell Fredrickson. “Know yourself and your horse, so you can help that person identify issues they can work on. Any good saddle company will be able to accommodate most if not all the many shapes of horses’ backs with their panel options. The saddle fit for you and the ride it gives you is very personal and should be given attention. A bad fit for your body will affect your ride and work against you and your horse.”

The Importance of the Team Effort

Now that you’ve pinned down a saddle fitter to help, make sure you have a strong veterinarian-led team that communicates well. Beyond your vet and fitter, his might also include your trainer, the body worker/therapist, chiropractor, and farrier. “That’s a way to ensure we can do the best for the horse,” Scott says.

This is because there’s more to the saddle fit picture than just the tack. For example, says Odell Fredrickson, the saddle might take the blame when the actual problem stems from the horse’s long toes and low heels or a club foot causing an altered gait and, with it, the saddle to shift. Or, sometimes the problem is a rider with heavy hands that never lets the horse reach for the bit. 

“You will see things like pockets (atrophied or overly tight muscles) behind the withers, ewe necks, and hunters bumps from those situations, but the saddle becomes the culprit,” she says. “If you address the saddle and not the actual cause you’ll only get so far with saddle fitting. That being said, I’ve worked with horses where it really is just the saddle causing problems, and proper fitting helped tremendously.”

So, it takes a team effort to determine what’s best for each horse. The veterinarian can rule out lameness or other issues; the farrier might need to balance the feet; and equine body workers can help relieve muscle soreness throughout the process.

This article continues in the June 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Subscribe now to find out what your options for an ill-fitting saddle are – from modifying your current saddle, to tips for shopping for a new one.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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