Home › Buying a Saddle to suit the Horse

Buying a dressage or show saddle, for some, is not a joyful experience. A number of riders end up with a saddle that at first seems comfortable for the horse but, within weeks to months, is causing pain and behavioural problems. Months later and a trip or two to a saddler, things are either under control or, because of saddle incompatibility with the horse, the horse is unhappy and behaving badly, and the rider is about to take up jogging. Below is the first of a two part series on selecting a new saddle.

Why start with selecting a saddle that is comfortable for your horse rather than yourself? If the horse is not comfortable then ultimately it’s behaviour will deteriorate to the point that you will never get a good ride anyway. The rider is more likely to accommodate to a saddle that is not completely ideal for the rider than the horse is to a badly fitting saddle. Ultimately, however, both the comfort of the rider and the horse are very important.

Comfort for the horse is dictated by the placement of the saddle, the saddle fit with respect to the withers and shape of the spine, the comfort of the panels, the length of the saddle and closeness of the saddle to the horse (and of course, the way that the person rides).

Horses change shape: as they move, with the amount of fat cover, with their degree of fitness and muscle development, with pregnancy, with chiropractic and muscular problems of the spine, and with age. Saddles need to be such that they can be adjusted to accommodate for these changes.

Before any saddle is fitted you should have your horse’s spine checked and treated if necessary. Ideally use a university trained veterinary chiropractor who will principally work on the vertebrae of the spine and the spinal muscles. The veterinary chiropractor will usually also recommend exercises to further improve spinal posture and function so that when the saddle is fitted your horse is in its most ideal shape.

Make use of a trained saddle fitter

It is mandatory that the saddle is placed over the correct part of the horse’s back when fitted. Placed incorrectly the saddle will cause restriction of the shoulder blades and move excessively or throw the rider’s weight back into the saddle seat, or there will be excessive weight distribution towards the horse’s loins.

The saddle fitter will not only check that the placement of the saddle is correct but also check that there is adequate clearance of the spine, and that the gullet, channel and panel shape are suited to the horse. In brief, there should be good clearance of the tips of the wither under the pommel when the rider is standing in the stirrups and the gullet panels should conform to the wither without squeezing it.

The panels, or underside of the saddle, should be in good even contact with the horse when the horse is in a working frame. There should be adequate clearance for the tips of the spine along the channel of the underside of the saddle. The saddle should be of a length that keeps the riders weight forward of the loins of the horse.

When fitting a saddle that is flocked with wool or polycotton it should be kept in mind that the flocking is going to settle and move a little and so allowances have to be made. This is especially important in regard to the clearance of the wither.

Fitting the wither: The gullet
(or front of the channel under the tree points)

The gullet, or the part of the underside of the saddle which sits over the wither, must be of an angle and width and shape that compliments the wither. The gullet shape is dictated by the angle and width of the tree points and the thickness and shape of the padding overlying them. Saddles that are too narrow in the gullet are one of the most common causes of back pain. (Second only to saddles that are fitted too far forward).

Ideally most horses should have their saddle checked every three months or so in case adjustments need to be made to compensate for changes in wither shape with the changes in fat and muscle cover that occur as diet and exercise programs change.Having your saddler regularly remove or add flocking to adjust for changes in wither shape is impractical in most situations, for a number of reasons.

Adjustable gullet systems. In the real world adjustable gullet systems are usually necessary for maintaining good saddle fit. Several such systems are now available. Ainsley, Bates, Kieffer and Laser all have saddles with adjustable gullet systems. The Bates “Easy change gullet system”, Ainsley adjustable head system and the Laser “InfiniTree” system are ones that can be altered at home by the horse owner.

The gullet of Kieffer saddles, like the rest of the tree, can be changed in shape by heat treatment. (The saddles usually need to be sent to Sydney to have this done.) The steel brace in the head of normal English type trees can be squashed or expanded to suit different wither shapes but this usually voids the gullet plate warranty of the tree as the steel is then much more likely to crack or fracture. Some spring tree saddles have alternate gullet plates that can be fitted by a saddler. However the availability of the correct plate is often a problem.

The saddle tree

Dressage saddle trees are usually of traditional English type (Laminated beechwood re-enforced by spring steel) or highly developed, mouldable plastics. Most are partially flexible which allows the saddle to twist a little as the horse bends to each side. Saddle trees should conform to the shape of the horse’s back and should support the panels that underlie them (ie the saddle seat panels that extend out from below the saddle seat should be braced from the saddle tree so that they do not just bend upwards when pressure is put on them by the horse’s back. Saddle trees that kick up excessively at the back (banana saddles) often cause excessive pressure which results in pain at the back of the saddle seat.

The panels

The panels are the underside of the saddle which act as a cushion between the horse and rider. The comfort of the panels is dictated by their filling or flocking type, hardness, shape and surface area.

Panel softness and ability to absorb concussion. Different fillings are available. The most comfortable for the horse are the air panels. These are able to conform to the changes in the horse’s top line shape, as it moves and changes posture. Those commonly available (FLAIR system) are also nice and soft and comfortable, and yet are not so thick as to cause excessive motion between the rider and the horse.

The Flair system can be fitted to most saddles and requires inflation by a trained fitter, with the saddle on the horse and rider in the saddle. A simplified air bag system (CAIR – Bates) has recently been developed and offers very good comfort for the horse. The CAIR system does not require special inflation and is suited to a wide range of horses and riders.

Next to the air panels, the best, commonly used filling or flocking is synthetic wool. Often some of this white woolly material is seen protruding from the underside of the panels. If not over packed it offers good comfort for the horse where the panel surface area is adequate. This type of flocking can be adjusted by your saddler to suit the shape of you horse and also tends to move a little to conform better to the horse’s back.

Broad, flat panelled, gel-foam fitted panels can be very comfortable for horses, but in general, foam or felt filled panels are less comfortable than wool or air filled panels. Regular foam or felt filled panels suit a small number of horses very well but in many instances are associated with back soreness.

Often the angle of the foam panels is not suited to the horse’s back and as a result pressure points are commonly created towards the outside of the saddle seat. Felt and foam panels are difficult or impractical to adjust and thus are a problem if the horse changes shape with muscle cover, fat cover or age.

Panel surface area. Broad panels distribute the weight of the saddle over a greater surface area. This reduces the pressure under the saddle and reduced pressure simply means less damage to the horses back. It’s just like the difference between the pressure under high heeled shoes as compared to that of flat heeled shoes.

Panel shape. The panels of the seat area should conform to the shape of the horse’s back. In most cases a reasonably flat panel will be appropriate as this is the shape of the top of the rib cage that is the underlying support for the saddle.

Girth points

The importance of girth point placement is very often overlooked.  Inappropriate girth point placement can cause the saddle to continually move forward or back. Adjustable Y systems or similar, with the most forward girth point coming off the tree point of the saddle, are recommended. The points should then be adjusted according to the chest shape of your horse. Most have a girth notch into which the girth tends to lie.

If you have covered all of the above points and have selected saddles that suit your horse reasonably well, then you are ready for the next step – selecting the saddle that is comfortable for yourself.