Home › Common Saddle Fitting Errors

The most common saddle fit error is to place the saddle too far forward. A saddle placed too far forward has the front of the panels sitting over the back of the shoulder blade. This produces interference with shoulder extension, reducing the reach of the foreleg. Often there is a shortness and choppiness of stride which can mimic navicular disease. Stumbling and mild inco-ordination can also result.

Often, when the saddle is too far forward, it is too tight over the withers and this in itself causes tense and painful wither muscles which don’t work very well, thus the short choppy gait. Sitting the saddle over the shoulder blades makes fitting the saddle difficult because at this location the cross section of the horse is wide, and thus a very wide gullet is needed. The saddle therefore wants to slip back into the right space, thus making a breast plate necessary to keep it forward.

With the saddle in this forward position we usually have bridging (or 4 point contact) of the panels. This decreases the effectiveness of the panels and contributes to the development of muscle soreness under the front and rear of the saddle.

Lastly a saddle that is too far forward is usually sloping up hill, which will throw the riders weight onto the saddle seat and behind the horse’s centre of gravity, or necessitates a riser pad to make the saddle level. (Often when the rider is on a horse with riser pads the saddle is still uphill). Where the weight of the rider is thrown backwards, this further contributes to soreness under the saddle seat.

The world wide standard for saddle placement in a 16 hand horse is that the front of the panels, at the tree point of the saddle, be aligned 2-3 fingers width behind the top of the shoulder blade.

The next biggest problem seen with saddle fit is the use of saddles which are too narrow in the gullet for the horse. These saddles pinch the muscle of the wither, damaging the muscle and causing pain. The initial result is that horses drop their back and avoid using the muscles of the wither.

Over time the muscles waste away under the front of the saddle, the saddle falls forward as the rider posts at a trot, and then a front riser pad is put under the saddle. The pressure from the saddle and front riser then gets the damage cycle going again and makes the problem worse.

A similar effect is seen when the shape of the front of the saddle is nicely matched to the wither shape but the saddle panels are padded too high into the gullet. High up in the wither there is little muscle between the saddle and the bone of the spine.

As the riders weight comes down on the front of the saddle the muscle is compressed against the spinous processes of the wither and is damaged. This situation is commonly seen with old styled stock saddles, but also with some over-packed dressage saddles.

A saddle which is too wide in front may actually have a similar effect too. The classic situation is where the wide saddle drops onto the tips of the vertebrae of the wither. This is usually quickly recognised (by the sores it creates) and rectified. However saddles that do not drop as badly, or that have cut back gullets, may hide the fact that the saddle is too wide.

As these saddles fall forwards the upper part of the gullet pinches half way up the wither and at the spine under the stirrup bar region of the saddle, causing a similar effects to the narrow saddle. Unlike the narrow saddle, the rider will usually feel himself or herself falling forward when posting.

The next biggest problem with saddle fit is the lengthways shape of the saddle tree. The shape of the front of the tree of the saddle basically dictates the fit of the saddle over the wither. The lengthways shape of the tree dictates how the saddle will suit the shape of the back under the length of the saddle. It needs to be matched to the shape of the horses back when the horse is in motion.

Many factors come into this, too many for this discussion. However, the common problem seen is that the shape of the saddle tree is too curved when compared to the shape of the horse’s back. Even a mild mismatch is a problem. The extreme is the “banana saddle”.

Saddles that are banana shaped (the panels under them are quite curved, rather than flat) usually cause excessive pressure over the back under the middle of the saddle. Problem saddles of this type can be shown to rock forward and back when put on a bare back. The damage these cause can be severe and they tend to produce even more serious restriction of the vertebrae of the spine than do bridging saddles.

Very often horses which are ridden in saddles with curved trees develop “kissing spines” and associated vertebral back soreness. By producing excessive pressure under the middle of the saddle, curved trees usually induce horses to drop their back away from the pressure, producing a hollow, stiff back, muscle spasm around the loin or kidney region, and poor engagement of the hindquarters. The long-term result is often a horse that is perpetually stiff and dropped in the back.

Painful muscles in the saddle seat area are also a major problem that occurs with poorly fitting saddles. This has numerous causes including rider imbalance, poor stuffing of panels, poor contact of the panels with the horse in between the wither and saddle seat, saddles angling uphill and so on. Much of the problem here is a matter of pressure versus area.

Namely too much pressure created by the weight and movement of the rider compared to the surface area of the support (namely the panels and the tree that supports them). Saddles with flat, wide panels under the saddle seat usually cause much less muscle damage than those with neat, small, “stylish” panels. Air panels usually spread the weight most evenly and most comfortably. (FLAIR  or CAIR)

Another common, and often neglected, problem of saddle fitting is girth placement. Placing the saddle in the correct place can have one significant cost: the girth may go around the abdomen where the abdomen is not the same diameter at the front and back of the girth. This usually causes the girth to move forwards, which in turn brings the saddle forward and onto the shoulder blades.  A tree point girth strap will often be needed.  Many late model saddles havethis built in or haveallowance for this.