Home › Improving Saddle Fit

Just replacing the saddle with a “better” one is usually not the answer. Even if it is a $5000 saddle. “Asking the horse” is also a very poor method. Even if the horse initially seems comfortable it may not be at all suitable.

New or different saddles usually put pressure on the horses back in different places to the old saddle. Often the different places are not yet sore, so initially the horse can be quite relieved and work a lot better. Over time new sore spots develop and the horse’s comfort goes out the window!

It’s a bit like us buying a new pair of shoes that looked great but were a little tight. They seemed fine for the first three weeks of continued use, and then we’ve reached a point where we just couldn’t put them on again because our feet were so sore. Horses are much the same with a new saddle that is not right for the horse.

Basically you need to seek the help of a well qualified saddle fitter (eg check the Horseland web site www.horseland.com.au) for Level 2 Australian Accredited Saddle Fitters or seek out a veterinary chiropractic practitioner with a special interest in saddle fitting at www.avca.com.au

If your saddle has a significant structural problem often replacing the saddle with an appropriate one will be the only solution. Some saddles will only need minor adjustment such as altering the panel stuffing or adjusting the gullet size. Such an adjustment can make a huge difference to the comfort and movement of a horse.

Where the saddle is too wide in the gullet or is uphill, front or back riser pads may be a temporary solution. Pads however are a poor long term solution compared to using the right saddle.

The idea that saddle fit problems can be overcome by using a number of saddle blankets or a thick saddle pad is completely flawed. At the best the area of tissue damage created by the saddle is moved, giving some temporary relief.

Too many saddle blankets or too thick a saddle blanket cause problems of their own. This extra thickness under saddle, while padding out the area more completely, tends to increase the pressure on the withers and along the spine in a similar way to wearing an extra pair of socks in a pair of shoes that are too small, and therefore end up causing more problems.

Often too, pressure is put on the muscle close to the horse’s spine, something that very readily causes major back soreness over a few rides. Also the distance between the horse and rider is increased creating more movement of the rider relative to the horse, which in turn causes more pain and stress on the back.

Poor back postureand back strength are major contributors to poor saddle fit. Weak backed horses which readily drop under the riders weight, and sway backed horses, often have poor back contact with the middle of the panels, and as a result the riders weight is mainly carried by the wither and saddle seat area. Horses that go along with their head high often have this problem too.

A saddle with a curved tree can look appropriate for this situation but in the end will lead to further deterioration in the flexibility, movement and posture of the horse. Appropriate preparation of the horse for riding (getting it fit and strong in the back), and changing the way a horse carries its frame can make a huge difference to the comfort of the saddle fit.

Saddle fit will change as the horse changes in weight and muscling so a saddle that fitted early in a season or early in the preparation for an event may not fit so well later when the horses shape has changed.  Also the fit of a saddle will vary from when the horse is standing still to when the horse is in extended movement, and also according to the weight of the rider on its back. 

Correct saddle fit is of paramount importance to the performance and behaviour of your horse. The science and art of saddle fitting are very complex. To get it right I suggest you seek very well qualified help, and have the fitting re-checked every three months.

For more information on the saddle itself see my article on buying a dressage saddle at www.avca.com.au

Dr Ian Bidstrup is one of the principal lecturers at the Australian Accredited Saddle Fit Courses (Level 1 and Level 2), and teaches saddle fitting at the RMIT University Graduate Diploma in Animal Chiropractic.