Measuring and Fitting Western Saddles

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Do you know the proper method for saddling a horse? Doing it correctly is probably the most important part of any ride. Think about it. Saddling a horse incorrectly not only influences your own riding technique but it can also be dangerous for both you and your horse.

There are several different factors that affect the fit of a western saddle. Here is an outline of the major points on horse saddling and how to avoid common mistakes. Please note, this guide is provided for informational purposes only. Always consult a trainer or local professional about your own personal proper saddle fit.

Fit for the Horse

There is no standardization in the industry in regards to tree sizing-measurements differ among tree makers, saddle makers, and saddle styles. This means that saddles are going to differ by style and manufacturer and must be fitted individually and not just assumed they’ll fit correctly.

The goal in fitting any type of saddle is to have the greatest amount of contact between the bar of the tree and the horse. Here are areas to pay attention to:

Withers

Horse with Defined Wither Horse with defined wither and usually fits a medium, regular, or semi-Quarter horse tree
Horse with Rounded WithersHorse with rounded withers that typically needs a Wide or Full Quarter Horse Tree
  • The average, defined wither will usually fit a Medium/Regular tree. This horse will have a more refined body with definition in the withers-the modern version of Quarter Horses, Tennessee Walking Horses, Thoroughbreds, etc.
  • A more rounded, mutton wither with a flatter back will usually fit a Wide tree. This horse has a blocky build, heavier neck, often called the “foundation” type.
  • Draft horses and Draft horse crosses with a very wide, flat back and wither, will usually require a Draft or Extra Wide tree.
  • A very prominent, narrow wither may indicate the lack of muscle behind the shoulder blade and the need for a shoulder bridge pad. The shoulder bridge pad fills in this “hollow” area, allowing the saddle bars to make better contact with the horse.
  • Large muscles behind the scapula can interfere with saddle fit. A wider tree may be needed; flex trees can also work well with this conformation. 

Topline

 This 20-year-old gelding has a significant sway back and prominent withers. Remedied with a shoulder bridge pad. Note the white spots from past ill-fitting saddle.
  • A level topline wither and croup being about the same height, is ideal.
  • Higher haunches, or the horse built “downhill”, can allow the saddle to put more pressure on the withers and may require a pad that is built up in the wither area.
  • A swayback causes “bridging” of the saddle. The bars only make contact in the front and rear of the saddle, putting excess pressure or rubbing the withers and loins. It can be seen in older horses and poorly conditioned horses; swayback is a common saddle fitting problem. It can be remedied with the use of a bridge pad.
  • A horse with a short back will require a saddle with short bars/skirts.
  • A very straight back, often seen in mules but not very prevalent in horses, can cause the saddle to “rock”. Rocking is a condition where the tree puts more pressure on the center of the horse’s back, and less at the ends of the bars. A tree with a “mule bar” or a pad with shims may be recommended.

Condition & Age

  • Consider the body condition of the horse you are fitting. A significant amount of weight gain or loss can change the way the saddle fits.
  • Also consider the age and maturity of the horse. A saddle you buy for your two-year old today may not fit as well when it fills out in another year or two. As a mature horse progresses into its senior years, changes in conformation can alter the fit of your existing saddle.

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Fit for the Rider

Discipline

  • How will the saddle be used? Do you plan to rope, trail ride, or barrel race? For example, a roping saddle needs to be built durable enough to withstand tremendous torque; while comfort is more important for trail riding saddles.
  • Specialized saddles are available for certain types of horses. For example, gaited saddles allow more bar flare for the horse’s shoulder action; mule saddles typically have a straighter bar for the mule back.

Sizing for the Rider

  • Rider preference for saddle size varies – some choose a larger seat and other prefer a smaller seat. Discipline of riding plays a role in the size of a saddle. In general, you should have 4” between the front of your body and the swell of the saddle. Your backside should rest at the base of the cantle, but not be pressing against the back of the cantle.
  • If you have long legs, you may need a larger seat size so your knees do not hang off the front of the fenders.
  • A slightly larger seat is better than too small. When sitting in the saddle your thighs should not touch the back of the swell. This can be uncomfortable for the rider.
  • When buying a saddle always adjust the stirrups to the proper length so you can assess the feel of the seat and the balance of the saddle correctly.

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Evaluate the Saddle on the Horse

With the saddle positioned correctly, the bars of the tree behind the shoulder blades of the horse, evaluate the following points:

Gullet Clearance

 Good Gullet Clearance Good Gullet Clearance
  • Place the saddle on the horse’s bare back without a pad. There should be two to three fingers space between the top of the wither and the gullet of the saddle.
  • If you can vertically fit your whole hand between the bottom of the gullet and the wither, the tree is probably too narrow.
  • If there is room for only one finger or the bottom of the gullet is touching the top of the wither, the tree is probably too wide.

With the saddle positioned correctly, the bars of the tree behind the shoulder blades of the horse, evaluate the following points:

Levelness of Saddle

  • Step back and look at the saddle on the horse’s back to make sure it is level. If the saddle is not level, try adjusting it by using shims, sliding it forward or back to raise or lower the front, or trying different rigging positions. When all else fails, you may need a different saddle with a better fit.
  • If the front of the saddle is high, the tree may be too narrow.
  • If the front of the saddle is low, the tree may be too wide.

Sweat Patterns

 Good Gullet Clearance Dry Spots in Center of back indicate bridging
  • Sweat patterns can indicate how the saddle fits. Ideally, the sweat pattern will be even, without dry areas that show pressure points or areas where the hair has been rubbed off, ruffled hair or swirl marks than signify excessive movement.
  • Damage from past saddle fit issues can cause areas of dry spots or white marks.
  • Is most of the wear in the middle and none on the ends? The saddle may be rocking and excessive rocking can be corrected with pads or shims.
  • Saddle bars put pressure at the front and rear only, not down the middle which can create pressure points against the horse. This can lead to serious damage and soreness. A bridge pad is needed to bridge the gap between the horse’s back and tree bars and to effectively distribute the rider’s weight.

Saddle Pads

  • You can tell where the most pressure is on the horse by the hair, dirt, or wear marks.
  • Is most of the wear in the middle, and none on the ends? The saddle may be rocking-excessive rocking can be corrected with pads or shims.
  • Is the middle of the pad under the bar not as dirty or compressed as the ends? That could be an indication of bridging. If you think there is even a chance of bridging, it is best to correct with a shim or bridge pad in the center of the bars to correct the problem.

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Avoid Common Mistakes of Saddle Fitting

Saddle Placement

  • The front of the bar of the saddle tree should be behind the shoulder blade to allow for freedom of movement.
  • Placing the saddle too far forward over the scapula can cause unnecessary rubbing and pressure. The blanket or pad and the skirt of the saddle can cover the back of the scapula but the bars of the tree must be behind the shoulder blade.

Front Cinch Usage

  • Do not over tighten the cinch. The tighter you cinch the more pressure YOU create before you even sit in the saddle. The front cinch should be about as tight as your belt; if it’s comfortable for you, then it should be comfortable for the horse.
  • Do not over tighten the cinch to compensate for a saddle that rolls. Check that the saddle is the correct fit for the horse. Try a different saddle pad, a wider cinch, neoprene cinch, or flank cinch to help secure the saddle.
 Proper saddle placementProper saddle placement. Bars of the tree should settle behind the horse's scapula.

Flank Cinch Usage

  • Most people use the flank or rear cinch incorrectly. The flank cinch provides stability to the saddle and should be snug but not tight against the horse. A rule of thumb is to be able to slip two fingers between the flank and the horse at the apex of the belly. It should not be loose or hang below the horse’s belly; a loose flank cinch is a danger to horse and rider. Always use the connecting strap between the front and rear cinches to position the flank cinch properly and prevent it from becoming a “bucking strap.”
  • If the rear of your saddle is moving side to side or up and down at the walk, trot, or canter, the movement can cause a scrubbing action, irritating the skin. Use a flank cinch when this problem occurs.

Pads and Padding

  • Don’t over pad your horse; the more pads you use the wider it makes your horse and the higher your saddle will sit on the horse’s back. Also, excess padding will not allow you to feel the horse’s movements.
  • If you are riding for extended periods of time, you need a pad that will absorb sweat and dissipate heat. Natural fiber pads and blankets are more comfortable for your horse and allow for more breathability.
  • Wool is a great example due to its natural moisture wicking capability and shock absorbing properties.
  • Neoprene is a shock absorbing material and is great for performance horses that will not have a pad on all day. Don’t use a neoprene pad on a long trail ride. Neoprene doesn’t breathe or absorb moisture, causing white spots, rubbing and pulling of the hair follicles to occur.

Cleanliness

  • The movement of the horse and the rider creates movement of the saddle. When dirt gets caught underneath the saddle, this movement leads to abrasiveness and skin irritation. Your horse’s back should be cleaned, brushed, vacuumed or washed before and after riding to remove sweat and dirt.
  • Keep your blankets, pad, and cinch clean.

Conditioning

  • A horse is no different than a human athlete; horses get sore muscles when they are not in shape. Long trail rides, once a month barrel races, and other competitions when a horse is not in the proper condition can lead to a sore back. When you apply pressure to an unconditioned horse’s back, you will get swelling which accentuates or creates saddle fit issues. If you feel heat or swelling after long or strenuous use of your horse, let his back rest and heal.
  • Do not jump to the conclusion that your saddle does not fit if you find your horses back is sore due to being in poor condition. A horse’s back will drop when it is not in healthy competing condition or is overweight. When this happens, bridging of the saddle tree can occur. Strong abdominal muscles support and straighten the back of both the horse and the rider. Daily riding and conditioning will keep your horse’s back tough and strong.

Rider Balance

 How not to ride a saddle How NOT to ride a saddle. Sitting balanced benefits your horse and helps you ride better too.
  • Consider how you sit in the saddle. For the tree to function properly, you must sit balanced in the saddle. If you are sitting in the saddle like a recliner with your legs out in front, you are exerting twice as much force on the back of the bars, and digging the bars into the horse’s loins. The rider must sit in a balanced position, vertically with your legs under you-this will allow the bars of the tree to function properly, spreading pressure equally front to back.
  • Heavy riders require the tree to distribute more pounds per square inch on the horse. Therefore, proper saddle fit and equitation are even more important with the heavy rider.

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Please note that saddle fitting is a process. Arm yourself with information and consult with your trainer or local professional about any saddle you're interested in.

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