Is your horse struggling with training? Is his back stiff or sore? Does he seem overly bothered when you tighten the girth? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it might be time to check your saddle fit. Using a saddle that fits your horse properly is extremely important! If the saddle pinches or gaps, it can cause pain and stiffness in the back, which will in turn make other parts of the body sore. Below is a guide to get you started on finding a saddle that fits your horse well.
Parts of the saddle important to a proper fit
Bars (Panels): rails on the inside of the saddle that run the length of the tree (run parallel to the horse’s spine) and are connected in front by the pommel and in the back by the cantle (Fig. 1)
Bar Spread: distance between the bars determines the width of the tree
Tree/ Gullet: width of which is determined by the bar spread (Fig. 1)
Bar Angle: should match the slope of the area behind the horse’s shoulder known as the saddle pocket (angles can be narrow or wide)
Bar Twist: change in bar angle from front to back as it follows the contour of your horse’s back
Bar Flare: refers to the bar tips in front and behind where they curve up and away from the horse’s back
Bar Sweep: amount of curve in the bars from front to back- flat topline means no curve needed
Measuring the horse
When measuring a horse for a saddle, you’ll need a 60 cm Flexi ruler, chalk, a large piece of paper (at least 20’x28’) and a Sharpie. Mark the Flexi ruler with the sharpie starting in the middle in sets of 9 cm and write the horse’s name/ date on the top of your paper. The first measurement is for the withers and it’s best to have someone help you. Have your partner pick up the horse’s front leg to see how far backward the scapula rotates. Find the edge of the bone and draw a chalk mark three fingers (about 2.5”) behind it (Fig. 2). This is the approximate location of the Thoracic (T)8 Vertebrae. By measuring here, you ensure the saddle won’t interfere with the horse’s shoulder movement as the shoulder rotates backward when he takes a step. If the saddle sits too far forward, it will put pressure on the trapezius muscles, preventing the muscles from stretching as the horse lowers his neck and causing him to hollow his back. When you’re ready to start taking measurements, make sure the horse is square to keep his back even. Using the Flexi ruler, measure over the withers on the mark you made and press the rule into the horse’s body. It’s important the ruler conforms to the horse so that you get a proper measurement. Carefully pick up the ruler with your right hand on the right side of the horse’s body, and your left hand on the left side. Place the ruler on your paper and trace the inside with your Sharpie. Using the 9 cm reference points, draw a straight line between the first two (A1 and A2), and another between the second two (B1 and B2), labeling the letters (Fig. 3). Measure the distance between A1 and A2- this will give you the width of the tree your horse needs- and the distance between B1 and B2- this will help determine the bar angle.
The second measurement will be on the T18 Vertebrae. This represents the farthest vertebrae a saddle can sit comfortably on. If the cantle of the saddle is any farther back, it will damage the Lumbar Vertebrae, which are too fragile to support a saddle and a rider’s weight. To find the T18 vertebrae, follow the last rib up to the horse’s spine (Fig. 2). Mark the vertebrae you feel with your chalk. Using the Flexi ruler, measure over the spine on the mark you made and press the ruler firmly into the horse’s body. As you did before, place the ruler on your paper and trace the inside with your Sharpie, taking care that the middle of the ruler lines up with the middle of the previous tracing. This measurement will help determine the angle and twist of the bars in the saddle. If the angle and twist are perfect, it’s likely the rest of the saddle will fit too.
The third measurement will be halfway between your T8 and T18 chalk marks. Measure the distance between the two points with your flexi ruler and find the middle. Once again, mark the point with chalk and measure over the spine, then trace the inside of the ruler onto your paper. This will also help to determine the twist of the bars in the saddle.
The final measurement will be the curve of the horse’s spine. Place the center of the Flexi ruler on the middle chalk mark and the ends on the other two marks and press it gently into your horse’s spine. Picture a parallel line from the first shoulder mark, perpendicular to the ground. Measure the finger width between the flexi ruler and the imaginary line. Using the top of the paper as your imaginary parallel line, trace the flexi ruler the same fingers width as you measured on the horse (Fig. 4). This establishes the length of the saddle your horse can carry, as well as the bar flare and sweep.
In order to find a wide enough gullet to suit your horse’s back, find the distance with your fingers between the spine and the Longissimus Dorsi and Costarum muscles (Fig. 5). Both muscles lie on either side of the back, and the distance you find will represent the gullet width. For example, if you measure 4 fingers, you should be able to run 4 fingers down the gullet of the saddle you plan to try. If the gullet is too narrow, it will press on the horse’s Supraspinous Ligaments (Fig. 6). If it is too wide, the saddle may hit the rib cage, and both cases will result in a sore back.
Checking saddle fit
Once you start trying saddles, expect that you’ll have to try several before you find “the one”, even with the measurements you’ve taken. Whenever you try saddles, make sure the horse is standing square. The first thing to check once you’ve placed a saddle on the horse’s back is whether it sits between the T8 and T18 chalk marks you’ve made. The saddle must sit three fingers behind the scapula. If it doesn’t, try another saddle! Next, see if the middle of the saddle sits on the lowest point of the horse’s back and if it lays flat. Run your fingers along the flaps to see if there is an even amount of pressure throughout and that the saddle isn’t too tight. Look at the gullet and the tree. Without a rider, there should be 2.5-3 fingers of clearance between the gullet and the withers (Fig. 7). You should be able to see daylight through the tree from pommel to cantle.
Assuming the saddle looks like it fits from the ground, next you should try lunging the horse with the saddle on. Check to see if the cantle is popping up and down as he moves- if it is, the saddle likely won’t work. As long as the saddle stays in place, it’s time for the rider to try it out! If the saddle fits the rider, (refer to Saddle Fit Part II – The Rider), then you should consider making a purchase!
**Disclaimer: Although it is possible to fit a saddle for your horse on your own, this article is not a substitute for the knowledge of a proper saddle fitter. It’s best to consult a fitter when looking for a new saddle.