Saddle fitting is not simple. Over the years, professionals have tried to develop ways to measure the horse’s back and to categorize it by a sizing system. Unfortunately, none of the systems developed thus far have been widely implemented. Some saddle makers will build a saddle to the specifications of your horse’s back, but most of the time this process takes many months or longer; and can be expensive.
The best thing an owner can do is to arrange to try several saddles on their horse to get an idea of what fits the withers, shoulders, the length of the back, and the steepness or flatness of the back muscles. You can evaluate the saddle by asking the following questions: Does the saddle settle down onto your horses back, or does it perch unnaturally, as if it does not belong there? If you set your saddle on your horse’s back without cinching it and then rock it back and forth, does it cling to your horses back and stay in place, or roll back and forth like a basketball? A saddle that rolls back and forth, just perching atop of your horse instead of settling down onto his back, is usually too narrow. If you steady the front of the saddle and pull on the back of it towards you, does the back of the saddle slide off the horse? This tree could be either too narrow or too wide. Does the saddle sit down directly on top of your horse’s withers, or is there an area of clearance where you can see a space between the saddle and the withers? Is the saddle sitting directly on the horse’s spine or are there a couple of inches of space on either side of the backbone before the saddle contacts the horse’s back? How long is the saddle skirt? If the horse has a short back and the saddle has a long skirt, when the horse puts his hind legs underneath him to stop, the skirt will bruise his hip bones.
It is not an easy thing to find a saddle that correctly fits your horse’s back, but it is very important to your friend, the horse. Perhaps an analogy will help to understand the importance of saddle fit. Imagine you are planning a backpacking trip along the beautiful Kawai coastline. It will take you three days, and you will need to carry everything you need on your back. You may need to carry 35 pounds in your backpack. First of all, you would not even think of using a backpack that did not have a built- in frame. Without the frame, the entire weight would just hang from your shoulders. This is similar to using a treeless saddle that has no support frame to distribute the weight evenly along the entire horse’s back. When you choose the frame, you will want to make sure that it does not pinch your shoulders, or keep hitting you in the back of your head when you walk, or bounce at your waist. If the backpack is not carefully chosen, the entire trip could be miserable for you. In the same way, many saddles “bridge”, meaning the only contact it makes with the horse’s back is at the very front and the very back of the saddle. This causes pressure points where all of your weight has to be carried by just a few square inches of the horse’s back instead of being evenly distributed along the entire length of the saddle. Your saddle may be too narrow across your horse’s shoulders, pinching them as he moves his forelegs. A saddle that is too wide can sit down on top of the withers without any clearance space. If your saddle sits too low on the horse’s withers, every time you lean forward in the saddle it will jam the front of the saddle down on the bones just under the skin over his withers.
Let’s clear up another myth. Many people try adding a second blanket to improve the fit of their saddle. If you are trying to wear shoes that are too tight, adding another pair of socks will only make things worse. If you have shoes that are too big, wearing two pairs of socks will usually rub a blister on your foot. The two pads tend to slide opposite of each other and end up twisting and causing more problems than they solve. Sometimes a shock absorbing foam pad will help, but not always. If the saddle is already too narrow, then the thickness of the foam pad may make matters worse. A saddle that truly fits your horse will prevent a lot of chiropractic/osteopathic problems from developing. Your horse will be able to move his shoulders freely, flex his back up into the saddle tree, make lateral moves, stop without having his hips hit by the back of the saddle, lift his head without pinching his withers, and carry you comfortably.