In some cases, your horse will let you know his saddle fits poorly by acting out under saddle or pinning his ears when you girth him up. But in other cases, his reaction may be more subtle.
That’s why it’s important to learn how to spot these five common saddle-fitting errors.
1. Placing the saddle too far forward
This common mistake can create serious discomfort for your horse. That’s because most saddles have an internal stability structure called a tree. Saddle trees have downward-facing prongs called points, which are designed to sit 2 to 3 inches behind your horse’s shoulder blades.
When your saddle is placed too far forward, the tree points can rub against your horse’s shoulder blades and cause bruising. A too-forward saddle also can also force the seat to tip backward, which puts too much of the rider’s weight on the back of the saddle. That, too, can be painful for the horse.
To check your saddle’s placement, start by finding your horse’s shoulder blade. If you can’t see the shoulder blade, try placing your hand on your horse’s upper shoulder while a friend lifts and lowers your horse’s front leg. If your hand is in the right spot, you’ll feel the shoulder blade moving under the skin, just like it does when your horse is in motion.
Then, place your saddle on your horse and find your saddle’s tree points. You can often see the tree points under your saddle’s outer flap, encased in leather on the sweat flap. Look for a hard, rounded prong near the top of the flap, just in front of the stirrup bars.
Check to see if your tree points are placed 2 to 3 inches behind the horse’s shoulder blade. For most people, 2 to 3 inches is about the width of three fingers.
2. Using a saddle that’s too narrow or too wide
You may have heard saddles described with terms like “medium tree” or “wide tree.” These sizing terms, and others like them, describe how much space there is between the saddle’s tree points.
To keep your horse comfortable, it’s important to match the angle of your saddle’s tree points to the angle of your horse’s body. That’s a challenge because just like people, horses naturally come in many different shapes. Also, the horse’s width in the area under the tree points can change over time. As horses gain or lose fitness, or switch riding disciplines, their ideal saddle width can change.
If your saddle tree is too narrow, the tree points can dig into the horse’s muscles. This can lead to serious back injuries. Sadly, if your saddle tree is too narrow, the only solution is to use a saddle with a wider tree. Corrective padding won’t help and can make the situation worse.
If the tree is too wide for your horse, the front of the saddle dips downward, which can lead to wither rubs and shoulder discomfort. When the tree points are too wide, they also provide less support and stability for your horse.
If your tree is too wide, sometimes you can improve the fit by adding corrective padding. But when you add padding, you also change other elements of your saddle fit. So if you decide to try corrective padding, enlist a trusted expert to help you check the overall fit.
3. Saddle panels that don’t match the horse’s topline shape
When you step back and look at your horse from the side, does his back look curvy or straight? Horses come in all shapes and sizes, everything from ramrod straight to slightly curvy to swaybacked. So in a perfect world, your saddle should match the curvature of your horse’s topline from front to back.
When you use a straight saddle on a curvy backed horse, you create pressure points on the front and back of the saddle. Saddle fitters call this bridging because the middle of the saddle makes little or no contact with the horse’s back.
A curvy saddle on a straight horse causes the opposite problem: the saddle might only make contact on the middle of the horse’s back. That concentrates the rider’s weight on one big pressure point.
To check whether your saddle’s panels are the right for your horse, start by placing your saddle on the horse’s bare back. Run your hands under the saddle, checking for even contact with you your horse’s back. Then place your usual saddle pads on your horse and run your hands under the saddle again. Sometimes, when you add padding, the panel contact changes.
4. Making the fit worse by using extra saddle pads
Think about your favorite pair of riding boots. Then, imagine riding in those boots with an extra pair of thick socks. What would happen? Chances are, your favorite boots would become tight and uncomfortable.
That same thing can happen if you had a great saddle fit, then added thicker saddle pads or a half pad.
Specialty saddle pads, including half pads, can be a great way to add extra shock absorption and flexibility to your saddle fit. But whenever you add more padding under your saddle, your saddle’s fit changes.
If you decide to change your saddle pads, always re-evaluate your saddle’s fit with the new pads in the mix. When in doubt, ask an experienced horse professional to help you double-check the fit.
5. Choosing the wrong saddle size for the rider
So far, we’ve talked about saddle fitting problems for the horse. But when you choose a saddle that fits your body well, you’re also helping your horse. When a saddle doesn’t fit you, it may not distribute your weight very well and create painful pressure points for the horse.
Over time, you might grow accustomed to riding in a saddle that’s too small, too big, has the wrong flap angle, or just doesn’t suit your riding position and goals anymore. While you might be used to it, your horse could be uncomfortable.
That’s why it’s smart to check your saddle’s fit for your body at least once a year. If you don’t have easy access to a professional saddle fitter, try asking your riding instructor for advice. Your riding instructor knows your riding position and riding goals, and can help you decide whether your saddle is holding you back.
By addressing these five common problems with English saddle fit, you improve the odds that your horse will enjoy his work. And if you discover a problem, consult an equine professional you trust for help and support. Your trainer or veterinarian may be able to help, and if not, they can refer you to a professional saddle fitter in your area.
JEN MICHAELS is the owner and primary writer for The Saddle Geek (www.thesaddlegeek.com). The Saddle Geek provides brand-independent advice about English saddle fitting and saddle shopping. Jen lives in Columbus, Ohio and competes in lower-level dressage and eventing.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!