Fitting a Saddle to Your Horse

Saddle shopping is more than just finding a nice-looking saddle in your price range. As far as the horse is concerned, a saddle that doesn't fit correctly can result in sore back muscles, and a corresponding bad attitude to go with it.

Finding a saddle that fits your horse takes some work. Even though saddle manufacturers make saddletrees in different sizes (wide, medium, and narrow), each horse is an individual and may not fit into a saddle that corresponds to the apparent width of the horse's back. (A saddletree is the wooden or fiberglass frame on which the saddle is constructed. It determines the fit of the saddle on the horse's back.)

For that reason, when you buy a saddle, take it on a trial basis so you can be sure that it fits. During that trial period, follow the steps outlined in the sections that follow to determine the saddle's fit and enlist an experienced horse person to help you determine the fit of the saddle. Saddle fitting can be tricky, even for the most experienced riders.

English saddles

To determine if an English saddle fits your horse, follow these steps:

1. Put the saddle on the horse without using a saddle pad.

2. Tighten the girth so that the saddle is comfortably secure.

3. Have someone sit in the saddle with his or her feet in the stirrups.

4. Using a flat hand, slide your fingers underneath the pommel, near the horse's withers (the rise as the base of neck, where it joins the back).

Your fingers should fit comfortably between the horse and saddle. Be certain that you can place at least three fingers between the horse's withers and the arch below the pommel.

5. Have a helper lift the horse's left foreleg and pull it forward while your fingers are in between the top of the horse's shoulder blade and the pommel.

As the horse's shoulder moves, make sure the saddle doesn't impede shoulder movement. Perform the same test on the horse's right side.

6. Stand behind the horse and look through the saddle (between the underside of the saddle and the horse's back).

If the saddle fits, you should see a tunnel of light shining through. If you don't see any light, the saddle is too snug. You likewise need to make sure that the saddle isn't too long for the horse. The seat panel shouldn't reach past the main part of the horse's back onto the loins.

Western saddles

To make sure that a western saddle fits correctly, follow these steps:

1. Place the saddle on the horse's back with a one-inch thick (or so) saddle pad underneath it.

2. Tighten the cinch so that it's snug but comfortable.

When you try to tighten the cinch, you may find that it's too short for the horse's barrel. Don't reject the saddle simply because the cinch is too short. If you really like the saddle and it fits, you can always buy a longer, replacement cinch. Meanwhile, borrow a cinch that fits so you can continue to try out the saddle.

3. Have a rider sit in the saddle with his or her feet in the stirrups.

Be sure that you can fit at least three fingers between the arch of the pommel and the horse's withers.

4. Examine the width of the saddletree, or frame, as it sits on the horse and compare it with the shape of the horse's back.

On a horse with a wide back and lower withers, the tree needs to be wide. On a narrower back with higher withers, the tree shouldn't be too wide. Place your fingers sideways (on a flat hand) between the saddle and the top of the horse's shoulder to help determine the width of the tree. If the fit is so tight that you can't squeeze your fingers between the saddle and the top of the horse's shoulder, the tree is too wide for your horse. If you can put your entire hand between the saddle and the top of the horse's shoulder, the tree is too narrow.

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