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Western Saddle Fitting Tips

Western Saddle Fitting Tips

Place the saddle on your horse without a saddle pad using a a clean cloth between the saddle and horse if working with a new saddle in order to protect the saddle from dirt and sweat.  The front of the saddle should rest two to three fingers back from the horse's shoulder blade. You saddle should not interfering with the horse's shoulder rotation and movement. If it seems the saddle is back too far, adjust the saddle in order that if the girth were attached it would be about 3-5” behind the elbow.  This keeps the girth from rubbing the back of the leg and interfering with movement.

Once position has been determined, move on to check the fit of the saddle tree. The saddle should never appear to be “perched” on the horse yet you should have a three-four finger clearance between the underside of the swells or pommel and the wither before tightening the chinch/girth. Any more space than this is not a good indication of saddle fit.  Before ruling out the saddle however, continue checking for fit.  Again, before girthing, check for contact along the underside of the tree down the length of the horses back with your hand, you are feeling for gaps or places where the saddle does not make contact with the horses back.  These gaps can cause pressure points in other areas where contact is made.  At this same time, before putting a pad under the saddle, try to rock the saddle back and forth by holding the cantle in one hand and the swells/pommel in the other. There should be very little up or down movement. Determine if the saddle appears to be level.  Some saddles are made higher in the back such as a Dressage saddle or Highback Trail, but if your saddle is not one of these types is should be fairly level.  The cantel should be consistant with the pommel.  Very few, if any saddles will appear higher in the front than the back, this could indicate a poor fit.  Before removing the saddle look down lenght of the tree of the saddle and the horse's spine.  There should be clearance all the way down thus protecting the spine of the horse.

At this point add a saddle pad on top of the clean cloth and tighten the cinch/girth.  Tighten of the saddle may cause the saddle to settle into place and this is normal.  However, check that there is still 2"-3" of clearance between the horse's withers and the pommel of the saddle.  Also watch that the back of the saddle does not “pop up” 3-4”.  Some rise may occur but significant rise in the back of the saddle indicates poor fit.  

As you tighten the chinch/girth, watch your horse's attitude and body language, looking for signs of irritation and discomfort. Tail swishing, biting at the air, ear pinning, and moving away from you can all be indicators of the saddle pinching and poor fit.  If any of these signs are present, go back a step and look again at how the saddle is sitting on the horse.

If at this point if all is well, lunge the horse for about 5-10 minutes watching his movement and attitude. Your horse should move into frame with his head at a comfortable relaxed level and back rounding up into the saddle.  If your horse is traveling with his head held high and back hollowed out under the saddle he could be trying to let you know this is not a comfortable saddle for him. Your horse should travel the same undersaddle as he does bareback while being lunged. 

Now for the ride...  Be sure to protect a new saddle, fenders and stirrups from dirt and horse hair in case you have to return the saddle.  Again, watch the attitude of your horse as you mount. Begin at the walk and then move into a trot and then on to the canter.  Ask your horse to perform maneuvers that will cause bending under the saddle such as figure 8's and tight turns, watching his attitude as he follows your cues.  Some horses always swish their tails or exhibit other irritations when asked to do work or change gaits, so be sure you are familiar with your horses normal attitude under working conditions.   

After riding for approximately 10-15 minutes remove the saddle very carefully examining the cloth under the saddle.  You are looking for even dirt patterns (no matter how much you brush, there will still be dirt) down either side of the spine.  If there is a clean spot left to right in the center of the saddle, the saddle is “bridging” and not making contact with the horse's back in that area as it should. Check for consistant wet areas if your horse worked up a sweat, there should not be any dry spots or rub marks. on either side of the spine down the length of the saddle area.

By this point, you should have a good idea about the fit of the saddle. Always remember that horses fitness levels change based on the age of your horse and the amount of exercies they are getting.  A saddle that fit your horse in his younger years may no longer fit simply do to the aging process.  Always evaluate your horse's back when removing the saddle after a ride,  looking for rub marks or dry spots which may be indicators your saddle may not be fitting well.

Keep in mind that adding additional padding NEVER helps the fit of your saddle if you have a dry spot, it only contributes to the discomfort of your horse.  It is comparable to adding thick socks to your already tight boots!  Orthopedic pads are able to fill in gaps and help with leveling out minor high spots.  

Remember also that saddles with trees geared for a specific breed will not automatically fit all animals of that breed. This would be comparable to classifying shoe size by nationality. Each saddle should be fitted to the horse wearing it, regardless of breed specific trees. An Arabian horse may in fact need the tree type of a Full Quarter horse, or a Gaited horse may need and Arabian tree type.  

Unfortunatley, there are no true standard for tree shape or size in the saddle making industry. Gullet width, and angle will vary from maker to maker. Even English saddles have no set standard and they have been in production longer than Western saddles by a hundred years or more.  

We hope these tips help you in determining the fit of your saddle.   HorseTackOnline.com would love to help you evaluate the tree type needed for your horse by offering a free wither tracing.