The Simplest & Most Overlooked Key in Saddle Fitting

Some of us “lucky ones” have dealt with a hard-to-fit horse or have been though some kind of saddle fit nightmare.  We’ve had to learn first-hand how detailed and complicated saddle fitting can be.  There’s so much to worry about! Are the panels and tree the right size? Are the flaps the right length and in the right position? How do the thigh blocks fit? Is monoflap or twin flap better? Are wool or foam panels better? Do I need a deep or shallow seat? And the list goes on… but I won’t bore you with any more of these concerns, since you’ve likely felt a healthy dose of them in your own life.

With all this to think about, not to mention all the contradicting information on the Internet, getting a saddle right for you and your horse can seem like a mind boggling affair. In all the madness, the simplest and most impactful part often gets breezed over. I am talking about saddle balance.

Why Be Concerned with Saddle Balance?

It may seem overly basic, but that is the beauty of it. Balance applies to all of us, whether we are riding in a 30 year old relic or the newest five-figure-price-tag custom saddle. The scary part is that I see unbalanced saddles ALL the time. It often happens even to the savviest of riders because a tree can fit at the withers, a seat can feel the right size or a saddle can look okay in the cross ties. But the problem still persists.  And a lot people just don’t know how detrimental it can be for both a horse and rider to ride in an unbalanced saddle. Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the problems associated with poor balance:

  • Pressure points causing sore horse
  • Damage to horse’s spine
  • Bouncing saddle
  • Chair seat
  • Legs out from underneath rider
  • Sore rider knees or knees sliding over the blocks
  • Poor lower leg contact
  • Pubic, back and hip flexor pain
What Does an Unbalanced Saddle Look Like?

This saddle is too low in the front:

Blog-Post-Unblanced-Low-Front-1024x512

 

 

For a horse this can pinch the withers, interfere with the shoulder, and cause instability in the form of rocking/bouncing.  For a rider it can tip her forward, cause the lower leg to swing backward, cause pubic and lower back pain, and cause the knees to creep over the blocks.

This Saddle is too low behind:

Blog Post Unblanced Low back

For a horse this can cause lumber soreness and bridging in the mid back.  For a rider it can put her in a chair seat, put her legs too far forward and lose contact with the blocks/flap.

Crooked saddle

If a saddle lists to one side, meaning the center of the gullet is not directly over the spine, it can cause asymmetries in the form of muscle atrophy and uneven development.  It can also damage the spine, as a saddle should never put pressure on a horse’s spine!  For a rider it can wear the saddle unevenly, form bad habits and give trouble using aids effectively.

What to do about it

As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  Pay attention to how your saddle sits on your horse when you’re riding.  A friend with a camera can help here.  Once you know there is an issue, a saddle fitter can fix it for you.  If you are on a budget or a DIY kind of person, strategic padding/shimming will be your best friend.  There are pads available that allow for shim inserts.  This will let you pad the front, back or one side of the saddle more than the other to get it back in balance (shameless plug: a Six Point Saddle Pad is perfect for this).  You can also fold a hand towel and place it in between the saddle and the pad to lift the saddle in the right place.  Although shims aren’t the perfect longterm solution, they are infinitely better than an unbalanced saddle.

Keep your saddle in balance, and your horse will love you for it!

Feel free to ask questions, give feedback, share experiences, etc.  in the comments below.  I will reply to you!

Justin

 

33 Comments

  1. elaine williams on May 13, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    What about western saddles? specifically on race bred QH….on barrel patterns been trying to figure that one out for years…..nothing available in local stores for hands on trying! help Elaine

    • tsf on May 14, 2014 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks for the question Elaine. Sadly we are not yet experts on Western saddle fit. For now we are sticking to what we know best, English saddles. Best of luck!

    • Amanda C on November 8, 2014 at 6:29 am

      Hello! I have worked with several QH of different builds with jumping and traditional Western saddles. Depending on the wither height & spread on your horse, you may have to switch saddles and go to a different “bar”. I’ve found that most full bar saddles are built for a moderate wither height & spread. Some barrel saddles are built for appendix types with higher withers and can slip on a fuller withered horse. A good bet is to find a tree that fits moderatley well while erring on the side of wider than needed. There are several padding options that can take up the space and add the stability you are looking for. Unfortunately, there are few Western fitters available across the US and no formal “training” either. What I have learned was through patient clients and a lot of trial & error whereas my English training was much more formal and “tried & true”.

      • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 4:58 pm

        That’s a really good point, the Western saddle fit element if often overlooked (at least compared to English). I am not sure why that is. Luckily you came from a background of both Western and English and could carry over some of that focus on fit. But hooray for good intuitive saddles pads to help some of these shortcomings!

        Justin

    • Barbara Caiado with DP Saddlery on May 25, 2015 at 6:22 am

      Dear Ellaine,
      We offer a wide variety of a saddles, some of which are barrel racing saddles. They can be adjusted via Allen wrench system without having to take anything apart. We also have western saddles with wooden horn and cantle but a leather tree (many, many layers of leathers). These are lighter yet high quality saddles, and we also have western models that can be wool flocked. For a complete analysis of what it is you need, you can contact us at contact@dp-saddlery.com

  2. Patti on July 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    I have had the best experiences with Bob Marshall treeless saddles, they design western, barrel, and endurance (no English) saddles. They look like a treed saddle, but since there is no tree, they will conform to even the most difficult fitting horse. You definitely feel more movement from your horse – similar to a bareback pad which I appreciate. Also known as Bob Marshall Sport saddles….not inexpensive, but worth it, I own 3.

    • tsf on July 14, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks for the insight Patti!

  3. Jacqui howard on July 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Do you know a good saddle fitter in Dallas TX?

    • tsf on August 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Sorry! I don’t have a contact for your area.

    • Hilary on September 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      I am a Master Saddlers Association certified saddle fitter and rep for County Saddlery in the Dallas / Ft Worth area for anyone needing an evaluation of their saddle fit 🙂
      214-SADDLES

      • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 3:11 pm

        Thanks for the info Hilary!

  4. Sam on July 16, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I have a barrel saddle an I use a thick CSI saddle pad would that pad help with the in balanced issues

    • tsf on August 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      I wish I could help, but my real expertise is in English saddles.

  5. Elle on August 15, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I have a 16.3 HH Friesion/Oldenburg X. Big bone, big movement but a relatively short back. Compared to most warmbloods in the dressage world. 8yrs going on 2… And still! Filling in! I waited to back him til he was 5. Haven’t cantered under saddle because he is still a bit un coordinated on the lunge and drive lines in canter…legs still everywhere. Just still so very baby. Any hoo, he is broad and deep in the shoulder lots of leg action. We don’t touch the ground til we halt. I am 5’9, 115 lbs and tend to get lost in a saddle bigger than 17.

    I am in need of a new/used dressage saddle. But I can’t really piece together a saddle like I did his bridle for his elegantly large little head.

    I have looked at a few. Too long, too narrow, too big for me, too small for him… Ugh!

    I know this sound just right for custome, and if I had the financial resoces I would not hesitate. But this delema has been racking my brain for quite some time that it have lost track of how to “look” for what I need over what I want with out the frustratin and discouragment. Sorry such a loong vent post… Any thoughts?

    • tsf on August 15, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      Well Elle it seems like you have your work cutout for you!

      I would start with a saddle that can get close to fitting the horse, while the seat will be a little big for you. At least he can get taken care of, and you can “make do” with a bigger saddle. The truth is, the seat size is the one thing on a saddle that is very hard to change… so if you’re looking at used that is likely where you’ll have to make a sacrifice (given all the other challenges you have to fitting a saddle for you horse, and the fact that you’re quite thin).

      Also the fact that he is still growing add another level to it. Given a tight budget, I think getting a cheaper saddle slightly on the wide side that you can pad up for a while until things stabilize would be a good plan. There are many shim pads out there you can use (we happen to have one that is AWESOME – see it here ), and any will be better than nothing! This will give you flexibility to adjust to his growing back AND help setup the saddle with the best balance for you too.

      Hope this helps!
      Justin

    • Loren on May 21, 2015 at 10:51 am

      Look into a Pegasus Butterfly saddle. So many people I know love them. Totally different concept then any other saddle. I’m getting one for my next horse.

  6. juli ulm on September 11, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    I am a western saddle fitter in Oregon. I would like to request to use your post in my work as a saddle fitter. The words you typed are perfectly stated and I couldn’t write a better analysis if I tried. It doesn;t matter to me that the pictures used to portray balance are of an english saddle.
    Respectfully,
    Juli

    • tsf on September 12, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Thanks for saying that Juli. Yes feel free to share our content!

  7. Jody on September 11, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    This is really interesting ….i have a 14.1 pony use a pretty basic cheap saddle for 18 months NO PROBLEMS AT ALL…..the last couple of weeks i have been also riding an OTTB (same saddle) and every time i ride him i end up with the most awful lower backaches …….presumed as he was such a different ride it was using different muscles etc……i will try a different saddle tmrw and see how it goes …..

    • tsf on September 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm

      Your story makes perfect sense. Likely the saddle is low in the front, as the TB is narrower than the pony. This will put too much pressure on your lower back. I’d suggest shimming up the front of the saddle on the TB and see if you feel better after the ride.

  8. Michelle on September 19, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I just bought a Wintec Pro Endurance trail saddle… it has the

    · Revolutionary FlexiControurbloc® offers customized support and security
    · Rear Controurbloc®
    · Adjustable Ergonomic Stirrup Bar facilitates a well-balanced position
    · Performance materials ensure superior fit, comfort and stability
    · Adjustable Y-Girthing system
    · Seat allows room to change position during long rides
    · Extended Tree distributes weight over greater area
    · Lightweight and easy to car for
    · EASY-CHANGE™ Gullet System and included Medium Gullet Plate

    So my question is ? I can adjust the seat and size to fit me and my horse ? What do you think would be a better
    fit the Flock or the Claire ? I am hearing more that the flock s better ?

    • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      You can adjust the tree size with the gullet system. But the seat size is not something that can be changed without essentially replacing the entire saddle.

      As for the panel filling, I would strongly urge you to use wool flocking for a number of reasons:

      1. It is a natural breathable material
      2. It is soft and can be adjusted much more precisely than air panels.
      3. Air panels can get “bouncy” on certain horses, kind of like those yoga balls with handles we played on as kids.
      4. There are way more fitters trained and able to adjust and work on wool saddles.

      Thanks,
      Justin

  9. Jocelyn Sumerel on September 26, 2014 at 9:19 am

    I am a Master Saddle Fitter, in both English and Western Saddles. When I owned my tack shop in Albuquerque, NM, I would NOT sell a saddle to a person right from the store. I would take many saddles out to the horse and fit it myself. ONLY by seeing the rider in the saddle can you know if the saddle fits properly. Too many people put the saddle too far forward, thus impeding the ability of the horse to move his shoulders freely. You did not mention that MANY people ride crooked, and this hurts the horse in more ways than one.

    Learning to ride bareback is the very best way to feel your horse. Get used to your horse moving freely with no saddle. Make sure that the horse’s muscles are built up, and the horse is mature, BEFORE ever putting a saddle on the horse.

    I will not answer any questions per the racing industry, because they run young horses and ruin them. We have one here on our farm. She is a gorgeous, pure Bask top and bottom, beautiful, sweet Arabian mare. But, it is obvious that she was run too young and her back is ruined. So are her hips. We constantly treat her, using many different modalities ( NO DRUGS ), and she has had to be retired. In my opinion, since I do a lot of body work on horses, her back was broken at one point and has fused incorrectly. I could never ride a horse in this condition, and neither should anyone else.

    As far as Western Saddles go, it’s all about what the people want! They wanted square skirts, and I have seen too many horses who have short backs ( MOST HORSES DO HAVE SHORT BACKS ) and a square skirted saddle impedes the movement of both the shoulder and the hips. Think about how a horse moves, on the diagonal. Every horse moves this way! If the saddle is square skirted, it will eventually cause physical issues in the horse. If a horse is off on one side, you can bet that the pain will move to the opposing side. Then, you really have a problem. On top of this, and I do not mean anything mean, but having observed and taught so many, many people to ride the right way, I see too many people who do not understand how to ride. They don’t move with the horse. They bounce up and down in the saddle. This is going to hurt a horse’s kidneys, and there is absolutely no way around this.

    All Western Saddles are too long, if they are square skirted. I have fitted and worked on hundreds of thousands of horses in this world. Most people do not realize that a square skirted, decked out silver saddle cannot fit every horse. As I mentioned before, in our clinics worldwide, I would say 99% of the saddles out there do NOT fit the horse. Bring back the round skirted saddle! Make sure the saddle is of good quality, and does not have a wooden tree! This is so old fashioned, and much better trees are being made today; trees that work with the horse instead of against it. Make sure the gullet is wide enough for the horse. Make sure the girth is 3-4 inches from the elbow of the horse’s front leg. Do not ever try to fix a bad saddle fit with a pad; it NEVER works. A great fitting saddle is one that is wide enough to accommodate the horse’s back. Do you guys know that MOST saddles ( Western ) are made in a medium width? MOST horses today are wide, whether they are English, Western, or any other discipline. The narrow width is obsolete anymore. MOST horses cannot take even a medium-wide saddle. Quarter Horses require a full QH bar saddle. Most horses today are wide, and they need a saddle that is wide. As the picture above shows, if the cantle is much higher than the pommel, the saddle is too wide. If the saddle perches on the horse, it is too narrow. Please do not put the saddle so far forward that it sits on the withers. I sure would rebel if every time I tried to move forward as asked, I had pain on my backbone. So many behavioral problems can be fixed with proper saddle fit. However, if you have been riding in a poor fitting saddle, be prepared to have your horse worked on before you ride in the new saddle.

    Educate yourself about saddle fit, both English and Western. I have Arabians that are huge, and are very wide. I have had saddles specially made for each of these horses. Find a GREAT saddle fitter in your area, so after you read up on saddle fit, you understand what the person is trying to tell you. I guess you could say that I am quite passionate about saddle fit. I will not ride a horse in a treeless saddle, and do not care how many people love them. They are bad for your horse’s back, period. I won’t even discuss this subject. I studied under a wonderful saddle maker from England, and really do know what I am talking about.

    If you have any questions for me, whether you ride English, Eventing, Dressage, Western, Endurance, Reining, Trail, etc., you can contact Jocelyn at sumereltraining.com. Just fill out the contact form and address your questions to me. I really know this business of saddle fitting. We are very busy with our business, but I promise to get back to you. Thanks for your time. I hope this helps all of you who are just trying to figure out why you can’t get your horse to move the way you want him to, and even more important, I want to help you make your horse happy and healthy. Remember the Golden Rule of saddle fit: The Saddle MUST fit the horse first. Secondly, it must be comfortable for you! Happy Trails! Jocelyn Sumerel…FB, Google+, Sumerel Training and Sumerel Therapy.

    • tsf on October 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      HI Jocelyn,
      Thanks for this detailed write up! You’re points about people girthing saddles too forward and about Western saddle fit are both great. And sadly they are way to common problems out there. It is yours and our jobs to make these animals as comfortable as possible, and it seems like you’re putting in the work.

      Thanks!

      Justin

    • Candace on January 6, 2017 at 6:03 am

      More great comments here. The comment about allowing freedom of shoulder movement is very important. But I object to attacking a whole industry. The racing industry is not to blame for greedy and/or impatient owners who want to throw very young horses into training. IF you are an owner and have high and knowledgeable standards then you can find a trainer to suit. It’s the same with saddles. You have to educate yourself and then find a saddle fitter who will do what you want or be able to explain the reasons behind their suggestions.

  10. Candace on October 30, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you for this post. I have a 5 year old, 17+h mare I just have to get trained. I started her bareback as I do all my horses but since I had a rider come in I thought I should throw a saddle on her. All my other horses are 15h +. This big girl did not like the saddle at all (close contact) and nervously shied and tossed the rider twice. I am just about recovered from injuries so I can get back up. But I will just continue bareback and buy another saddle especially for this big girl!! Thanks for your experience, insights and focus.

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      Candace,
      Thanks for commenting and the kind words.

      Justin

  11. Kathryn on November 5, 2014 at 6:28 am

    I really appreciate the article and all the comments. I’m certainly not knowledgeable in saddle fitting but I do have good sense. (Something I’m not sure all riders are) I was trained to ride in college and at 60 obviously I have been riding for years . I only trail ride so over the years I have gone back to school for just a few lessons here and there. If you’re not working with a trainer regularly it’s easy to fall into bad habits.
    I only say this because too often I hear people complain about their saddle but their seat is so poor, no saddle is going to be comfortable for the horse.
    Listen to your horse’s body. I have a pacing standardbred. The saddle I rode him in was a good fit, meeting all the standards you look for. I found that every time I rode the saddle would slide back, I would be off center and my knees would ache early on. I didn’t think much of my knee pain because of my arthritis. One day in a moment of clarity, it dawned on me that I might be simply starting out with the saddle in the wrong place. I moved it back, a little more off his withers and girthed him up. Moving the saddle back put the girth back to about 5 inches from the elbow; certainly further back than ever before. I figured I could always stop and reseat the saddle if necessary. This ride was so comfortable. No sliding saddle, I stayed centered, he never stumbled and I could tell that he was just more comfortable. He is long backed but I wasn’t taking his conformation into consideration when saddling up.
    Listen to your own body. I had been riding my TW in the same saddle as the Standardbred. Again the fit was good and she was happy with it. One day I decided to ride an old saddle that I have as an emergency standby. Again, it was a good fit for my TW but the difference in the ride for me was amazing. For the first time in 20 years, my knees did not hurt, not even after 6 or 7 hours of riding. Since the saddle was the only change, I have to give the old saddle the credit. This is now my go-to saddle. FYI-Even though it’s about 35 years old, it has been reflocked and kept well oiled and pliable.

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      That’s awesome to hear Katherine. Sadly saddles are girthed up too far forward WAY more frequently that you might imagine. It is great that you saw it and fixed the problem.

      Justin

  12. chris on November 14, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks for some great info! I’ve ridden Arabians all my life and you’re never too old to learn something new! I think the majority of people buys saddles for looks, bad, bad, bad!
    Thanks, Chris

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:02 pm

      Glad you liked it Chris!

  13. Kimberly Bolling on November 14, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    I have a large OTTB six years old & approx 16.3 hands.
    I have been riding in an adjustable Bates saddle & a mattes or fleeceworks wither relief pad.
    Saddle is fairly new & by looking from the side it fits evenly across his back.
    Even when riding, I can put my fingers under the gullet & tree, & it’s not too tight.
    The other day I saw white hairs on both sides, is this a sign my saddle is too snug further back where I can’t feel?
    Thanks!

    • tsf on November 26, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      Kimberly,
      That could be, but it’s very hard to say without seeing any pictures. If you could upload a side view image of you in the saddle I’d happily comment on it. Or you can email the pictures to care@totalsaddlefit.com. It would also be helpful to see the horse’s naked back in the underside of the saddle.

      Justin

Leave a Comment