Saddle Fitting: English and Alternative Saddles, both Treed and Treeless

Saddle Functions

A) A saddle provides a stable base of support for the rider, distributing the
rider’s weight across the horse’s back evenly.

B) A saddle provides the horse with a comfortable structure to move freely
under the rider’s weight during chosen activities.

C) A saddle provides a structure for Stirrups.

D) A saddle provides safety and security for the rider.

Traditional Saddle Construction & Design

A) Parts of the Saddle

Gullet Plate & Points

Tree Bars /Rails







Stirrup Bars

Alternative Saddle Choices

A) Alternative Saddle Choices

o Treeless Saddles

o Flexible Panel Saddles

o Half Tree Saddles

o Reinforced Flexible Base Saddles

Getting To Know Your Horse’s Topography

A) Measuring the Horse’s Topography

An Equimeasure is a very handy reusable sheet of high tech plastic that is
heated and then molds to the shape of your horse’s back. The advantage
here is that it is a three dimensional representation. This means that you can
take it to a saddle shop or saddler and actually put the saddle on the
molded sheet to check the fit.

Another way to measure the topography is to trace the topline and cut it out
of cardboard. This will of course be mainly a two dimensional
representation. This method measures fairly accurately the side to side
dimensions of your horse.

Observing Your Horse’s Overall Shape

Areas to Consider:

o How is the barrel sprung?

o Where is the natural girth groove?

o Is the shoulder straight, laid back, flat or bulgy?

o Is the curvature of the topline normal, straight, roached or swayed?

o Assess the horse’s condition. Palpate with a belly lift for soreness, atrophy
of general muscle tone.

o Age / condition, will they change soon?

o Current fitness level versus working level.

o The activity you will be doing together.

o Does the horse have significant seasonal changes?

o Prior injuries.

Finally, observe your horse at liberty in all gaits in order to determine how
the back changes during movement. Realize that adding a rider will alter
this. How much the back is effected depends on the rider’s skill level,
weight and height compatibility with the horse.

Understanding Rider Needs & Fit

The Checklist:

o What model of saddle do I need for my planned activities?

o Seat depth needs to be chosen for individual comfort, skill level, terrain
and safety.

- Does my size match my horse’s size?

- Am I a novice or a skilled rider?

- Is my balance in all transitions good or do I need help from the saddle?

- Is my upper body tall and longer in proportion to my leg length?

- Where will I be riding and what type of activities will I be doing?

- What kind of gaits does my horse have?

- Is my horse quiet and experienced or green and more rambunctious?

o The seat size is determined by both the size of your rear end and the
length of the thigh from hip to knee (also see flap placement).

o Seat width is decided by the distance between your seat bones.

o Seat density – do you prefer a soft, cushy seat or a firmer, more supportive

o The seat contour is determined by the placement and shape of your seat
bones. Flat set bones need a seat that is flat across the top otherwise one or
both seat bones will dangle off the side.

o Twist width is an important area of rider comfort and saddle fit to
consider. It is partially determined by the tree and gullet width that your
horse needs. If you need a narrow twist and have a wide horse, customized
saddles can be made to build a ‘pyramid’ for the rider while allowing the
horse to have the true shape and size needed.

o The flap length is determined by your leg length in the stirrups. The
correct length allows the horse to clearly feel your leg aids and does not
catch your boot or chap top.

o Flap placement needs to accommodate the front edge of your knee, taking
into account the type of knee roll. The knees should fit comfortably in the
knee roll when your stirrups are at ideal lengths.

o Stirrup bar placement is a very important saddle fitting factor that
significantly effects rider balance, comfort and safety. Optimal placement
creates a leg hang that forms a good shoulder, hip and heel alignment.
Some people, due to personal conformation, prior injury or riding a wide
horse, may need to ride with a slightly more forward alignment. Many
saddles have adjustable stirrup bars as a special order option. (Note: For
safely’s sake please ride with the stirrup bar safety catch open and with
safety stirrups. To reduce bulk under the leg run the stirrup leather buckle
down to the top of the stirrup and secure it with specially made keepers)

o Cantle rise – the steeper the rise the more closed the seat will be, thus
restricting freedom of movement for the rider’s pelvis.

o The pommel rise needs to be the proper height to suit your pubic bone
and pelvic structure.

o Skirt contour – If you have flat or hollow inner thighs, a more convex skirt
will probably work best. Foam can be cut and tucked under the skirt to fill
in the area for a quick fix. For those with a more developed inner thigh, a
more concave skirt may be more desirable.

Choosing a Match for Horse & rider

With what you learned in chapters 4 and 5, you should have a fairly clear
picture of what is needed to choose a saddle that matches both you and
your horse. The following is an outline that will help you make a good

1) What kind of saddle do I want, traditional or alternative?

2) What model is best for my purposes?

o Trail / Endurance

o Dressage

o Hunter for low fences

o Jumper

3) Size and shape gullet plate – make sure to ask the dealer/manufacturer if
the points of the tree are angled in same way your horse’s shoulder is
angled and about the length of the points. Also ask if the tree bars / gullet
widen under the stirrup bars where many horse widens. Then find out if the
gullet plate just widens at the bottom or if the entire shape changes in wider
tree sizes. A wise thing to do here is to request that the measurements and
shape be sent to you so you can see first hand. Also very important for
proper saddle fit is to allow for padding thickness when selecting the tree
size. Determine what numnahs or interface pads you will need when
making this selection. Remember that a gullet needs to be 2 1/2 -3″ fingers
wide throughout for the saddle fitting to accommodate the horse’s spine.
Some horses need even more to prevent impinging on spinal processes
during lateral or circular work. Also note that the gullet width needs to be
approximately 1 finger wider at each side of your horse’s spine throughout.
Special attention should be paid to where your horse’s back widens.

4) The curvature of the bars/rails of the tree also need to match the horse’s
topline curvature.

5) The panel width and pitch needs to match your horses shape and back

6) The length of the area on the horse’s back available for a saddle needs to
match the actual length of the saddle. If you are a small rider on a horse that
needs a longer weight bearing surface, some alternative customized saddles
can be made with longer panels and smaller seat size to match your saddle
fit needs. Or for a short backed horse the opposite can be ordered.

7) Is an extra gusset in either the front or rear required to level the saddle?

8) Choose what flocking material you prefer.

9) Does my horse’s shape and size change enough that I may require in
time a slightly larger tree or an interim alternative option or a saddle that can
be adjusted to our unique saddle fitting needs?

10) The flap length and placement need to accommodate the rider’s leg and
riding activity.

11) The seat size and shape need to match the rider for comfort and safety.

12) The stirrup bar placement should promote appropriate shoulder, hip
and heel alignment for the rider.

13) The twist/skirt/cantle and pommel rise should match the rider’s pelvis

Assessing Your Horse’s Saddle Fit

1) Placement of the Saddle

On a bare back for clearer viewing, place the saddle approximately 2 fingers
behind the rear edge of the horse’s scapula. There will be a place on most
horses that the saddle will settle into. If you need to readjust the saddle, lift it
off the horse’s back and take it forward rather than dragging it against the lay
of the hair. Finding the ‘sweet spot’ for saddle placement is key in
determining the balance of the saddle in later steps. Saddles with trees must
have the point of the tree behind the scapula in this spot and not just the
flap. If the flap angle confuses you just lift the flap, find the point of the tree
and align it with this area. Some flexible panel and treeless saddles overlap
the scapula and are made to allow the shoulder to slide under the front.
This is not possible in most treed saddles unless the points are specially
angled to allow them to slide; but even they are not over the scapula, but
are just behind it. Also check the gullet plate size and shape to make sure it
conforms to your horse, making sure that you allow for pad width.

The next steps are seen more clearly on a bare back. Pads will be added
later and steps 2-10 are repeated with pads. When horses work, muscles
engorge with blood and enlarge. It is wise therefore to leave expansion
room of about 1/4″ on each side in the gullet plate / shoulder area for the
horse’s comfort and freedom of movement. This is where using an
appropriate interface pad or front shim is a plus. Also young or atrophied
horses are better served with a slightly wider treed that is padded to allow
for growth, muscling and comfort.

2) Panel Contact

Panel contact side to side needs to be a broad, flat area of contact with
beveled edges on both the spine side and the outside. For good saddle
fitting check to make sure that this contact matches the horse. Sometimes
flocking can be adusted and beauty of flocking is that it can be adjusted
somewhat to conform to the horse over time.

3) Verticle Whither Clearance for Saddles with Trees

Traditional thought is that verticle whither clearance from the pommel
needs to be not less than 2 1/2 – 3 fingers (2 – 2 1/2 fingers with the rider in
the saddle), with allowance for padding. It is the author’s opinion that when
many broken in treed saddles are level over all pads with the rider on, the
clearance can be as little as 11/2 fingers. If there is doubt observe how well
the horse likes it. For jumping saddles a bit more room is desirable. A newly
flocked saddle can drop 1/2 – 1 finger as it breaks in depending on flocking
density and rider weight, so please allow for this. Some dressage saddles
have such a steep rise to the pommel (high head plate that a 2 – 3 finger
whither clearance alone is not a reliable indicator of balance. For good
saddle fit, basically the whithers need to be vertically free of pressure with
the rider on. Treeless saddles sometimes only have 1- 1 1/2 fingers
clearance depending on the brand.

4) Tree Bar/Rails & Panel Curvature

Tree bar curvature and panel curvature front to back needs to conform to
the moving horse’s shape. With the horse’s back lifted, feel under the panel
for any gaps and note where they are. Sometimes a small amount of
bridging (gap) is advantageous if it coincides with the horse’s back lift. A
large gap from the stirrup bar area to the approximate rear of the flap may
indicate either a tree with bars/rails that are too flat for your horse, panels
that need to be filled in, or a horse with a swayed back that can possibly be
filled in with a center shim until the back can be built up. The determination
of the later is best made in conjunction with a veterinarian or equine body
worker. Avoid trying to fill in a poorly fitting saddle, it rarely works to create
good saddle fit.

Next put one hand on the pommel and the other on the cantle to determine
if the saddle rocks front to back. Sometimes just adding your riding pad will
correct a rocking saddle if the front is a bit too wide. But if this does not
remedy the situation you need to see if the tree bars/rails and panels are too
curved for your horse’s shape or if the panel flocking has a pivot point. A
saddler can often glue a small wedge onto the tree under the front or rear
panels to give a flatter tree shape, or flatten the center of the panels if the
rock is slight. Another reason a saddle may rock is that the tree is just too
wide to remain stable, even with padding. Too much padding also makes
for a laterally unstable saddle.

For good saddle fitting and functioning it is also important to check under
the rear edge of the panels with the rider seated to see if the panels dig in.
For going up and down hills, high level dressage and jumping, more back
edge clearance is necessary. In this case you might need a saddler to bevel
the panels up and away. However if all you do is happily go down the road
and ask for minimal lift, then be honest with yourself and fit for this kind of
activity. Either way it is very important to be aware of what you are asking
your horse to do and fit accordingly.

5) Gullet Width

A gullet width of approximately 2 1/2 – 3 ” fingers throughout is necessary
for the horse’s comfort. The gullet needs to widen where your horse widens
which is usually in the twist / stirrup bar area. The inside edge of the gullet
needs to be approximately 1 finger width away on each side of the spine
front to back.

6) Panel Pitch

Panel pitch determines the lateral stability of the saddle. Panel pitch should
approximate the pitch of the horse’s back

7) Vertical Gullet Clearance (also see (2) in this section)

Vertical gullet clearance should be 2-2 1/2 fingers throughout the saddle,
unless you have a treeless saddle then less is needed for good saddle fit.
Observe your horse carefully for ruffled hairs and breakage in the spine area
after riding in your treeless saddle. Interface pads are a saddle fitting tool that
can be used to create a gullet depending of the thickness of the pad.

8) Saddle Balance

To balance the saddle the deepest part of the seat needs to be in the center
of the saddle. You can check this by placing a large round barreled marker
on the saddle seat. It will settle at the lowest point. Sometimes a small shim
on the front or back or a spot flocking is all that is needed to level the seat.
Also make sure to take the rider’s weight in account. A heavier rider may
need a more densely flocked saddle or added padding to stay level. If a
saddle is very unlevel and you are sure that the tree size is correct, you may
need to ask for a saddle with extra gussets on the front and rear if your horse
is croup / whither high. For young growing horses ask your saddler which
will be the easiest adjustable solution. Sometimes one of the new air pads or
Equalizer pads with shims work well and improve the saddle fit in this

9) Girth Placement, Size & Shape

The girth optimally lies at the narrowest point on the belly. Use the billet
straps that will allow for this placement. Also select a shape and width of
girth that will give the broadest area for the disbursement of pressure over
the sternum, while still allowing for elbow clearance (see equipment
section). This is why 3 or more billets are a plus.

10) Possible Saddle Asymmetries

Finally check the saddle for any manufacturing asymmetries, flocking
unevenness, etc, both top and bottom.

11) Saddle Fitting with Pads & Rider

Now repeat steps 2-9 with all the pads on, the rider in the seat and a with
helper on the ground. Special attention also needs to be paid when doing
step 2, with the helper running a hand down the front of the gullet plate to
make sure that there is a comfortable amount of room for muscle expansion
on both sides while the horse is standing or at a walk

12) Break In Period

Allow for a gradual break in during the first few test rides. Thirty minutes or
less seems to work well, gradually increasing the ride by fifteen minutes
every fourth ride until you get to your normal ride duration. Your horse will
thank you for this.

13) Pads & Interface Pads

All pads need to be 1 – 1 1/2″ longer on both ends of the saddle. All edges,
seams and bindings also need to be clear of the saddle edges. Contour pads
are a saddle fit plus as they avoid spine pressure. If you are using an
interface pad make sure the gullet on your saddle and the gullet in the pad
match and the panels do not not just ‘sit’ on the edge of either.

14) Using Mounting Blocks

Mounting from a mounting block whenever possible will save both your
saddle and your horse’s spine from misalignments. Also get in the habit of
mounting alternatively from either side even when using a block.

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