We turned to AQHA Professional Horseman, Kevin Oliver for helpful tips on how to make sure your Western saddle fits correctly.
Oliver is a lifelong horseman and fifth-generation Texan whose cowboy roots provided a firm foundation for his work as a successful trainer, top competitor in Versatility Ranch Horse (VRH), and also an AQHA specialty judge in VRH.
He shared that back in his cowboying days, he routinely spent 14 to 16 hours a day on horseback.
"When you spend that many hours on a horse, you need a saddle that fits or it will sore your horse," says Oliver.
But whether you spend most of the day, or less than an hour riding, it's still vital for your saddle to fit the horse properly. If not, problems will arise, sooner or later.
Unwanted behavior is a common concern that results from poor saddle fit. A horse may "act up" for no apparent reason, or not relax even after he's warmed up. He may act differently when you ride, such as pinning his ears or swishing his tail. The horse may even object to being saddled, and/or show sensitivity when his back is groomed or touched.
Other signs a saddle doesn't fit right can include:
- • Head tossing
- • Reluctance/refusal to change leads
- • Lack of extension
- • Excessive concussion or choppy movement
- • Inability to use back and hindquarters properly
- • Muscle atrophy or lack of development, despite exercise
- • Uneven hoof wear
- • Lameness
Another indication your saddle doesn't fit is if you constantly feel like you're trying to stay balanced when riding. When a saddle is too wide for the horse, it will often tip forward, so if you often feel out of balance, it might be the saddle--not you!
You may have seen a horse with small patches of white hair on his back in the saddle and/or withers area. Oliver explains that this is a dead give-away that the horse has had a poor-fitting saddle at some point.
"White spots, which some people refer to as 'hot spots,' indicate that the saddle tree has put so much pressure on the area, that it damaged or killed the hair follicles," he notes. "This is why the hair turns white in these areas."
Obviously a horse is in significant discomfort if his saddle causes pressure points that are severe enough to injure hair follicles. Even if the hair has not turned white, a poor-fitting saddle can leave rub or wear marks on the horse's back in front of the hips and/or at the withers.
Check that Fit
How can you make sure your saddle fits properly?
"To check fit, put the saddle on your horse's back without a pad," advises Oliver.
"You want it to sit where you're going to ride it." The saddle is built on a "tree" and has "bars" along each side. When a saddle fits well, those bars make contact all along the horse's back, dispersing the pressure across the weight-bearing area. If the bars do not make contact evenly, this concentrates the rider's weight into a smaller area, which can lead to painful pressure points, as mentioned above. Simply put, you want the bottom of the saddle to match the shape of your horse's back as closely as possible.
With the saddle on without any pad, you should be able to assess the bars. "The bars of the tree should lay completely flat on the back without any rocking," says Oliver.
He wants the saddle skirt to fit close to the horse's back. Whether the saddle has a rounded or square skirt, long or short, the skirts should contour well along the horse's back. You don't want to see a gap between the saddle’s skirt and the horse at the back of the saddle because this means the saddle will rock forward. (Don't worry, a good pad will keep the skirts from rubbing the hair off the hips.)
Stand back and look at your horse from the side to be sure the saddle is not too long for his back. A too-long saddle will put pressure on the withers and loin area.
Keep the saddle in place on the horse's bare back, but don't cinch it up. Now see if you can "rock" the saddle forward and back. "A good-fitting saddle will rest right in the 'pocket' on the horse's back and will never rock up and down from front to back," notes Oliver.
If the saddle passes these checks, go ahead and put your pad on the horse and cinch up the saddle. For your horse's comfort, always pull your pad up into the gullet. This takes pressure off the sciatic nerve and also allows air to circulate better under the saddle.
Next, check saddle fit with the rider mounted. The saddle should never make contact with the horse's spine or withers at any point.
Look at the gullet. It should clear the withers with plenty of space and never even come close to resting on the withers (with a rider in the saddle). Oliver likes a higher gullet, because that will allow the saddle to fit a variety of horses, from mutton-withered (flat) to high withered.
Check to see that the fender moves freely and allows you to swing your legs forward easily.
"If the saddle has a back cinch, it should be just tight enough that you can slide your fist sideways between the girth and the horse's side," says Oliver.
When buying a saddle, keep in mind that saddle trees of the same description can vary significantly. And just because you ride a big Quarter Horse doesn't mean "full Quarter Horse bars" will make for a perfect fit. A saddle needs to fit the particular horse you ride, not just a general type or breed of horse.
It's risky to buy a saddle without being able to try it on your horse. If you choose this option, be sure there is a return policy.
Oliver strongly recommends going to the source and buying from the saddle maker, if at all possible.
"And if they're not willing to let you try the saddle on your horse before you buy it, don't buy that saddle," he adds.
Oliver cautions against using pads to try and make a saddle fit. It won't work and can just cause more problems.
"Too thick of a pad can even make a saddle not fit. It can make a saddle wobble and that will create saddle sores," he says. "People will also try to make a saddle fit by buying an expensive pad, when what they need to do is get rid of the saddle, because that's what's hurting the horse."
Finally, remember that a horse's back changes over the years depending on his weight and condition. This means the same saddle may not fit the same horse for a lifetime, so keep that in mind and check for proper fit from time to time.