Saddle Fitting Basics
Selecting a Saddle Type
Saddles for English-style riding generally come in three basic types, dressage, all-purpose and jumping. The following is a general discussion. Please refer to the special sections in this article for more information on the three basic types as well as children’s saddles.
The manner in which the saddle is structured has to accommodate both the horse and the rider. Because both horse and rider come in all shapes and sizes finding a saddle that is a good fit for both can sometimes be tricky. Fortunately there are many saddle options on the market today, and with all of technical improvements in saddle making, most riders should be able to find a saddle to fit themselves and their horse without resorting to custom options or the use of special pads.
SmartPak does not have a saddle fitter on staff and does not provide custom saddle fitting service. However, we have chosen a selection of saddles from reputable saddle-makers which we believe provide good value for the dollar. This guide is to help you determine which model will best fit both you and your horse. SmartPak also provides a Test Ride Saddle program which encourages riders to test ride a saddle they are considering, prior to actually purchasing it.
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Fitting the Horse and Rider
Fitting the Horse: The basics of fitting a saddle to the horse are fairly consistent for the three saddle types. In general the tree should provide adequate protection to the horse’s back and be designed to place the rider in the best balance for the type of riding that he or she is doing; the panels underneath the saddle should conform to, and aid in protecting, the horse’s back; the girthing system should be located in a manner to effectively hold the saddle on the horse; and the seat style should provide support for the rider without being overly restrictive.
Saddle trees come in various widths and may have special features. The general directions on evaluating a saddle’s fit will explain the basics on how to tell if the tree size is correct for your horse.
Fitting the Rider: Saddles come in a variety of seat and flap sizes and designs. It is important to find the correct seat and flap size and shape. Determining the seat size varies depending upon the type of saddle, and in the case of dressage saddles, on the depth of the seat. The build of the rider, whether very slender or somewhat stocky, tall or short, short or long thighs, etc. will also affect the style of saddle within a saddle type that will fit the best. There will also be personal preferences for the type, durability, and color of leather.
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Trying a Saddle for Fit
Place the saddle on the horse’s back and slide it back to about two fingers width behind the shoulder blade.
If the saddle meets the requirements of (1), attach the leathers and stirrups and girth it up over a light-weight saddle pad.
- a. Check to see that the pommel clears the withers by at least a couple of finger widths.
- b. Check to see that the front of the saddle panels are behind the shoulder blades.
- c. Check the panels, which should mold to the horse’s side, touching equally along the length. If it touches in the front and back, but not in the middle it is “bridging”. This can be fairly subtle to see and if slight may go away once the horse is warmed up. But, it could be an indication that the paneling shape or length is not correct for that horse. This usually happens on a very short-backed horse or one that is hollow behind the withers or has a high croup.
Lunge the horse at walk, trot and canter to see if the saddle shifts forwards, backwards or laterally. Check to see if the cantle tends to rock or bounce up and down at the trot. If any of these conditions are present, you may want to try another model.
If it still looks good, mount up, making certain that you are not pulling the saddle out of position in the process, and try it out at all three gaits.
- a. The lowest part of the seat should be in the middle of the saddle.
- b. The pommel should still easily clear the horse’s withers by at least the height of about two to three fingers. But, it should not be so high that the lowest point of the saddle is towards the cantle.
- c. The channel between the panels should provide sufficient width throughout its length for the horse’s spine.
- d. The cantle should be higher than the pommel.
- a. You should feel comfortable and well-balanced at all gaits. If not, you will need to determine whether the seat size is too large or small, whether the leathers are hanging in the appropriate place to allow you to balance correctly (this depends upon the type of riding you are doing), whether the twist (the portion of the seat immediately behind the pommel) is too narrow or too wide for comfort, or other point of discomfort.
- b. Is your horse comfortable with you in the saddle? Is he moving freely in both directions?
- c. Ride in the saddle at least a couple of times prior to making a decision. If you and your horse are comfortable, you have made the correct selection. If not, try and analyze what doesn’t feel correct so that you can try another model or seat or tree size that might work better.
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Details on Specific Saddle Types
The dressage saddle is the saddle type that has undergone the most design modifications in the past two decades as saddle makers, in conjunction with top riders, have modified the materials and shape of the trees to accommodate the shape and movement of the modern dressage horse. The purpose is to provide more freedom for the shoulders and ease of lateral bending. Modifications have also been made to benefit the rider: the construction of the seat varies from fairly open to very supportive with many variations in between, flap shapes and padding, thigh blocks etc. vary widely by brand and model to accommodate rider comfort and amount of support needed. The choice of flap design, size and placement of thigh supports, depth of seat, type of leather, aesthetics, etc. is very personal. You may need to try several options prior to making a decision.
The saddle tree can be of reinforced wood or synthetic materials. The points of a saddle tree have also been re-designed so that they interfere less with the horse’s shoulders while still providing stability.
The stirrup bar: For dressage this has been extended or moved further under the leg to promote a more vertical leg position. A longer-legged person will usually need a longer bar, or one placed further back, than a short-legged person.
Panels, the padding underneath the seat, have been re-designed on many models to spread the weight of the rider over a broader portion of the muscling on either side of the horse’s spine. The central channel (gullet) between the panels has also been broadened to accommodate the broader backs of many warmbloods. Riders on Thoroughbreds or other more narrow horses, for instance, would not necessarily look for that particular feature. It is important to have the panels rest on the muscle pads with sufficient clearance for the spine. Panel shapes vary and may be gusseted or not. The length and shape of the panels, as well as the type of panel fill has a great deal to do with comfort for your horse and are worth spending some time studying. Backs that are short, dip sharply behind the withers, rise to the croup, very round or very flat etc. all need to be considered when determining the panel type best for the horse. Panels have traditionally been filled with wool flocking. However, the quality of wool flocking varies. Air, synthetic wool, and foam are used successfully by some manufacturers.
Fitting the rider: Personal preference as well as the rider’s experience level, length of leg and pelvic bone width should be taken into consideration. There are many variations on the market today of the width of the twist, width of the saddle seat, amount of padding in, and depth of, the seat with new modifications appearing yearly. There are an infinite variety of thigh blocks and padded flaps to provide support for the rider’s leg, and a variety of flap shapes, some requiring quite a straight leg yet others relaxed a bit forward to relieve stress on the hips, a necessity for many riders. Some riders prefer a high level of support while others prefer more freedom to move their leg or their seat. This will affect whether you choose a deep- or more open seat, more or less leg support, etc.
The width of the saddle flap should provide sufficient protection to the rider’s thigh and upper calf while applying the aids. The length should be sufficient so that the bottom of the flap does not catch on the top of the rider’s boot, yet not be so long that the top of the stirrup is near or overlapping the flap. Usually, the bottom of the flap should not be lower than mid-calf with your foot in the stirrup. Most saddle makers offer a “standard” length as well as “short” or “long”. Most standard length flaps are 16-18” (vertical distance from the bottom of the saddle bar to the bottom of the flap) depending upon the brand and model. However, depending upon the manufacturer, flap length may be available on special order from 13” to 19”. All saddles currently available at SmartPak have standard length flaps for that manufacturer and do vary by brand and model from 16-18”.
Jumping saddles have also been re-designed in the past couple of decades to improve comfort and balance for the rider as well as comfort for the horse. Wider, thicker panels and improved gullet design provide more protection for the horse’s back. In addition, re-positioning the stirrup bar more forward allows the rider to balance properly over fences without having to move the saddle too far forward over the horse’s shoulder. The angle of the flap, position of the flap padding as well as width and depth of seat vary from brand to brand. Some brands offer stitched-in or moveable knee and/or thigh blocks and some offer a soft, padded knee pad. The amount of support desired may depend upon the purpose for which the saddle is intended, whether for high performance jumping or eventing or for lower level hunter courses. The rider’s build and length of leg must be taken into consideration in selecting the appropriate seat size as well as flap length and position.
All Purpose Saddles
The all-purpose saddle is just that, a saddle modified to allow the rider to lengthen the stirrup and ride with a longer leg for lower-level dressage, and yet has enough of a forward flap to allow enough of a bend in the leg for jumping. It is a fine saddle for trail riding and lower level eventing, but is not really specialized in the positioning of the flap or stirrup bar or design of the seat to be really effective for a rider specializing in either dressage or jumping.
Several manufacturers carry saddle models that are specifically proportioned for the bodies and leg length of children, providing an adequate, or better, quality of workmanship at a reasonable price. Generally, the seat size for a child is 15” or 16”, with a flap length proportioned according to the style of saddle, although some models may be as small as 13”. Most children’s saddles are available in the wider tree needed to accommodate most ponies. 42” or 48” leathers and 4” or 4 ¼” stirrups are suitable for most children.
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