Behaviors in Horses with Poorly Fitted Saddles

Updated August 25, 2023

Is your horse not acting like herself under saddle? A change in your horse’s performance or behavior could be due to the saddle not fitting well. 

A properly fitted saddle conforms to and aids in protecting your horse’s back while allowing her to move as freely as possible. However, poor saddle fit can cause uncomfortable pinching on the withers or topline and even pain across your horse’s entire body. 

However, poor performance and changes in behavior are not always linked to saddle fit—other health issues can cause them, too. It is important to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any physical problems, such as dental issues or lameness.

Common Signs of a Poor Saddle Fit

A behavior change or difference in performance is one of the first indicators of a poorly fitted saddle. Ask yourself if your horse displays any of these issues:

A horse with an uncomfortable or moody look in her face.
  • Change in attitude such as pinning ears back, biting, or kicking when being saddled
  • Avoiding being tacked or mounted
  • Tail swishing, especially at the canter or during transitions
  • Not picking up the canter
  • Being girthy or cinchy 
  • Lack of impulsion or performance up to her usual standards
  • Irregular gaits or tripping

If you answered yes to any of these behaviors and have ruled out a physical issue with your veterinarian, it might be time to consult a professional saddle fitter.

Why Does Saddle Fit Change?

Horses' backs change shape and conditioning with age and work, just like people. A study completed in the United Kingdom tracked and measured topline changes in 104 sport horses in normal work over one year. The researchers traced the withers with a device before and after the horses were exercised. Their data showed that the tracing was different after a 30-minute ride, which means your horse's back will change during a ride. 

A common method for dealing with saddle fit is adding another pad. However, if you consider the reason why your saddle isn't fitting, an additional layer of padding might not solve that issue. 

For instance, if a saddle is too narrow and you try adding a half pad, you’ll make the fit even narrower. If the saddle is too wide, the pads could provide some help, but not in every situation. Often, pads may serve as a band-aid rather than the medicine of having your saddle properly fitted by a professional.

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.