Fit For a Horse: Can Your Tack Pass a Fitness Test?
By Melanie Huggett
Many people consider tack fit in terms of the rider: the saddle gives us support and comfort on the horse’s back and the bridle reins to guide the horse’s front. But tack fit is also extremely important to your horse. Ill fitting tack can impede your horse’s performance as well as be a detriment to both his physical and mental health.
“Saddle fit is directly related to the performance and attitude of the horse under saddle,” says Ingrid Brown, a representative of County Saddles. “It is like wearing a shoe. If you have ever had to wear a pair that doesn’t fit properly, you will know how unpleasant it is to walk around in them. Now, how about running, jumping, and performing as an athlete in ill fitting shoes?”
“Saddle fit is crucial to the well-being of the horse. In many instances, the horse is performing in spite of a poorly fitting saddle,” says Sabine Schleese of Schleese Saddlery.
Likewise, an ill fitting bridle can make your horse unhappy and uncomfortable.
So, how can we tell if our tack is fitting correctly?
Traditional saddles are built on a tree, which acts like a skeleton to which the outer materials (usually leather and padding) are attached. The entire tree must conform to the shape of the horse’s back. “You want the angles of the skeletal structure of the saddle to align with the skeletal structure of your horse,” says Brown.
No matter what type of saddle you use, the basics of saddle fit are the same. The saddle must provide adequate clearance for the spine and withers, and conform evenly to the shape of the horse’s back in order to provide good weight distribution without pressure points. It must not interfere with the shoulder blades at the front, dig into the hips at the back, or extend beyond the last rib.
Your saddle should fit in the following areas. Always check for saddle fit without using saddle pads and without a rider first.
Place the saddle onto your horse’s back just in front the withers. Gently slide the saddle back until it feels like it wants to stop on its own. Repeat this process a few times until you find the “sweet spot,” which is where the saddle should sit. With Western saddles, the saddle skirt should not dig into the horse’s hips.
Saddle Placement: “Many riders place the saddle too far forward so it’s sitting on top of the scapula (shoulder blade),” says Lindsay Grice, a coach, trainer, and judge in Western and English events from Orangeville, Ontario.
The points (English) or fork (Western) of the tree must sit behind the shoulder blades. Do not confuse the points with the flaps or skirt at the front of the saddle; this is especially easy to do with English jumping type saddles, where the flaps extend far ahead of the gullet. Lift up the flaps of the saddle to find the pockets where the hard tree points sit.
Channel Width and Clearance: The channel is the space down the center of the saddle that runs over the horse’s spine. The channel must be wide enough and tall enough to ensure there is no contact between the saddle and the horse’s spine. Run your thumb and forefinger along either side of your horse’s vertebrae. The distance between your thumb and finger is the minimum width that the saddle channel must be. Typically this is three to four fingers wide.
Also ensure that the channel gives adequate height clearance for the entire length of the saddle. With an English saddle, you should be able to see light shining through the channel when looking forward from behind your horse.
The angle of the forks of a Western saddle, or the gullet plate of an English saddle, must match the angle of the horse. Photo: Pam MacKenzie
Gullet Angle and Wither Clearance: The gullet is the front of the tree, which supports the front of the saddle and provides clearance for the withers. The angle of the gullet bar (English) or forks (Western) must match the angle of your horse’s back.
Again, make very sure you are judging fit in this area based on the tree itself, not the padding, skirts, or flaps on the saddle.
The gullet must also provide enough clearance for the withers — three to four fingers of space without a rider.
Panel/Bar Contact: The shape of the panels/bars must match the shape of your horse’s back, contacting the back for the entire length of the panel. Feel along the panels with your hand to check for contact. The panels should be smooth, without any lumps or bumps. Incorrect panel contact includes bridging, rocking, and pressure points. Bridging is where the front and back of the saddle contact the back, but the middle does not. Rocking is when the saddle contacts in the middle, but not at the front or back, causing it to “rock” forwards and backwards. Rocking, bridging, and lumpy panels cause pressure points, which are small areas of increased pressure that cause pain and discomfort.
Balance: The saddle must be balanced front to back and left to right. With the saddle placed on the back of your horse, stand off to the side, perpendicular to the saddle. Look at the deepest point of the seat; it should be level. So should the relationship of the pommel to the cantle. The saddle should neither appear to tip backwards or forwards. Grice suggests laying a pen across the seat to check for levelness. If the pen comes to rest in the center, the saddle is likely level.
Step forward and push straight down on the pommel (front); does the back of the saddle lift up? If so, the tree is likely too wide.
Next, stand behind your horse, on a stool or ladder if required, so you have a good view of the saddle on the horse’s back from behind. The saddle should sit in the center of the back. Imagine the horse’s spine is a line that goes right through the saddle. The saddle should fit evenly, so there is no more saddle on one side or the other.
If your saddle fits in all these areas on the ground without a rider, it’s time to tack up and hop on! With the horse standing square, recheck each area with the weight of the rider. If it still appears to fit, go on a ride. Pay attention to what your horse is telling you: are his strides long and comfortable or short and choppy? Is he relaxed and supple or tense and hollowing his back? Is he willing or unwilling to go forward? “The most important thing to look at when assessing whether a saddle fits or not is to listen to your horse,” says Brown. “Horses don’t lie and when you have a saddle that fits your horse, you will know it.”
If you find that your saddle is not fitting in one or more of the above areas, what do you do? A remedy may be available or you may need a different saddle.
If your Western saddle rubs or digs into the hip bones, for example, this may be because you have placed your saddle too far back, or it could be because the skirts are too large for the horse. First ensure that you are placing the saddle in the correct position. If the skirts still dig in, then you likely need a shorter skirt. Horses with short backs may require a rounded skirt or a different style of saddle (e.g. Arab tree).
If the channel of your saddle is too narrow for your horse’s spine, you need a saddle with a wider channel.
“The most common saddle fit issue that I see is trees that are too narrow or too wide,” says Brown. Remember, the angle of the tree points/forks must match the angle of your horse. A saddle that is not balanced from back to front is a good indication that the tree is too narrow or wide. If it tips backwards, it is likely too narrow. If it tips forwards, it is likely too wide. If the tree is not the correct size, a new saddle will be required.
The degree of panel contact problems will indicate whether it is something that can be fixed or whether you need a new saddle. If there is severe bridging, for example, you will likely need to find a saddle with a more “banana” shaped tree to fill the space in your horse’s back. Slight bridging can often be solved by restuffing an English saddle, or shimming a Western saddle.
“Most horses will be unevenly muscled,” says Schleese. “Most are left-handed and muscled accordingly. If the saddle is fitted completely straight, the result will be, because of the more heavily muscled left shoulder, it will slide to the right.” When you view the saddle from behind to check for balance and straightness, you will notice that it looks lopsided if this is the case. With many English saddles, you can stuff the panels so that the saddle fits the horse’s asymmetries.
The purpose of the saddle pad is to provide protection to the saddle from the horse’s sweat. Ideally, the saddle itself provides all the fit and comfort that is required. A thin pad should be all that’s needed with a properly fitted saddle.
However, nowadays there are a great many saddle pads designed to fix saddle fit problems. These include riser pads, wedge pads, shims, etc. But do they work and should we use them?
In general, minor saddle fit problems can be alleviated with padding. However, major problems, such as a tree that is too narrow, can never be solved with padding. Think back to the shoe analogy: if you had a pair of shoes that were too small for your feet, would putting on an extra pair of socks make them fit better? Of course not!
“Wedge pads, shims, and gel pads can even out the slight problems in a Western saddle, but it’s better to find one that fits right on a bare back first,” says Grice.
“When the tree fits and minor adjustments are required, shims and saddle pads can help balance the rider,” says Brown. “However, when the tree does not fit, no matter what you do, the horse will experience discomfort.”
When choosing a pad to help with minor issues, choose a pad that is smooth from front to back, rather than one that drastically changes in height in the middle or simply drops off. For example, think of choosing a pad shaped like a smooth wedge rather than a block or series of blocks. Pads which drop off suddenly cause bridging, as the saddle no longer contacts the horse’s back in that area.
Also choose pads which do not fill the channel. Remember, the channel is meant to provide space for the horse’s spine; filling the channel with material means the saddle now contacts the horse’s spine.
While attention is given mostly to saddle fit, bridle fit is important too. A poorly fitted bridle can knock the bit into the horse’s teeth or jaw, pinch the skin, and cause sores.
The headstall is the main part of both the English and Western bridle. It consists of a piece of leather that goes around the horse’s head behind the ears, and attaches to the bit. A throatlatch runs underneath the throat to stop the bridle from being pulled off over the ears. There may also be a browband that goes over the horse’s forehead.
The headstall should sit comfortably on the horse’s head. Make sure the straps lie behind the bulbs of the horse’s ears, not on top of them. The browband should not pinch, pull the bridle forward onto the ears, or pull the cheek pieces up so they rub the horse’s eyes. The throatlatch should sit in the space behind the cheek, “just loose enough that it won’t dig into the horse when he flexes to come on the bit,” says Grice.
Most English bridles also have nosebands (also called cavesson). The purpose of the noseband is to stop the horse from gaping his mouth or crossing his jaw. Grice says she commonly sees nosebands placed too low, where “it can pinch skin between the bit and noseband when the rider pulls back on the reins.” The noseband should be snug but not tight.
Flash nosebands have an additional strap that runs diagonally from the top of the noseband to beneath the chin in front of the bit. A common problem is fastening the flash too tightly. This can cut off a horse’s breathing as it sits over the soft part of the horse’s nose above the nostrils. You should be able to fit two fingers between the flash and the nose. The noseband should be tighter than the flash so that the flash does not pull the noseband down.
The main purpose of the bridle is to hold the bit or bit replacement (e.g. a hackamore). The bit must sit in the space between the incisors and the molars, called the “bars.” It should neither hang too low, where it can move and bang around in the horse’s mouth, nor too high, where it will contact the molars and pinch the sides of the mouth. The bit should sit in the mouth so that there are one or two wrinkles in the skin at the corners.
Curb bits also have a curb strap or chain. “I see curb chains that are too tight, providing no release, or too loose so that they’re ineffective,” says Grice. The curb chain should sit flat in the chin groove with approximately two fingers of space. There should be no pressure when there is no action on the bit, and some pressure when there is action on the bit. “Just put your finger behind the curb strap and then pull back on the shanks of the bit. Do you feel pressure on your finger when you pull back?” says Grice.
With properly fitted and adjusted tack, your horse will be able to perform comfortably and to his full potential.
Signs of Poor Saddle Fit
By Melanie Huggett
Our horse’s behaviours are perhaps the best indication of poor saddle fit. If your horse exhibits any of the following signs, check that your saddle fits properly and comfortably.
White hairs and muscle atrophy are signs of poor saddle fit over an extended period
- Physical signs such as the last four in this list should be treated with great concern:
- Objecting to being saddled or bridled, “cinchy;”
- Hypersensitivity to being brushed, especially over the spine;
- Repetitive behaviours such as circling in the same direction when stalled;
- Pinning ears, swishing tail, grinding teeth, and tossing head under saddle; generally cranky attitude;
- Won’t stand still for mounting;
- Unwillingness to move forward; short-strided;
- Hollowing the back; unwillingness to round the back and work “on the bit;”
- Frequent tripping; faltering during transitions;
- Bucking early in the ride; “cold-backed;”
- Friction rubs after a ride;
- Sores, galls, scars, or hard spots;
- White hairs;
- Muscle atrophy;
- Obscure lameness, especially in the hind end.
Main photo: A horse with properly fitted and adjusted tack can perform to his full potential, without any pain or discomfort. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography