Question: How do you determine what size of Western saddle to get your horse?
Answer From April Reeves: I will give you enough information to be able to purchase a good saddle that not only fits the horse, but fits you as well.
One thing I like to stress, when looking for a saddle, the cheaper they are the worse they fit. Cheap saddles do not last due to the lack of quality in almost every area: leather, stitching, tree and fleece. They often use plastic (cheap) and staples. Quality saddles use nails and screws, rawhide, fiberglass and flex trees.
Quality Means Better Fit
If you cannot afford new, it’s best to look for a used quality saddle. These are a few of my favorite brands, and own several of them: Billy Cook, Circle Y (especially the older models), Crates, Martin (Wade), Courts, Eamour and Tex Tan. The cinch does not need to be really tight on a good fitting saddle. Stay clear of any saddles coming from India or China.
Used saddles need to be checked for broken trees, worn sheepskin, cracked leather on vital parts, such as stirrup and fender areas and latigo straps. To check for a broken tree, tip the saddle upside down and press on both sides firmly. It should not give, and even most flex trees do not give more than 1/8 inch. Also grab the saddle horn and see if it moves. Never buy any saddle whose tree is damaged.
Parts of a saddle you may need to know
Tree: this is the most important part of the saddle as it is the foundation that distributes the weight evenly over the back. The traditional tree is made from a softer wood such as pine. It is covered in bull hide (tough) and dried until it is super-tight. This allows the tree a bit of ‘give’, keeping the horse more comfortable. Along the side are ‘bars’ that run front to back, and the angle, shape and size will determine fit (Reg. QH bars – gullet width 5 ¾, semi bars – 6”, full – 6 ¼ – 6 ½”, extra wide 6 ¾ – 7”, Arab bars 6 ¼ to 6 ¾”). The pommel or front varies according to the style of saddle, and has an ‘A’ shaped opening (gullet) to accommodate the wither, and a horn. At the back, the cantle rises and provides support for the rider, and varies from style to style.
Cinch: the wide strap that secures the saddle. This is another area to look for quality. They vary from string to felt, hair and neoprene, but always remember to look for width (distributes pressure better) and thickness. Never use a thin string cinch as it will bind and pinch the skin under the elbows. Back rigging is a rear cinch that keeps the saddle from lifting up during quick stops and fast maneuvers, but most saddles do not need it. It does not keep the saddle from riding forward. Back rigging should always be attached to the front cinch by a small strap.
Front rigging position on the saddle comes in full, 7/8, 3/4 and center fire. When the cinch is up closer to the horses elbow (full), it can interfere with movement; many endurance riders prefer to use 5/8 or center fire rigging to allow the cinch to sit further back from the front legs. Most saddles are built with 7/8. Rigging can be built into the skirt (inskirt), or attached to the tree. Inskirt rigging can be less bulky for the rider’s leg.
This is the long vertical leather under the rider’s leg. Cheap saddles often use shorter fenders to save on leather. When buying used, check this area for cracks and damage.
Horn: the purpose of the saddle will dictate the horn style. I prefer to find one that fits my hand or at least three fingers, and the horn is not too small or large.
Seat: I get picky here when looking for saddles. If I am using the saddle for training, I prefer a flatter seat that gives me more room to move (check out Court’s Pleasure saddles). When showing, I like to use deeper seats that restrict movement. For pleasure I look for something in the middle. You want to have about 4 inches in the front and your seat should rest at the cantle, not be pressed into the back of it.
How To Fit A Saddle To The Horse
Saddle fitting is not an easy task or a perfect science. There is no such thing as one saddle fits all horses. An uncomfortable saddle can create unsoundness: saddle sores, muscle and skin problems, friction rubs, dry spots and galls.
Saddles will change their fit as your horse matures. He may fill out or thin out, depending on the level of care he receives. It is easier to fit a horse that is in shape, than to try to fit a thin horse whose shoulders are prominent from lack of ‘groceries’. If your new horse is not in the best of shape, you may want to get his weight up before purchasing anything.
When determining the size of a saddle, one thing you need to take into consideration is the length of the horses back. Some breeds, such as Arabians, have shorter backs and will need a saddle with either shorter skirts or rounded skirts. The skirt should never hit the point of hip/loin when adjusted properly.
When fitting a horse, stand him/her on level ground. His withers and croup should be the same level or special fitting may be required. Place the saddle just after the shoulder. This is the boney protrusion at the top of his shoulder blade, at his withers. A saddle should never rest on this bone. I like to ‘load’ the saddle up a few inches higher on the horse and gently slide and rock it into place comfortably behind the shoulder blade (scapula). I do not use a blanket for my first fitting test. Never drag a saddle forward into place, as it bends the hair forward causing discomfort and sores. Saddles tend to find their place if you try not to force them into a spot they do not fit. Let your saddle find the final resting spot, and if it’s too far back, the saddle simply does not work for your horse.
The saddle should clear the withers by 2 inches, give or take. It should allow free movement of the shoulders, be the proper length for the back, and when viewed from the side, the saddle should appear to sit balanced; not high in the front or the back. If you are missing any of these points, stop and return the saddle. You cannot adjust these with a pad; it is best to find this basic fit first.
If the basic fit looks good, slide your hand under the saddle at the front, and feel for pinching. All the points should rest with equal weight distribution at the front. There should be no spaces where the saddle does not meet the horse.
Now slide your hand in the middle, under the saddle at the side (just behind the fender). If you feel a space there, it is called ‘bridging’ and will put too much pressure on the front and back of the saddle. This area should sit flat against the horse.
The saddle should sit squarely on the back. When viewed from behind, it should not tilt to one side. When you look through the back to the front, there a channel that clears the back. Saddles should not rest on the spine.
Now add a saddle pad (see below for descriptions) and sit in the saddle. You should feel centered, not tipping forward or backward. You should be able to get 2-3 fingers under the gullet for wither clearance. Your legs should hang down straight, not in front or too far back. Do they feel comfortable or unnatural? You should feel well balanced in weight distribution. The center of the saddle must be level; it is where you will sit, and it will affect your aids and balance if you do not feel comfortable (or able to ride properly). It is better to have a saddle that is a bit bigger than one that is smaller.
Slide your hand under the front and test for pinching while you are mounted. You should feel even weight distribution, with no spaces. Feel that the back of the saddle is not rising, and matches the shape of the horse’s body. The spine should be clear from front to back.
Test to see if the saddle rocks on the horse’s back. You need to be gentle while doing this, but do it with enough pressure to find your results. Saddles should not move very much from side-to-side. You should never have to constantly readjust your saddle after every maneuver.
Test for the saddle tipping up too far (front to back). Grab the cantle and pull up gently. Some poorly fitting saddles will tip right up vertical on a horse at a hard stop. My saddles have no more than 1 inch of lift when pulled gently, and about 2 inches when really tugged on.
Ride the horse and test the sweat marks. There should be a solid sweat pattern, not spots of sweat here and there. Solid sweat marks show even weight distribution. If you have a wool pad, you may want to use a piece of sheet or thinner cloth between the horse and pad to find the sweat marks. On extreme pressure points, the dirt from your horse will grind into the cloth.
I spend money on saddle pads. They last longer (I have many that are over 40 years old, and still use them today) and are usually based on careful planning and design. I have two of Clinton Anderson’s pads that have a pressure release system, and they are wonderful. I also have a very thick, old pure wool and leather pad. It does cause a horse to sweat a little more, but I like it for long rides and cool days. It does take a lot of maintenance to keep it clean. I also have this really great system – the heavy wool blanket doubles back with sewn edges and Velcro back. You can change the thickness of the foam insert, and can adjust this to the horse you are riding. It’s great for me when I have to ride multiple horses every day at various farms.
Do not use thin saddle pads, especially if you have to double them over. They tend to wrinkle and have trouble laying flat on the horses back. Try not to get a pad that is too thick, as it may create unnecessary bounce or spring.
When you put the pad on, ‘load’ it up higher and slide it down into place. Just like the saddle you fitted without the pad, it allows the hair to lie properly. I like to have more pad in the front than the back: I usually like 1 inch showing at the back. It looks tidier and it shows off the horse better. I try to buy pads that fit my saddles. Place your saddle into position and just before you draw the cinch to tighten, put your hand under the pad at the front, and draw it up into the gullet. This creates an air space that will keep your horse’s back cool, and keep the pad from rubbing the wither.
Saddle pads can’t take the place of a good fit, but they can accommodate an unusual back. There are many styles of ‘lifts’ and additions to pad up a horse that may be sway-backed, roach-backed or have a high wither. There are also custom saddles out there made for special backs. Mutton withered or excessively overweight horses will need a non-conventional fit also. Buying an extra wide saddle is not the answer for the ‘chubbies’.
How to tell when the saddle doesn’t fit
During riding, you may find your horse has any one or combination of these problems:
– Hollow back or elevate head
– Crankiness, stubborn attitude or anxiety
– Irritated when asking for canter/lope
– An elevated canter that feels like a small succession of bucks (pigrooting)
– Inability to engage hind end
– The saddle slides back too far from the shoulder
Signs on the ground:
– Muscle atrophy at the sides of his withers
– Swelling after riding
– Uncomfortable being brushed
– White hairs forming from the pressure closing off blood supply to tissues
If a saddle fits properly you will not need to use breastplates and cruppers, unless you are doing a great deal of pleasure riding in steeper terrain. Many trainers use them if they are performing high speed and quick maneuvers, or they just look good on their horses.
This should give you enough information to make a proper assessment of your saddle.