Using an ill-fitting saddle on a horse can have many negative consequences, both short and long term. Some of these consequences include muscle soreness, white hair or scabby skin lesions appearing on the horse’s back, muscle atrophy, restricted forelimb step length, shortness of step, back stiffness, and an unwillingness to bend .
Riders can also suffer from an ill-fitting saddle so it’s important that the saddle not only fits the horse properly but fits the rider as well . This can become challenging when children start to grow too large for their ponies . The saddle seat needs to be big enough for the child, but this can cause the saddle to become too long for the horses back, particularly if the pony has a short back . Some consequences of an ill-fitting saddle for the rider include back pain, hip pain, abrasions under the rider’s seat bones or perineal injury for both male and female riders, though female riders are more at risk .
So how do you know if the saddle isn’t sitting right? Many symptoms could be the result of an ill-fitting saddle, however, most symptoms can be caused by other things so it can be difficult to tell . Some common symptoms include:
1. Full Panel Contact
One of the most important things to check when making sure your saddle fits is ensuring that the panels lie evenly against the horses back. If the saddle panels don’t conform to the horse’s back, it can cause the saddle to rock or bridge in the middle . Fortunately, there are several ways you can assess your saddle to see if it fits evenly.
Now that you’ve assessed the contact of the saddle’s panels, you must check the saddle’s balance on the horse’s back. The middle of the saddle needs to be parallel with the ground, not parallel to the horse . If the saddle is unbalanced, then this will make the rider unbalanced . A saddle with a balance point too far back will cause the rider to lean forward into the rise, while a saddle with a balance point too far forward will cause the rider to sit further back to stay balanced in the saddle . An unbalanced saddle can also cause the rider’s back or stomach muscles to hurt . The easiest way to check the saddle’s balance is to set it on the horse’s back, then get a pencil, pen, piece of chalk or even a straight-ish looking stick and roll it along the saddle from front to back . Whatever you use, it will stop at the lowest point of the saddle, therefore finding the balance point .
3. Wither Clearance
This is a common one that most riders are aware of. There must be a gap between the saddle and the wither, both on and off the horse to prevent the horse from being pinched in the shoulder and wither . There should be a 2-3 finger gap all the way around the wither, not just on the top  .
4. Channel Width
The channel is the gap between the panels underneath the saddle. The channel prevents the saddle from putting pressure on the spine, and also on the supraspinal ligaments, which run alongside the spine . A channel that is too narrow will force a horse to hollow its back, possibly causing serious injury to the spine . However, having an overly wide channel isn’t the answer either as the horse may struggle under too small of a weight-bearing surface and could also suffer damage to the muscles between their ribs (intercostals) . To find the correct channel length, lay your hand along the horse’s spine and see how many fingers width it is . Add an extra finger on either side of the spine width and then use that finger measurement to assess the width of the saddle’s channel .
5. Girth Alignment
When looking at your girth points without the girth attached, they must lie straight and parallel to the ground . While it is commonly believed that the girth should sit in the ‘girth area’ or ‘girth groove’ on the horse, just behind their elbow, that’s not always the case. The best place for the girth to lie is directly beneath the saddle . If the girth points are angled too far forwards, will affect the cartilage on the top of the horse’s shoulders, and girth points that sit too far back can pinch the horse’s elbows .
6. Saddle Length
Ensuring that the length of your saddle is the correct length for your horse’s back is important. When you check your saddle, assess the position of the back of the saddle as it should not go past the top of the last rib . To measure this, simply run your finger up the last rib, ensuring you pay attention to the slight curve in the ribs. If the saddle sits behind the last rib, it could affect the function of the back and hindquarter muscles as well as hindering the horse’s ability to bend laterally . It can also cause problems such as bucking, running through the hands, or a 4-beat canter . As mentioned earlier, it can be hard to ensure the saddle isn’t too long for the horse, while having a wide enough seat for the rider. However, some saddles manage to do both, so don’t lose hope!
Horse’s bodies change just like we do, so the timing between saddle fits varies. It is commonly recommended that your saddle is checked every 12 months . However, if you have a young horse (under 5) or an old horse, then it’s better if you get their saddles checked every 6 months, as their bodies are growing and changing more frequently . A horse that was under frequent work before being paddocked for the last few months should also have their saddles checked, as their muscles will have changed. Basically, it’s important to use your common sense.
While I am by no means a saddle fitter, as a massage therapist I believe it is important that I have a basic understanding of saddle fitting as an ill-fitting saddle can have so many consequences on the horse’s muscles. I also believe that is important that riders should have a bit of an understanding of saddle fitting, so I hope that this article has been helpful.