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A correctly fitting saddle is essential to your horse’s performance and comfort. Many horses exhibiting attitude or behavioural problems under saddle are actually victims of uncomfortable saddles. Sometimes this discomfort originates in the saddle, sometimes in abnormalities in the horse’s shape (see Asymmetry article).

Horses often object during the saddling process. The occasional horse will throw himself on the ground, but more commonly they fidget, throw their heads up, lay their ears back, kick, or turn to bite the handler. How often is this written off as bad attitude? Far too often. Most of these horses are just trying to tell their handler that something is uncomfortable. Listen to what the horse is telling you. Maybe the handler is intent on tightening the girth or cinch too abruptly, or maybe the horse has experienced saddlefit problems in the past, and anticipates discomfort. But most likely the fit of the current saddle is the cause.

What are some other signs of incorrect saddle fit? The horse may show skin sensitivity where the saddle sits, and possibly soreness at the withers, or where the back of the saddle sits. Pressure from the saddle at the withers may cause the horse to trip, forge (hitting the sole at the toe of the front hoof with the hind toe) and/or interfere behind, brushing and possibly injuring the inside of one hind leg with the opposite hoof. The horse may be “cold-backed,” the horse dropping his back when first mounted, or short-striding when first moving off under saddle. When ridden he may star-gaze, swish his tail constantly or try to buck. At the least, he will move in a way to compensate. Girth or saddle sores are sure signs that the saddle is not fitting correctly. An observer may notice that the back of the saddle sinks when the rider sits. Or the rider may feel the saddle giving his/her seat a double slap when they sit during a posting trot. The saddle may slip up over the withers, or slip back towards the tail. These are all signs of poor saddlefit. While cruppers and breastplates have their uses in the mountains and over jumps, they are not the solution to a saddle that needs a fit adjustment.

Yes, the physical and behavioural symptoms mentioned may result from causes other than saddlefit, but adjusting the saddle is often relatively easy so check it first.

Even a brand-new saddle may not fit perfectly. A horse’s body may be more developed on one side than the other (see Asymmetry article). In fact, the evenly developed horse is more of a rarity than you might think. And don’t overlook asymmetry in the saddle, either. Saddlemakers’ claims notwithstanding, many saddles are sold with asymmetrical panels or even a tree that isn’t straight. Quality control, even in the best saddles, is far from perfect. And just because you have trouble seeing the imperfection, don’t assume that your horse won’t feel it!

Even slight asymmetry in the panels will cause your saddle to slip off-centre, however negligibly. The saddle must sit square on the horse’s back. If it’s not centred and square the rider has two options: stay centred over the horse, which may result in discomfort for the rider (back pain?); or stay centred over the saddle, in which case the horse will be uncomfortable and he’ll sooner or later react according to his particular personality. Stoic horses may tolerate the discomfort but will compensate in their movement. In the short term you may feel this is okay, but in the long term the horse’s soundness may be affected. With more sensitive horses, you will probably encounter control problems.

Return to Main Riding Theory page Who needs to check fit?


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Last updated July 11, 1999

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