The saddle should provide the rider with a secure, comfortable place to sit, while at the same time causing the horse not one iota of discomfort. Horses’ and ponies’ backs come in all shapes and sizes, and the back of any one animal will vary considerably throughout the year according to its condition and workload. It may be fat and blubbery when it is out of work; hard, fined-down and muscular during work; or if it has been underfed or ill, thin and bony.
Many people buy one saddle for their horse and may overlook the fact that as his condition changes it no longer fits quite as well. It is possible to compensate for very minor deficiencies by using thick or thin numnahs; this doesn’t alter the fact that the saddle doesn’t actually fit, but then to have a different saddle for each season of the year or to suit our horse’s changing condition is hopelessly impractical for most of us, even if we have different saddles for different pursuits.
Probably the best solution for the one-saddle owner is to fit it when the horse is in normal, moderate working condition, so that variations either way won’t be disastrous. As many ‘ordinary’ horses work most of the year they will be in similar condition most of the time, and there will probably not be too great a problem.
Saddles come in wide-, medium- and narrow-tree widths, and this variety will usually provide something to accommodate most animals fairly well. Either a normal or a cut-back head is available, and the length of the saddle also varies: it is usually measured in inch increments (although many are now sold in metric sizes), up to 18in or even 19in for large occupants, though most adults are probably suited by a 16in or 17in saddle.
Fitting the rider
It is usually easier to fit the rider than to fit the horse where saddles are concerned. You can try a prospective saddle in the shop, or carefully on a saddle-horse at home, or on the horse itself. Basically you should sit on it and snuggle down with relaxed seat and legs (none of this ‘toes-up’ business which automatically stiffens you up!) then take up the stirrups at your normal length. Provided you feel comfortable (and the new saddle may feel a little strange at first), you can then check the following points: you should be able to fit the width of your hand between the front of your body and the front arch of the saddle, as also between the back of your body and the rear arch. Your knees should not protrude off the front of the flap when your stirrups are adjusted to the shortest position in which you are going to use them, nor should they be too much (eg several inches) behind the knee rolls (if present and they usually are these days) when your stirrups are at their longest length.
Do the stirrup leather test mentioned earlier and make sure that, in a normal position, your leathers are vertical when your heels are in line with your hips. If normally you don’t ride like this, then have a few lessons and try it (I am not being facetious) and see how much easier riding becomes, and how much more willingly your horse goes. And if your saddle militates against this, don’t buy it. Don’t buy it, either, if it seems to force your thighs too far apart and prevent a deep seat. All riders have faults, even the best, and one of the worst when it comes to causing back problems in the horse, apart from constantly banging up and down, is to ride with your body twisted or lopsided. So sit straight when you are trying your saddle, and persuade a friend to study you critically from behind and in front and give you an honest opinion! Further, before you even sit in it, check that the lowest point of the seat is midway between pommel and cantle so you know you are at least starting off with a central seat.
If the saddle passes all these tests and you feel comfortable, you can try it on the horse.
Fitting the horse
It is much more difficult to fit a saddle to the horse, if only because he cannot tell you, in the same way as a child, what it feels like: if it is alright, if it pinches, digs in, or presses on anything. It is entirely our responsibility to spot problems, and this may well be quite difficult. If you have any doubt at all about your own ability to do this, it is best to ask an expert friend, colleague or instructor to help you, as this really is a critical subject. The saddle must:
(a) be the correct width for the back;
(b) leave a clear channel of daylight down the spine from withers to loins (spinal contact must at all costs be avoided in saddle fitting);
(c) not interfere in any way with the horse’s movement;
(d) be the correct length for the back so that it does not press on the loin (kidney) area; and
(e) have resilient stuffing of the correct amount so that there is neither too little which would result in insufficient cushioning effect, nor too much, so that it is rounded downwards not only is this uncomfortably hard to the horse’s back, but it actually reduces the bearing surface of the panel, thus intensifying pressure on those areas of the back which the panel touches most.
Most saddlers will want you to try a saddle over a piece of cloth, a saddlecloth or a thin numnah to avoid marking the underside with sweat or grease, and this is a reasonable enough request. And if you get a saddle on approval through a mail-order firm it would be advisable to do this, because if you return it stained you may have to buy it. Some firms have on-site fitting facilities with expert advice on hand from a saddler or other expert to help you, although it is unfortunate that some of the newer ‘tack supermarkets’ seem to be staffed by salespeople who know little about the stock and even less about horses and are simply there to sell the goods. If this is the only type of salesperson available, shop elsewhere, unless you are confident of your own ability to check the fit of the saddle.
Fitting Procedure: Place the saddle in the usual way forward of the withers, sliding it back into place and consider first how it sits on the back. If it comes impossibly high above the withers and seems perched on the back (even allowing for newness) with little room around the withers, the tree is probably too narrow. If it sits very low and there is a lot of room round the withers but not much clearance above them, it is probably too wide. When girthed up the saddle should appear neither to pinch (when it is too narrow) nor to rock from side to side (too wide). The best way to start is to put up the horse’s heaviest rider and ride around in the saddle for a good half-hour, if you possibly can, to let it settle on the back. Initially, check the following points with the rider up:
1. When the rider leans forward and back, there should remain that tunnel of daylight all the way down the spine. Furthermore when the rider leans forward you should be able to fit the width of three fingers (four if your hands are slim) between the withers and the front arch.
2. You should just be able to slide the Hat of your fingers around the sides of the withers.
3. Ask someone to hold the horse’s foreleg up and out in front of him, making sure he is extending his shoulder: you should be able to fit the width of your hand between the top of his shoulder blade and the front of the saddle to be sure that the latter will not hamper his movement. Do this both sides.
4. The saddle should sit on the back only, and not extend backwards to the loin area which is not strong enough to bear weight.
5. Bearing in mind that the horse’s flesh and skin are vulnerable, it should not be possible to rock the saddle from side to side on the horse’s back to any great degree: if you can, it is too wide, or is stuffed incorrectly.
6. Without a rider, you should check that the saddle sits straight on the horse’s back, a point best checked from behind and slightly above the horse. This vantage point is also the best from which to study the muscle development and condition of his back. Most horses except very well schooled and conditioned ones are at least slightly better muscled up on one side than on the other, and this can affect saddle-fitting and make the saddle appear lopsided or twisted. Schooling is the way to improve muscle development and therefore saddle levelness, though in a particularly bad case the saddle stuffing can be adjusted to take account of the unevenness until things improve.
Check that the saddle itself is not twisted: View the saddle from the rear, adjusting the level of your eye-view so as to check that the centre of the pommel is in the dead centre of the cantle when you are looking straight down the horse’s spine. A twisted tree can occur if a rider always grasps the cantle when mounting instead of the pommel or waist; it can also be a fault of manufacture. Mounting from a block or with a leg-up obviates this, and is a mark of consideration for both horse and saddle not an indication that the rider is incompetent or ‘past it’!
7.1 Check that the stuffing of the saddle permits as wide a bearing area on the back as is reasonably possible and that it is level, as much as it can be allowing for the natural shape of the horse’s back – no horse, except a few show Arabs, having a back entirely like a table-top. If the stuffing causes the panel to curve away from the back where it ought to be touching, it will decrease the bearing surface and concentrate the rider’s weight over a smaller area, intensifying its undesirable effects. As much of the back area as is reasonably possible should be used for bearing weight so as to spread the pressure.
8. When the saddle is off the horse, be sure you can fit the width of a lady’s fist into the gullet all the way down. Some gullets on poorly designed saddles almost meet in the middle, making the clear tunnel of daylight down the spine impossible to achieve.
After a saddle has been in use for a few weeks or months, it will have settled into the shape of the horse’s back and may well appear to have sunk down. This is normal, particularly with wool-stuffed saddles but also with some synthetics. Take the saddle to a good saddler and get more stuffing put in. Ideally, the rule should be: one horse, one saddle – in other words, the saddle should not be used on any other horse so the stuffing can conform to one horse only. The new stuffing must be carefully put in to maintain the central balance of the seat and the ‘sit’ of the saddle both laterally and longitudinally.
Another point to remember is that when the rider posts or rises in trot his weight is taken alternately by the saddle seat and the stirrup bars. As the bars are positioned a little further forward than the deepest part of the seat, this means that the horse will feel the weight in two close but distinctly different parts of his back with each ‘forward down’ sequence performed by the rider. If the saddle stuffing is not even and level, this will cause the saddle to rock forward and back slightly all the time, and this in turn will cause concentration of pressure and also a certain amount of friction, both of which can cause soreness.
Check also that the tree of any saddle you are considering buying has not been broken, either; this is possibly more likely with a secondhand one but not impossible in a new one if it has been dropped or otherwise misused. Hold the pommel firmly in one hand and the cantle in the other, then twist the saddle firmly to and fro to see if there is any movement or if you can actually hear a creaking, scraping noise. Rest the cantle on your thigh and, grasping the pommel firmly with both hands, pull the pommel back towards you, watching and listening for movement or noise. The tree should stay firm and silent! ‘
The stuffing, whilst effectively protecting the back, should still allow you to sit as closely to your horse as is reasonably possible. With a newly stuffed saddle you may, for a while, feel as though you are sitting on a platform, but it will soon settle.