Western Saddle Fitting and Buying Guide
What is the proper method for saddling a horse? In this guide, we will explain how to properly fit and saddle your horse. This is extremely important, as a correctly fitted saddle will greatly add to the comfort and safety of both horse and rider! On the other hand, an incorrectly fitted saddle can not only be uncomfortable, but can also be unsafe for both horse and rider.
There are many different factors that can influence the fit of a western saddle.
Here are some major factors on how to properly saddle a horse and how to avoid the most common mistakes. Please be aware that this guide is for informational purposes only. It is always a good idea to consult a saddle professional for additional help and guidance.
A CORRECT FIT FOR THE HORSE
In western saddle fitting, you ideally want to have the greatest amount of contact between the bar of the tree and the horses' back.
3 things to consider when fitting western saddles are the withers, the topline, and the condition and age of the horse.
- The average, defined wither will usually fit a Medium or Regular size tree. There will be more definition in the withers in horses such as Quarter Horses, Tennessee Walking Horses and Thoroughbreds.
- A more rounded, mutton wither with a flatter back will usually fit a Wide tree. This horse has a husky build, bigger neck, often called the "foundation" type.
- Draft horses have a very wide, flat back and wither They will usually require a Draft or Extra Wide tree.
- A very prominent, narrow wither usually means a lack of muscle behind the shoulder blade and require a shoulder bridge pad. The shoulder bridge pad fills in this "hollow" area, letting the saddle bars make better contact with the horse.
- If there are large muscles behind the scapula . a wider tree may be needed. Flex, or adjustable trees can also work well with this condition.
Horse with defined wither and usually fits a medium, regular, or semi-Quarter horse. A horse with rounded withers usually needs a Wide or Full Quarter Horse Tree.
- Ideally the topline wither and croup will be level for a standard saddle and pad.
- However, if the haunches are higher than the withers, then a pad that is built up in the withers area is needed to avoid undue pressure from the saddle on the withers.
- Older horses or poorly conditioned horses may have swayback, in which the bars of the saddle only make contact in the front and the rear, putting too much pressure and rubbing the withers and loins. This is called “bridging” and can be resolved with a bridge pad.
- Horses with short backs need a saddle with shorts bars and skirts.
- Finally, if the back is too straight, primarily seen in mules, the saddle may put too much pressure on the center of the horse’s back. This condition requires a tree with a “mule bar” or pad with shims.
This 20-year-old gelding has a significant sway back and prominent withers.Remedied with a shoulder bridge pad. Note the white spots from past ill-fitting saddle.
Condition & Age
- The condition of the body of the horse you are fitting is an important factor to consider. For example, if the horse gains or loses weight, it will impact the fit of the saddle.
- The horse’s body also changes during maturation. Thus, a saddle will fit differently on a young horse compared to one that has filled out, compared to horse in its senior years.
- Youth 12"- 13" seat
- Small Adult 14" seat
- Average Adult 15" seat
- Large Adult 16" seat
- Extra Large Adult 17" seat
- Semi-Quarter horse bars usually have a 6 1/4" gullet, and Quarter Horse Bars usually have a 6 1/2" to 6 3/4" gullet. Designed to fit the average horse, one of these two widths will fit approximately 80% of horses comfortably.
- Full-Quarter horse bars usually have a 7" gullet. They are designed for mutton-withered horses with broader backs.
- Arab saddles, usually with 6 1/2" to 6 3/4" gullets, are for Arabians. They have a shorter gullet.
- Gaited horse saddles feature a higher gullet, usually 8 1/2", to accommodate higher withers. They also have gaited bars, which usually have a 6 3/4" to 7" gullet.
- Haflinger saddles are made for that breed, or other short-backed, mutton-withered horses, with a 7 1/2" gullet.
- Draft horse saddles feature an 8" gullet, and are made specifically for large
- Draft horses and Draft crosses.
PROPER FITTING FOR THE RIDER
- How will you use the saddle? Will you be working on a ranch, roping and cutting, going on a trail ride, or barrel racing? For example, working saddles such as roping saddles needs to be built to take incredible amounts of torque; while trail riding saddles are built more for comfort.
- If you like to do a little bit of everything, All-Rounder saddles may be a good choice for you.
- Certain specialized saddles are available for some types of horses. Gaited saddles, for example, allow more bar flare for the horse’s shoulder action; and mule saddles usually have a straighter bar to fit the back of a mule.
WHAT SIZE SHOULD THE RIDER CHOOSE
- Some riders prefer a smaller seat other prefer a larger seat. Which riding Discipline used plays a part in determining the size of a saddle. Generally speaking, you should have 4" between the front of your body and the swell of the saddle. Your backside should be at the base of the cantle, but not be pressing against the back of the cantle.
- If you have long legs, you may need a larger seat size so your knees do not hang off the front of the fenders.
- It’s better to have a seat that is a little too large than a seat that is too small. When sitting in the saddle your thighs should not touch the back of the swell. If it does, it can be uncomfortable for the rider.
- When buying a saddle always adjust the stirrups to the proper length so you can feel that the seat is properly balanced.
EVALUATE THE SADDLE ON THE HORSE
With the saddle positioned correctly, the bars of the tree behind the shoulder blades of the horse, evaluate the following points:
- Look at the Gullet clearance
- Place the saddle on the horse’s bare back without a pad. There should be two to three fingers space between the top of the wither and the gullet of the saddle.
- If you can vertically fit your whole hand between the bottom of the gullet and the wither, the tree is too narrow and you need a wider saddle. Adjustable saddles, like the DP Saddlery FLEX FIT saddles are very useful in these circumstances. As a horse ages, it can put on weight or additional muscle and require an adjustment in the saddle width.
- If there is room for only one or two fingers or the bottom of the gullet is touching the top of the wither, the tree is too wide, and a narrower saddle is needed.
Good gullet clearance
- Look for close contact so that the saddle fits level
- Look at the saddle to make sure it is level. If the saddle is not level, try adjusting it by using shims. You can try sliding it forward or backward. This will to raise or lower the front. You can also try different rigging positions. If this doesn’t work, you may need to try a different saddle.
- If the front of the saddle is high, the tree may be too narrow.
- If the front of the saddle is low, the tree may be too wide.
- Getting a saddle with adjustable width, like the DP Saddlery FLEX FIT saddles may be the best solution for good fit that you can adjust with the horse over time.
- Look for sores or sweat patterns.
- Sores and sweat patterns can indicate how the saddle fits. The sweat pattern should be even, without any dry areas or areas where the hair has been rubbed off or ruffled. Areas where the hair has been disturbed may indicate excessive movement and can also be the cause of sores. It is better to catch an ill-fitting saddle before sores develop.
- Old injuries from poor fitting saddles can cause dry spots or white marks.
- If most of the contact is in the middle and not at the ends, the saddle may be rocking. Rocking can be corrected with pads or shims.
- If the saddle bars are putting pressure on the horse’s back at the front and rear only, this can cause serious pressure points and injury for the horse.. A bridge pad can be used to bridge the gap between the horse’s back and tree bars and help to evenly distribute the rider’s weight.
Use Saddle Pads to correct rocking or bridging
- You can tell where the most pressure is on the horse by the wear marks, dirt patterns or disturbance of the hair.
- If most of the wear in the middle, the saddle may be rocking and can be corrected with pads or shims.
- If the middle of the pad under the bar not as disturbed, dirty or compressed, that could be an indicate bridging. You can correct bridging with a shim or bridge pad in the center of the bars.
AVOID THESE COMMON MISTAKES WHEN FITTING SADDLES
- Place the front of the bar of the saddle tree behind the shoulder blade to allow for greater freedom of movement.
- Do not put the saddle too far forward over the scapula. This can cause rubbing, pressure, discomfort, restricted movement and even injury to the horse. It is important to note that the blanket, pad and the skirt of the saddle can cover the back of the scapula but the bars of the tree must be behind the shoulder blade.
Front Cinch Usage
- Please do not over tighten the cinch. If the cinch is too tight before you get on the horse, it will be even worse when you get on to ride. The front cinch should be about as tight as your own belt; it needs to be firm enough to keep the saddle from sliding, but not too firm to cause restriction.
- Do not over tighten the cinch just to keep a saddle from rolling. Check that the saddle has even contact and is the correct length for the horse. Try a different saddle pad, a wider cinch, neoprene cinch, or flank cinch to help keep the saddle in place. Tightening the cinch for a saddle that naturally wants to roll should never be done!
Proper saddle placement. Bars of the tree should settle behind the horse's scapula.
Flank Cinch Usage
- Most people use the flank or rear cinch incorrectly. The flank cinch provides stability to the saddle and should be snug but not tight against the horse. A rule of thumb is to be able to slip two fingers between the flank and the horse at the apex of the belly. It should not be loose or hang below the horse’s belly; a loose flank cinch is a danger to horse and rider. Always use the connecting strap between the front and rear cinches to position the flank cinch properly and prevent it from becoming a "bucking strap."
- If the rear of your saddle is moving side to side or up and down at the walk, trot, or canter, the movement can cause a scrubbing action, irritating the skin. Use a flank cinch when this problem occurs.
Pads and Padding
- Don’t put too much padding on your horse. If you have too much padding, the horse will be wider and you will sit higher on the horses back. Also, with too much padding, you will lose the close contact feeling of the horse and will not be able to feel the horses' movements as well.
- If you are trail riding, or riding for long periods of time, you need a pad that will absorb sweat and dissipate heat. Wool pads and other natural fiber pads and blankets are excellent for this as they wick moisture, breathe and still absorb the shock of riding.
- Neoprene is an excellent shock absorbing material and is great for performance horses , but is not good for a long trail ride. Neoprene doesn’t breathe or absorb moisture, and should only be used for short rides, that you wish to emphasize rider comfort.
Clean Clean your horse and equipment
- Dirt on the horses' back. under the saddle/pad can cause abrasion and skin irritation. You should make sure your horses' back is clean and brushed before and after you ride.
- Keep your equipment clean, saddle, cinch, blankets and pads.
- Feel how you sit in the saddle. With a properly fitted tree, you will be balanced in the saddle. If you are sitting in the saddle like a recliner with your legs out in front, you are putting too much pressure on the horse’s loins. The rider must sit in a balanced position, vertically with your legs under you. This will help to evenly spread the riders weight.
- Heavy riders need a saddle tree to distribute more pounds per square inch, so a proper fit for heavy riders is even more important, as little imbalances can cause discomfort and damage even more quickly.