Does Your Saddle Fit?

Check these lists for signs that your saddle fits - or discover if it doesn’t. If you’re unsure, we’ve provided helpful information about what to look for and the tools to help you test saddle fit.
Helpful Saddle Fitting Tools Testing Saddle Fit on Standing Horse Testing Saddle Fit on Moving Horse Signs of Good Saddle Fit Signs of Poor Saddle Fit

Helpful Saddle Fitting Tools

Since your saddle must fit while you are riding your horse, evaluation in motion is essential to determine saddle fit. Many tools are available to help you get the very best saddle fit for your horse, including static as well as in-motion tools, and they all have their uses.

Before you begin to search for saddles, use a static tool to measure the angles and contours of your horse’s back while he is standing still. While this gives you a starting point, you can’t be sure of good saddle fit based on static measurements alone.

While you are testing saddles, in-motion tests are the best way to be sure that you have a good pressure distribution under the saddle. As soon as the horse goes into motion, the shape of the back changes. And as soon as your weight gets into the saddle, it compresses and changes shape also.

Below you’ll find a short description of most of the common tools that are in regular use. With any of these methods, be curious, be cautious, and choose approaches or combinations of methods that make sense to you personally and financially.

Testing Saddle Fit on Standing Horse

Static tools are used to take measurements while the horse is standing still and square on level ground. These measurements can then be compared to various saddles to see if the saddles you are considering are a close enough fit to be worthy of testing on your horse. Bottom line: static tools can be used to get a good idea if a saddle will not fit, but will not guarantee that a saddle will fit.

Flexible curves are inexpensive drafting tools that are used to form to the shape of the horse over the wither, shoulder and barrel, either for fitting a saddle, or for tracking muscle wastage or asymmetry. Once the shapes have been traced onto paper, they can also be cut out and tested in the gullet of various saddles to get a sense of the saddle’s shape and contour relative to that of the horse. Drawbacks: it is easy to distort the shape of the curve while transferring it from the horse to the paper and it takes a bit of practice to be accurate. It is essential to know exactly where to place the curve, so that the horse’s contours can be correlated to the proper areas of the saddle. This will be easier if you have superficial knowledge of equine anatomy.

Dowel/level system tools consist of beautifully engineered rows of round wooden rods (dowels) set into a frame that is lowered onto the horse’s back to give a 3-D model of the back. There are levels on two planes, horizontal and vertical, to ensure accuracy. The dowels are lowered to follow the contours of the horse’s back, and then fixed into place using screws. Drawbacks: the tool is very expensive, not readily available to the general public, and involves a significant learning curve. It is almost impossible to correlate the horse and the saddle, unless the tool is used by a saddler who then constructs the saddle, so this is certainly not a tool for everyone. It is mainly used by saddle fitting professionals.

Saddle Tech Gauge is a metal device consisting of four levers that are adjusted to give the shape of the horse under the saddle. Once the levers are set, a series of numbers are used to express the horse’s size. This works well if you are shopping for a saddle in a shop which uses this gauge, or if you own a gauge and can carry it around to assess saddles. Drawbacks: The system is fairly expensive, takes practice to use accurately, and because the shape of the levers is a flat edge that approximately 6” long that drapes along the side of the horse, it does not measure bulges, curves, or asymmetries accurately.

EQUIscan Topographer PRO is a system developed in Germany for taking three dimensional measurements of the horse’s back, using it to assess saddle fit, and recording it for future fittings via the company’s online platform. The system is calibrated to produce precise measurements from a horse standing still, and unlike some other such systems, it is set up independently on the left and the right so is able to capture asymmetries. While this might be a great tool for selecting saddle trees, it will not yield a perfect fit every time because it does not address saddle fit on a moving horse. Still, it is one of the more interesing new tools to come out recently. (www.equiscan.de). 

Casts and Molds: The gauze and Plaster of Paris required to make a cast are extremely inexpensive and can be purchased easily, or bought as a packaged system with instructions from various companies who supply the equine industry. EQUImeasure Inc. (www.equimeasure.com) makes a high tech heat-and-mold system that takes just minutes and is significantly less messy to use, and much easier to store and transport. If properly made, a cast or mold is fairly reliable, can be extremely helpful in selecting the proper saddle – and can even reveal otherwise unnoticed asymmetries. Drawbacks: Horse must be square and immobile while the cast is setting. The scapula must be clearly marked on the cast (it is not always obvious) so that the proper area of the cast is assessed for saddle fitting purposes. The finished cast is large, and can be unwieldy to carry around or to ship off to a saddle maker. Tip: A level should be laid on the horse’s back and the corresponding area (usually only about 1”-2”) should be marked “level” on the cast or mold.

Testing Saddle Fit on Moving Horse

The weight of a rider changes the shape of the saddle, and movement changes the shape of the horse’s back. While we can get some ideas about fit when the horse is standing still, we need to ride the horse to verify fit, and there are finally tools – some quite affordable – that allow us to test fit in motion. Any data about the way your saddle fits is scientific fact; these facts are more reliable information that someone’s opinion about the way your saddle fits your horse. Because the information provided by these tests can be very subtle in some cases, and requires correlation to aggregated information from tests of many horses in other instances, you will find the evaluation of your data most meaningful if you obtain expert advice in reading the results. Important note: do not let pressure testing (or anyone’s opinion) override your “gut feel” about your horse’s happiness and comfort.

Computer Pressure Analysis: Data from computer pressure testing is profoundly interesting, and is possibly the best source of information about saddle fit we have to date. There are several companies making these systems; one of the best-known and highest-quality is the German company Novel at www.novel.de. The systems use pressure sensors embedded in large but thin plastic pads which are placed under the saddle. Data is recorded, either by lengthy ribbon cables (imagine something like a very long longe line) or on a memory device in a belt pack worn by the rider. The data yielded includes high pressure spikes, average pressure under the saddle, rider’s weight, balance point and many other subtleties. It is important to correlate to video so that high pressure spikes can be explored and identified (if the cause of a spike is a stumble, the peak pressure should be discarded). Drawbacks: Data must be assessed by an expert, capable of putting the results into a percentile profile so that the rider understands how their saddle works (or doesn’t) relative to a body of saddles and horses. The computer does not measure shear force (friction) which can be problematic for some horses. The systems are in very limited use, and so are hard to access, and they are extremely expensive to purchase outright. And, finally, the sensors must be frequently calibrated and set to measure within a useful range of sensitivity. If the settings are too sensitive, results will be skewed and too many areas will register off the top of the scale; if settings are too gross, the computer will miss nuance.

Port Lewis Impression Pad is a low-cost, low tech method of gathering pressure data while the horse is in motion and the rider is aboard. It is very easy to use, and takes a short time (less than 30 minutes) to gain an impression. The pad is placed on the horse under the saddle, and after a ridden test, retains an impression of the saddle pressures. The red gel in the saddle grows progressively lighter under pressure; high pressures make a clear or “white” spot. Interpreting the impression takes some knowledge, as it can be difficult to read subtleties in the pad. A saddle which exerts enough pressure to make a clear area in the pad obviously does not fit the horse. However, even a “perfect” impression does not mean the saddle fits if the horse is atrophied or needs a remedial fit. Drawbacks: The pads don’t function well in hot or cold weather; optimal range of use is about 45 degrees through 80 degrees F. The pads are consumable; that is, with enough use, they will eventually wear out. For the price, they are a remarkable source of good information. For more information or to lease or purchase: Impression Pad

Carpenter’s chalk and white saddle pads: This very rudimentary method, in which blue carpenter’s chalk is sprinkled on the horse’s back and then the horse is ridden with a thin white pad, does gather information. However, it is imprecise, difficult to read and assess, and friction will gather solid chalk sometimes more than pressure so the results are often inaccurate. NOT recommended.

Thermography: The use of thermography is increasing, as the technology becomes more available and less expensive. In the hands of an expert, thermography is an extremely useful tool. However, it must be correlated with other information for an accurate result. For instance, is a cold spot the result of no pressure? Or perhaps excessive pressure?

Signs of Good Saddle Fit

If your saddle fits, you should expect to find the following signs, assuming your horse is sound and properly bitted, training has been systematic and appropriate for the demands on the horse, teeth and feet have proper maintenance, and you, the rider, have basic balance and good riding position:

Signs of Poor Saddle Fit

If your saddle does not fit, you should expect to find these signs: The horse may have pain in the muscles under the saddle but this can be misleading. For instance, loin pain may indicate hind end troubles – see below for more on this.

Many “behavior” or “training” issues are actually caused by poor saddle fit!
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