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Fitting Horse and Rider

What Type of Saddle
Do You Need?

People come in various shapes and sizes and so do saddles. It's not surprising then, that not every saddle fits every rider. When the horse is added to the equation, finding the right saddle can make you wish you'd taken up tennis! I've spent a good deal of time in the last dozen or so years helping riders select the saddle that best suits them and their horse and have learned a lot in the process. Perhaps my experience can prevent you from making a very expensive mistake.


Any saddle must meet one very basic criteria in order to function as a useful tool for riding: it must be correctly balanced. This is especially true of the dressage saddle, owing to the refinement of weight and leg aids. This first drawing is an illustration we're all familiar with. In order to allow the rider to sit in a balanced position; with half of the upper body mass on either side of the vertical line bisecting shoulder, hip and heel; the stirrup bar of the saddle must be correctly placed. The stirrup leathers should hang vertically and approximately 6" or 7" forward of the deepest part of the seat. This corresponds roughly to the measurement from the ball of the foot to the heel. The relationship of these two measurements is obvious. If the deepest part of the saddle falls more than about 7" back from the stirrup bar, the rider is encouraged to carry his leg too far forward and automatically adopts the chair seat. Conversely, a stirrup bar placed too far rearward causes the rider to sit on the crotch. We'll talk more about balance when we discuss fitting the horse.


The twist of the saddle, viewed from above, is the narrowest portion of the seat, located just behind the pommel. Saddles can be broadly categorized into narrow twist and broad twist, with great variation possible within each category. The general type of twist you need depends upon the conformation of your pelvis and the way the femur is attached to it as well as the shape of the inner thigh muscle.

Let's begin by separating the boys from the girls. Figure 3 illustrates the basic skeletal differences between men and women with regard to the shape of the pelvis. As you can see, women's seat bones tend to be further apart than those of men. This can cause a problem if the twist of the saddle is too narrow. In such a case, the seat bones are not correctly positioned on top of the saddle but fit down around the saddle - a very uncomfortable position! However this is a very rare situation since the seatbones do not sit on the saddle close to the pommel, but considerably further back, where the saddle begins to broaden. In fact, the crotch pain that many riders, especially women, experience rarely has anything to do with the width between the seatbones. Instead it has everything to do with the positioning of the femur in relation to the pelvis and the shape of the muscle of the inner thigh. Female

Figure 3
Left: Female
Right: Male



The shafts of the two femurs are separated by the diameter of the pelvis and the shafts slope downward and inward to bring the knee joints near the line of gravity of the body. Owing to the female pelvis' being shallower and wider than that of men, this inward slope tends to be greater in women (left illustration) than it is in men (right illustration) though there is considerable variation between individuals. The more knock-kneed an individual is the more the inner thigh muscle tends to be relatively round. The more nearly perpendicular the shafts of the pelvis hang, the flatter the inner thigh muscle (the reason that most men have much flatter inner thigh muscles than women and thus much less difficulty getting the thigh to lie flat against the saddle).

What has all this to do with crotch pain, you ask?

When the rider sits correctly in the saddle he (or she) will be supported by his seatbones, the pubic crest (crotch) and the muscles of the inner thigh. The two generalized saddle shapes are illustrated in Figure 5. The left illustration corresponds to a broad twist saddle and the right to one with a narrow twist. The narrower the twist, the more the saddle tends to be concave on either side of the pommel. The concavity of narrow twist saddle very nicely accommodates the greater mass of a rounded thigh muscle and allows the rider to receive the proper amount of support from the thigh. A flat thigh muscle would not provide the rider of saddle Figure 5-right with any measurable amount of support until several inches down from either side of the pommel. This would result in such a rider bearing too much weight on the pubic crest and would result in much discomfort. The broader twist illustrated in Figure 5-left would support the flat inner thigh very nicely and would correctly and comfortably distribute the rider's weight.



Figure 5
Left = wide twist
Right = narrow twist



While men tend to have the flatter inner thigh muscles associated with the need for a broader twist, because of the narrower pelvis, there is usually less distance between the shafts of the femur and thus few men will be comfortable riding a really broad twist saddle but will tend to prefer something with a more moderate twist.

How can you be sure the saddle fits the horse?


While there are many subtleties of saddle fit you can always be sure you’re on the right track when the previously mentioned balance is present. Different brands and models of saddles may look quite different from each other when correctly fitted. Consequently, if you try to fit all saddles by applying certain rules that you've doubtless read in the myriads of saddle fit articles published in recent years, such as, cantle should be X inches higher than the pommel or, you should have X fingers’ clearance at the pommel - it becomes very confusing. Some saddles are designed to fit with the cantle substantially higher than the pommel (2" or even more) while others are designed to be nearly level, front to back. No saddle is designed to sit lower in the cantle than the pommel, however, horses with a low back conformation will sometimes be correctly fitted when the cantle does indeed sit lower than the pommel. These horses are always a challenge to ride for they can rarely be fitted with a gusset type panel and artificially raising the cantle with a "bump" pad or other device may result in a badly damaged saddle tree and is most always uncomfortable for the horse.

First things first - you must ascertain exactly where on the horse's body the saddle should sit. Horses having a lot of Thoroughbred blood are rarely difficult to decide where the saddle should sit - they have a pronounced indentation right behind the shoulder blade and if you try to place the saddle anywhere else it will quickly find its way to this "sweet spot." Unfortunately, many Warmbloods as well as other breeds such as Arabians and Morgans, frequently lack this clearly defined area. The saddle should be placed immediately behind the horse's scapula - not on top of it. To determine where the scapula is located, have someone lead your horse for you while you walk beside him with your hand on the shoulder blade. As he moves it will rotate about its axis and allow you to visualize its location. Place your saddle just behind the scapula and girth it sufficiently to hold it securely in place.

Keeping the rule of balance uppermost in your mind, stand to the side of your horse and draw an imaginary line through the center of the stirrup bar, perpendicular to the ground. Draw a second imaginary line through the deepest part of the seat, again perpendicular to the ground. As mentioned before, the deepest part of the seat should be approximately 6-7" back from the center of the stirrup bar.

The illustration at left shows a saddle that is too narrow for the horse and consequently sits with the deepest part of the seat too far back from the stirrup bar. The last illustration of this series shows a saddle that is too wide and has the deepest part of the seat too close to the stirrup bar. The former will place your legs too far to the front while the latter will tend to tip you onto your crotch.


Once you've ascertained that the balance is correct, check the width of the tree by stepping to the front of the saddle and observing the fit along the horse's barrel. The "welt" of the saddle (the round piece of leather that runs across the pommel and down either side) will usually correspond fairly accurately to the shape of the tree of the saddle. If you lay a riding whip along the horse's body, starting at the top of his withers and right in front of the saddle, you can compare the actual angle of his body to that of the tree of the saddle. If the two angles are very nearly identical, the width is correct. If the two lines converge over the top of the horse's back, the saddle is too wide, while it's too narrow if the lines diverge. A word of caution here: It is the lesser evil if the saddle is slightly (and I do mean slightly) too narrow than if it is slightly too wide. A very mildly narrow saddle is an inconvenience to the rider because it will tend to cause his balance to be a bit too far back but nonetheless results in an even pressure along the panels of the saddle and no discomfort to the horse. A slightly wide saddle will increase the pressure in the area of the bars of the tree and result in discomfort on the part of the horse, who will usually react by tightening his shoulders and shortening the reach of the forelegs.


"Bridging" is the result of a panel that is not contoured to fit the shape of the horse's back. It has become very popular in recent years to increase the flocking in the rear portion of the saddle panel which raises the cantle and helps to position the rider's pelvis correctly in the seat. Unfortunately, as you increase the thickness of the panel by adding a gusset, the entire panel becomes more and more flat from front to back. Turn your saddle upside down and look at the panel - does it have a slight "banana" shaped curve or is it relatively straight and flat from front to back? Now look at your horse - can you take a piece of 2x4 the length of your saddle, sit it on his back and have it follow the contour? If the answer is "yes" (and it is with many Warmbloods) then the gusset panel saddle is for you! If, however, your horse's back drops a little after his withers then slopes slightly upward toward his croup, your piece of 2x4 will contact his body only in the front and back. This is "bridging" and it can be as extreme as the 2x4 example or very subtle, resulting only in differentials of pressure. No matter how subtle it is it will be uncomfortable for the horse and will usually result in soreness and tightness in the loin area. Sensitive horses may object violently while more stoic individuals will probably become regular patients for equine chiropractors and massage therapists.



Left: Gusset Panel
Right: Traditional Panel



Frequently riders become concerned whether the "banana" shape of traditional panels provide an optimum amount of support for the horse. It's certainly true that gusset panels have a greater surface area than traditional panels and the question of support may indeed be an important factor if the rider is a large, heavyweight person. But since the majority of dressage riders are men and women of normal stature, this rarely causes any problem for the horse and is certainly to be preferred to a heavy weight being pressed into his loins.

Compare your horse's topline to the illustrations below - Thoroughbred type on the left and Warmblood type on the right. If he is shaped like the horse on the left, a gussetted panel is probably not a good choice.


Figure 11
Left: TB type
Right: WB type



When should my saddle be reflocked? The answer to that is when and if it needs it! I have a 27 year old Passier that has never been reflocked and doesn't need it yet! It has also never given a horse a moment's discomfort in his back.

When your saddle requires reflocking, be sure to chose a qualified craftsman for the job. A poorly reflocked panel will have lumps that will cause uneven pressure and discomfort for your horse.

Saddle Care

Frequent oiling is not necessary to insure good service from your saddle. As a matter of fact, precisely the opposite is true. Americans tend to over oil their tack while in Europe oil is used very infrequently. Regular cleaning with a quality glycerin soap will maintain your saddle in top condition - keeping the leather supple yet sturdy. If the leather in your saddle begins to feel dry or stiff from use or neglect, use a quality leather oil product sparingly.


There are always exceptions and I try not to say "always" or "never," for when I do I'm sure to immediately meet a horse or rider who gives the lie to every rule. However, if you follow these guidelines and use good common sense, as well as observing the way your horse reacts to a new saddle, you'll probably not stray far in your efforts to find a fit for both you and your horse. Good luck!

If you have additional saddle-fit questions, please feel free to call us at 800/456-8225. We'll be happy to discuss your particular situation. Or email your questions to connie@tackinthebox.com and I will be happy to answer them.

Connie Micheletti
© 1997 Tack In The Box

This brochure is compliments of Tack In The Box



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