How To Size Your Saddle
Even if you are an avid equestrian or have never ridden a horse in your life, most people appreciate the skill and prowess it takes to become a good rider. For riding, a saddle is the most critical piece of equipment. Since horses and people come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments, it is critical to ensure saddles are matched correctly to both the horse and rider to protect both participants.
How do you size and measure a saddle for proper fit? Getting the correct saddle for the rider and the horse depends on two things – the type of riding and properly measuring and fitting the saddle. To get the proper fit, measure the distance from the saddle “tree” to the horse’s shoulder to offer adequate protection to the horse’s back. This will place the rider in the best-balanced position possible. The panels underneath the saddle must protect the horse while for the rider; the important factors are determining the correct seat and flap/fender size and shape.
As you can tell, fitting a saddle is not a simple or quick exercise since there are so many choices and considerations for both the horse and the rider. To further complicate matters, there are specific items to evaluate for each type of saddle, horse, rider, and riding activity. Riding horses is not conducive to lean budgets, so selection and proper fitting needs to be carefully evaluated before purchasing any saddle.
Sizing Your Saddle
Proper sizing can only be done through saddle selection and proper measurements. This can be complicated because there is a myriad of saddle types available – all-purpose, jumping, and dressage. However, all saddles have one thing in common. Saddles must fit the rider and the horse properly to avoid what could be a serious injury and increase the enjoyment for the rider.
The Tale Of The Tape Measure
Now that you have determined and evaluated all your saddle choices, it is time to find out how to purchase the correct size of the saddle properly. You might think that the only thing that truly matters is how you feel about the saddle – how it fits, how it feels, how big it is, and how hard is this bundle of leather and metal is going to be to load, unload, and put on the horse. That evaluation would result in a very major and costly mistake.
Always remember, the horse is a living breathing animal that is not indestructible and can be seriously injured during any given ride. The saddle must equally accommodate the horse and the rider in comfort and fit. The most important aspect of getting the right saddle in the right size is doing a series of key measurements on yourself and your horse. It’s important to fit the saddle to the horse you are going to use the saddle on most.
Fitting The Saddle To The Horse
Follow some simple steps in the proper order that will help you protect your horse and allow it to take many long, pleasurable rides with you.
- Begin with the bones of the saddle, which is called the “saddle tree.” Think of this as the rigid skeleton of the saddle that begins with horn and goes across both sides of the horse and is rejoined in the back to give maximum support. The trees are almost always made of wood but sometimes crafted in fiberglass.
- The key is fitting the saddle tree to the horse’s withers. The withers is the small area at the base of the neck where the shoulder blade is and appears as small hump before the curve of the back begins. Since it is usually the tallest part of the horse it is where the official height of the horse is measured. Most experts put different size and makes of saddles on the horse due to variances among manufacturers.
- While it may sound crude, you must make a saddle fitting tool. From a coated wire, cut a sixteen-inch piece of the wire and mark the exact middle. It must be easily molded to fit the horse’s shape and retain that shape when removed from the horse.
- Place two fingers on the back edge of the shoulder blade. Use your free hand to place your measuring tool on the withers. The marked center point should be directly above the withers, with eight inches of wire to each side. Mimic the shape of the wire by pressing down the wire to make an exact outline of your horse’s wither. This is best done by making contact with the horse’s skin on both sides immediately behind the shoulder blade. This will look like a “V” draped over the horse.
- Carefully lift the tool from the horse and place it flat on a piece of paper. Trace the tool and place it aside. From the vortex of the top of the “V”, measure straight down 3 inches and then side to side. This gives you the gullet measurement.
- Then, measure straight across the corresponding points at the bottom of the three-inch marks making a complete triangle. This measurement will determine the required flare, bar angle, bar width, and swell height needed for a proper fitting tree. Use these measurements to match the measurements to that of the saddle you want.
Keep your eye on the goal when measuring and selecting a saddle. It should have the most amount of contact between the bar of the tree and the horse. Measuring for English saddles is almost the same with a couple of other key considerations. English saddles give the horse greater freedom of movement since they lack the rigid features of a western saddle.
The primary difference between English and western saddles is English saddles do not have a large cantle, so they tend to measure larger. As a rule of thumb, English saddles are about 2 inches larger than a similar western saddle.
Fitting The Saddle To The Rider
Measuring the rider for the saddle begins with determining the size of the seat. You are looking for comfort and freedom of movement but enough security when sitting upright in the saddle.
Remember, you may be in the saddle for hours going up and down hills. It must fit right, or you will not be comfortable, the horse won’t be comfortable, and rides will most definitely be unpleasant and shorter. Here’s the step to measuring yourself for the right saddle.
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your butt against the back of the chair, so you are sitting straight and upright.
- Use a measuring tape, measure from your knee to the back of your butt. To be safe or if you are in doubt, always opt for a larger measurement. If the seat is too small, you will be uncomfortable, and there is the risk most of your weight being on the cantle instead of the deepest part of the seat, thus more pressure on your horse’s back.
Here’s the basic chart so you can get an idea of how to take your measurement and use it for saddle selection.
|Your Measurement||Your Saddle Size|
|Less than 16.5″||15″ saddle|
|Between 16.5″ and 18.5″||16” saddle|
|Between 18.5″ and 20″||16.5” saddle|
|Between 20″ and 21.5″||17” saddle|
|Between 21.5″ and 23″||17.5” saddle|
|More than 23″||18” saddle|
You are not done yet. The right gullet size of the saddle for your horse is equally as important as determining the size seat best fitted for you. Gullet sizes (also known as saddle width or tree size) and refer to fit the width of a horse’s back. There are four basic sizes, which are narrow, medium, wide, and extra-wide.
It isn’t too tough to determine the gullet size of your horse. The gullet size is affected by many things but mostly the breed of horse. Most riders can look down the horse’s back from above and should be able to determine the size of the horse’s back. The average horse requires a medium gullet size while larger horses, like Clydesdales or Warmbloods, might require a wide or extra-wide saddle.
You can’t always go by size. Large breeds such as Thoroughbreds or Arabians are large horses but have narrow backs. Horse people are a friendly bunch and love horses and the sport, so if you are having trouble, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trainer or a horse enthusiast for more help. This process works the same for an English saddle.
What kinds of saddles are there?
Saddles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, going into them all in detail here would take us quite a way off-topic. If your interested in knowing all about the types of saddles check out my other article
What Saddle types are there? English and Western!
Ensuring The Fit Is Correct
Fitting a saddle isn’t easy, even for veterans. Don’t feel overwhelmed because even the most veteran trainers and groomers go one step further even after measuring riders twice to ensure the fit of a new saddle is correct.
Always remember that an improper saddle fit could cause your weight to be distributed unevenly and result in pressure points, rub marks, soreness, or the development of “white saddle spots” on your horse. There is no substitute for actually putting the saddle on the horse and doing some careful checks and observations.
Here are some things to look for before going on that first ride:
- Put the saddle on your horse and make sure that it is two fingers behind the shoulders and secured with the girth straps.
- Balance is what you should look for first. One way to do this is to place a rolling object on the seat; it will roll to the lowest point. If the ball or marble runs to the front, that will signify it is too wide and if to the back, it means it is too narrow. If you don’t think it isn’t significantly you can equate this to shoes….it will bend and break in the more it is used.
- Next, go to the front of the saddle to check the wither clearance. Slide your hand under it, and it should be 2-4 fingers in height.
- From there, slide your hand down under the saddle’s front panel to see how tight. This should be effortless. If too tight, the saddle may be placed too far forward against the shoulder blade so that you might consider different treewidth. Any tightness is a sign that it is too wide, so all the weight is concentrated at the top edge of the saddle.
- Look for gaps, especially from the center of the saddle to the back. If there are gaps you can slide your hand under, you need a different tree shape or smaller seat or more padding underneath the saddle.
- The saddle should not rest past the last rib – find the last rib low down and follow it up diagonally for tightness or if the horse flinches when running your hand down its side.
- Grab the saddle firmly and see if there is any or excessive movement. A loose saddle is a sure sign of improper fit and could cause the horse permanent damage and certainly discomfort. Too much movement is also a danger to the rider as excessive movement side to side compromises balance and stability. Saddle movement is the number one reason riders get thrown from horses and injured.
Let The Horse Determine If You Have The Right Saddle
You have done everything you can do to select the right saddle. You have meticulously made your fitting tool and doubled checked the diagrams. You’ve carefully measured yourself for the right seat and then taken the time to put the saddle on and checked all the press points and key warning signs to ensure proper fit.
Remember, the saddle will change the more you ride with it. There are telltale signs – almost always by checking and observing the horse physically and, more importantly, from its behavior if the saddle is the right fit. Make sure in your early experiences with the new saddle to observe your horse for a variety of behaviors and symptoms that tell you that you are hurting your pride steed, and something needs to be changed.
Here are some things to look for that may show the saddle does not fit correctly:
Bumps, Lumps & Lesions
These areas around the saddle, such as lumps, bumps, or lesions, where the saddle comes in contact with the skin. In some cases, without notice, a horse might begin to show round fluid swellings under the skin that are an inch in diameter or less. These irregularities appear within 20-30 minutes after taking the saddle off after a long ride but usually disappear under 15 hours because there is reabsorption.
You might think this would be painful to the horse, but the horse doesn’t react when touched. Another visual sign you may see and observe is a firmer lump or bump that doesn’t go away. This is a low-grade inflammatory reaction to excess pressure from the saddle. These will eventually go away in several days but should be monitored.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem because if the pressure is not corrected, they can become chronic palpable knots. While not uncomfortable to the horse at first, it can become an open sore that is painful and gives a good chance of a more serious infection.
You observe subtle sudden movements when touching the horse while it is relaxed. These normally are not visible to the human eye, but the painful reaction to pressure from the saddle or someone’s hands is a clear sign of bruising.
The most common result of this bruising is a poor saddle fit over a large area. This includes the cantle panels (these are the areas at the back of the saddle normally under the rider’s seat). These could be on either side of the horse and caused by a rider who is unbalanced or uneven and “bumping” in the saddle. If not addressed, these scars can eventually be chronic around the specific areas of bruising.
You may notice a stiffness or lack of flexibility when you run your hand or fingers along your horse’s back. Normally, and you would know this after countless baths and grooming sessions, you should feel some looseness or “give.” If your friend flinches or stiffens or tries to evade pressure, it is a clear cut sign the horse is suffering from back pain. Regardless if this is caused by a badly-fitted saddle or not, the horse needs to be seen by a veterinarian.
Another sign of lack of flexibility or stiffness is an inability to perform “carrot stretches” can also indicate back stiffness. Carrot stretches show the horse’s natural movement to measure a horse’s backbone joint range of motion.
By performing this simple exercise, a horse can build core strength and improve flexibility. This exercise gets its name because owners and trainers use a carrot to lure the horse into performing through three different motions, including rounding, hollowing, and side-to-side lateral bending.
Besides physical reactions, there may be new or odd behavioral and performance issues exhibited by your horse. If no other clinical signs of lameness or other issues occur, a horse’s performance might deteriorate due to a poorly fitting saddle. Some of the signals include the horse’s canter is different or shorter.
All horses have a distinctive and unique gait, so the pain might be a result of not being able to jump correctly and or becoming flat. Other signs that can indicate back discomfort is a high head carriage with “pinned” ears or tense mouth and nostrils and a crimped tail.
When saddle-related pain goes on long enough, even the most simple and commonplace activities change. Your horses might begin exhibiting learned disobedience behaviors such as running away and not coming on command, bucking and vocalizing displeasure to being mounted, refusing to move once mounted, sudden bolting away from humans and animals, violent tail-swishing, and bucking during long rides.
Time To Saddle Up!
It would be nice to simply pull a saddle off the rack, mount your horse and go. It is critical to pick the correct saddle and especially take critical measurements to fit the saddle to the rider and the horse. Since there are inherent dangers in riding a horse, the saddle is as much for the horse’s and rider’s safety as being comfortable running, jumping or hunting.