How many times have you heard the phrase "saddle-fitting nightmare?" The frustration of having you and your horse uncomfortable, not performing well or experiencing pain because your saddle does not fit can be quite overwhelming and even debilitating.
Saddle fitting is an integral piece of a large puzzle. These puzzle pieces consist of your support system: your veterinarian, farrier, dentist, body worker, trainer, saddle fitter and most of all, the rider. These professionals can help to assess the behavior and performance of your horse. A horse with a saddle-fitting problem may exhibit or start to display new behaviors while being groomed and saddled, such as pinned ears, biting, kicking and girthiness. We regularly see the horse sore in his back as compensation for other problems. That is why a whole horse evaluation is imperative to evaluate and eliminate each point of concern.
When choosing a saddle fitter look for word-of-mouth referrals, a Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) of England Qualified Saddle Fitter or a fitter who works for a reputable company. Check them out by interviewing them on the phone asking them how they conduct their business, what they charge when evaluating a saddle that is not their own brand and listen to the questions they ask. A fitter's responsibility is to educate you without automatically condemning your saddle and trying to sell you a new one. Find a fitter who will evaluate your saddle objectively and if possible, help you to make your current saddle fit to the best of the ability of that saddle. The fitter should explain your options thoroughly. It may be you need to use shims or a fleece pad as a temporary method of making your horse level in his body or comfortable.
I recommend a wool-flocked saddle for your horse's comfort. To keep your saddle in top condition, which means level in the panels, balanced for horse and rider and the wool well-organized, I suggest routine servicing. The more miles you have in the saddle the sooner it may need servicing to keep it at top performance. If you ride 2-3 times a week you may only need to have your saddle serviced once a year. Full-time riders may need servicing every 6-9 months. A horse that is coming back from a layoff, is in a new training program or has had significant weight changes may need servicing after three months. Be a thinking consumer: Routine flocking maintenance may be all that you need, or you may need to have all the wool replaced.
On a routine basis do quick safety checks. This will include a quick tug on the nylon where the billets are connected, checking the stitching that attaches your billets and looking for cracking or tearing on the billets. The same general review of the stitching and leather is important for your stirrup leathers and girth, where you should assess the strength of the elastic as well.
If your saddle takes a fall, with or without your horse, check your tree for soundness by putting the back of the saddle against the front of your hips. Hold the saddle on each side of the pommel and pull toward you listening for the rivets in the head plate to squeak or pop as well as observing the seat leather for slight, even wrinkling. If you notice any unusual noises coming from your saddle you will want to have your saddle evaluated by a Master Saddler.
In the year 2000 I was tested and became a Qualified Saddle Fitter with the Society of Master Saddlers of England. During the process of becoming an SMS fitter we were introduced to the seven points of saddle fitting. This system of check points is without the weight of the rider, minus the girth or pad, with your hand applying firm centered pressure straight down to the pommel or center of the saddle:
1. Gullet Width
Minimum of approximately 2.5 inches or three fingers in the length of the channel of the saddle. Confirm that there is no lateral pressure against the sides of the withers or spine. The desired effect is to have the width of the gullet adequate enough to sit around the spinal process--on the fat and muscle--with no pressure on the spine.
2. Adequate Clearance through the Pommel
Initially unloaded/ungirthed with pressure down on the middle of the pommel, the saddle will sit with a clearance of approximately 2 1/4 inches or three or more fingers stacked vertically between the top of the withers and the bottom of the pommel (new saddles could be more). Too close to the withers means the saddle is wide, and too much clearance (with a moderate wither) can indicate that the saddle is too narrow--both scenarios can create discomfort and an imbalance in the saddle.