Think back to the days when most horses were born and bred locally. There was a local saddle maker who knew every bloodline in the region and how the horses were built. He likely knew your horse's sire and dam and had probably built saddles for them. When he looked at your horse, he could see the physical features he needed to allow for.
Although there are still some people who employ custom saddle makers who actually study and measure the horses on which the saddles will be used, the vast majority of us purchase manufactured saddles from tack shops-or maybe over the Internet. These saddles are intended to be generic, made for "anyhorse USA." We buy them because we like the way they look, or because someone in our sport or discipline recommended them, or because we sat in one at the horse expo and it really cushioned our derriere. But do these saddles really fit our horses?
Only if we're really lucky! Because the truth of the matter is, you can't really tell if a saddle fits a particular horse just by looking at it or sitting in it. You have to feel how it sits on your horse's back. You literally have to get your hands underneath it. An expert "saddle fitter" can walk you through the process.
Touch to Tell
- Don't make your decision in the tack shop. Put the saddle on the horse's back.
- Settle the saddle just behind the horse's shoulder, where the "burr" settles into the natural dip just behind the withers.
- Slide your hand beneath the saddle front, about 4 inches in, feeling top to bottom for pressure points.
- Run your hand horizontally front to back, beneath the seat and bars, checking for gaps.
- Find the horse's last rib and compare that to the length of the tree's bars.
- Use your fingers to see how many fit between the saddle gullet and the horse's withers.
Modern saddle fitters are filling the void that has arisen as most of the local saddle makers disappear. They work with all types of horses and saddles to ensure that a horse works in comfort and without injury.
Becoming Saddle Savvy
While some people revel in riding bareback, most of us prefer to ride in a saddle. It keeps us more secure and distributes our weight more evenly over the horse's back. If our weight is too focused in one or more places with an ill-fitting saddle, our horse will be in pain. It can even lead to injuries that can debilitate a horse for the rest of his life.
A rule of thumb is that more than 2 pounds per square inch applied anywhere on the horse's back will shut down capillaries, produce white hairs, cause bumps that look like bug bites, and/or damage muscles and tissues. Even distribution of weight with no pressure points is essential.
Unfortunately, many horses and saddles are asymmetrical-in other words, they aren't built or balanced the same way on each side. This also holds true for our own physical conformation as well. This illustrates why it's so important to check both sides of the horse and the saddle for any differentials that may impact the fit, function, and comfort of the saddle on the horse's back.