Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance. Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit. He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.
Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles. First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male. Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider. However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees. And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.
Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”. As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider. But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down. Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments. If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.
Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting. But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start. More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.
A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.
It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine. Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well. Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.
Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle. Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary. Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area. Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.
If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.
Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:
- Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing. In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse. It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
- Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical. An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
- No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting: The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind. The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
- Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work. Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers. There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse. Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance. Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
- Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
- Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
- Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length. Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
- Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
- Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers. Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary. This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process. “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.
Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information. Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline. In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine. How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained. Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).
“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.
Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward. When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple. Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.
While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically. Often, issues are more subtle. For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.
Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit. It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.