How to Check for Saddle Fit
To determine if your saddle is comfortable for your horse when he is being ridden, saddle up as usual. While mounted, have someone from the ground slip the flat of their hand under the front edge of your saddle, just over or in front of the withers. If the gullet of the saddle is too narrow, your helper will be unable to get their hand inserted here. If they can place their hand under the gullet, it may feel tight while the horse is standing still. This is because the horse’s shoulder rotates slightly outward at the top when at rest. For this reason, ask the horse to move forward a few steps, so your assistant can judge how tight the saddle is at the front edge of the saddle bars. If their hand is being pinched, then you have a too-narrow gullet that is creating pressure sensitivity and restricting motion.
Next, have your assistant place the flat of their hand rearward under the tree bars at the area where the majority of your weight rests, and press firmly. Observe the horse to see if it flinches, swings its head, steps away quickly, or pins its ears. Any of these reactions can be an indication of pressure. (You won’t usually get the same reaction when unmounted, as the bruising from saddle soreness can be deep within the tissues.) If there is a negative reaction, but it is mild, have your assistant step away, and casually ride away, and back. Now repeat the procedure. (If the test is repeated immediately, the horse may become stoic and unreactive.)
You probably won’t have had to even ridden your saddle for a while to do this evaluation. If a horse is accustomed to flinching away from pressure over a sore spot, even if he is not currently sore, he will often still flinch out of habit when pressure is applied to that spot. I’ve had clients who were stumped because they hadn’t ridden in weeks or months, but their horses still demonstrated extremely strong reactions when this evaluation was done.
Another useful technique is to stand to the horse’s side, before the hip. Make sure you’re out of kicking range, because this test may create a lot of pain, and some horses will instinctively kick out. Take your hand, and press firmly in a circular motion all around the horse’s point of hip. Some soreness may have transferred to this area. If that is the case, your horse will definitely demonstrate pain with this test.
Next, have your assistant place their hand under the middle of the saddle to make sure there is no gap, or bridging. If there is a section where the tree bars don’t contact the horse’s back, you’ll need to use a bridge pad to help distribute your weight more evenly along the topline.
Even if your horse shows no evidence of soreness with the preceding tests, you need to get the horse moving to make absolutely certain the saddle isn’t restricting movement. Ask the horse to walk with good impulsion from the hind quarters. Then ask him to increase his speed gradually, while maintaining a soft, relaxed frame and gently increasing contact on the bit. Do not allow the horse to increase speed suddenly, or to ‘jump up into’ a faster gait. The speed gain must be gradual, and accompanied by willingness from the horse to maintain contact with the rider’s hand and soft flexion at the poll. If the horse persistently jumps from a slow walk right up to a stiff, high headed gait, he is likely avoiding contact with the saddle tree by hollowing through the back.
If the horse has no ‘second gear,’ but consistently raises its head, hollows its back, and goes immediately to a very fast gait, it is a good indication that he is unable to round up through the back because of restriction from the saddle. As the motion of the gait rolls up through the loins to the back edge of the saddle tree (or English panels), it runs into an uncomfortable obstacle – the rider’s weight settled over a concentrated area at the weakest point of the horse’s back (just before the Sacro-Lumbar area). If this is the case, the horse naturally stiffens up to avoid the contact between the saddle and his back. This is the primary reason people are unsuccessful at retraining a horse that is too lateral – stiff horses are often pacey horses.
Should you discover your saddle is creating pressure soreness, or doesn’t permit your horse the freedom of motion that it needs, you may be able to use corrective padding to help resolve the problems. The rule of thumb is to pad away from the pressure points. In other words, if there is pressure at the withers and the loins, pad in the area away from these - at the center of the back. If your saddle is too narrow, no amount of padding will help – and will, in fact, make the problem worse. Trying to pad for a too-tight fit is akin to putting on extra thick socks because our shoes are too tight. In this case, the only solution is to change to another saddle altogether.