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How To Spot A Poorly Fitting Saddle

How To Spot a Poorly Fitting Saddle

A saddle could be the make or break of a harmonious relationship between horse and rider. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true! A well-fitting saddle will support a rider to use their body effectively to tune into their horse and facilitate their movement and ability. A saddle that doesn’t fit will do just the opposite. You could be the best rider in the world, but a poorly fitting saddle will prevent you and your horse from reaching your true potential, no matter how hard you train!


That’s why it’s so important to know how a saddle should sit on a horse’s back and know the signs to look out for when it’s not the right fit. Without the help of a trained saddle fitter with you, knowing what to look for can be quite confusing. So here are our top tips for spotting a poorly fitting saddle, so you can stay one step ahead.


The effects of a poor-fitting saddle 

For us, a saddle that doesn’t fit is like putting on the wrong pair of trainers and going for a run… not very comfortable! You’ll change how you run and will probably come home with some nasty blisters and feeling a little bit stiff. For horses, having an ill-fitting saddle is a similar experience, except they can’t tell us when it hurts. 

As they can’t communicate that their saddle might be hurting, your horse will be giving you some signs that something isn’t right. So, keep an eye out for any changes in behavior or performance because that’s your horse’s best method of communication. 


Photo of woman on western saddle on horse

When a saddle doesn’t fit, it can put pressure on the horse’s back or start rubbing, making it sore to the touch. If you notice that your horse is particularly sensitive where the saddle sits, or you see some tell-tale signs of rubbing, like sores or bald patches, then this is a good indicator that your saddle isn’t sitting right on their back.

A saddle that’s too tight will restrict the way a horse moves so you may notice their gait changing, which can affect their performance. A sore back can even cause lameness, so it’s really important you’re catching the signs early on!

As well as the physical effects of a poor-fitting saddle, discomfort can create a negative emotional connection to the saddle. Over time, a horse will learn to associate the saddle with pain and become resentful of being saddled up.

This can present itself as some uncharacteristic or unwanted behavior on the ground or under saddle. Making sure you’re in tune with your horse is the best way to spot any negative changes before they have a chance to take root and become a real problem. Once you fix the saddle, their behavior should go back to normal!


How to tell when your saddle isn’t fitting

Western and classical saddles are designed for different purposes and therefore will look and fit a little differently to each other. However, just because the shape and style is a little different, it doesn’t mean the fit is any less important, and spotting the signs of a saddle that doesn’t fit is the same across all disciplines. Here are a few things to look out for…

  • A saddle that doesn’t fit correctly will lift, swing, or slip on the horse’s back. This can be quite hard to tell when you’re sitting in the saddle, so get a trainer or a knowledgeable friend to watch you ride and see what the saddle does. If the saddle is lifting and bouncing on the horse’s back, it probably means the saddle is in the wrong balance. If it’s slipping or swinging, it could mean that the gullet and width of the saddle are incorrect for that horse’s shape. Lifting or slipping will be noticeable at a trot or faster, particularly for those of you who enjoy jumping. If the saddle is bouncing up and down on the horse’s back it can be very uncomfortable for them, as well as throwing the rider out of balance.
  • When looking at the saddle on the horse from the ground, the back of the saddle shouldn’t sit past the T18 vertebrae. Diagram of back and the T-18 vertebrae areaYou may have also heard referred to as the last rib, so run your hands along the horse’s rib cage, find the last rib, and trace it back up to their spine. If your saddle is sitting beyond this point, it’s too long for the horse’s back. The lumbar is the weakest point of a horse’s spine and therefore cannot bear the weight of a saddle and rider without causing damage. 
  • While you’re looking at the saddle from the ground, run a hand down from the whither in between the saddle and the horse’s shoulder. If your hand struggles to slide through easily, then it’s quite likely your saddle is too tight and probably pinching them. Not only will this restrict the horse’s movement, making it hard to extend the forelegs and use their neck effectively, but it will force your saddle to slip backward. 
  • When checking the fit, have a look and see if the front of the saddle, the pommel, has enough clearance on the peak of the horse’s whither. If a saddle is too wide, it will sink onto the bony part of the whither which can be very uncomfortable for them! 
  • Going back to what we said before, if you notice your horse is pulling faces or distressed while tacking up, or their general behavior or performance has changed, then it could be a sign the saddle isn’t right. Even if the saddle looks like it fits well, the shape or style might be all wrong for their body type, so it’s worth consulting a professional to get their opinion too!

Diagram of horse and all the different body parts

What does a well-fitting saddle look like? 

A saddle that fits correctly is basically the opposite of everything we said above! A well-fitted saddle should stay secure on the horse’s back and not move around, with plenty of whither clearance and space for the shoulder to move. One of the most important things to remember is that the back of the saddle doesn’t come past the T18 vertebrae, as this can cause significant damage to the horse’s body. On the whole, a horse that is happy to be tacked up and work hard, and able to move freely without restriction is the best indicator of a healthy horse with a well-fitting saddle! 


Spotting a saddle that does or doesn’t fit takes some practice, the more you know what to look out for, the easier it becomes to identify! Watch other people ride around you and see if you can spot any of the signs we discussed. 


At Lilly Tay, we recommend having your saddle checked regularly by a professional to make sure it’s the best fit for you and your horse. Even if you know what to look for, having the advice of a trained professional when purchasing and fitting a saddle is recommended to ensure everything is as it should be! 


If you’re looking for the perfect new saddle or some saddle fitting advice, make sure to give us a call and we’ll be happy to assist you. We have a huge collection of new western and classical saddles, catering for horses of every shape and size, so we’re sure to have something just for you! 

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