Recognising the signs of a poor saddle fit

A well fitting saddle is essential for your horse’s comfort and also your own riding position. Learn how to spot the early warning signs of a badly fitting saddle

Recognising the signs of a poor saddle fit
Ensure you check the length – the tree of the saddle should not extend beyond the top of the last rib
  1. Muscle soreness under or behind the saddle. The horse may flinch when being groomed or tacked up
  2. Dry patches may appear under the front of the saddle surrounded by sweat after exercise.  This can indicate too many layers or too thick a layer beneath the saddle, filling up the gullet and pressing on the spine
  3. Swellings under the saddle after exercise

If the saddle has been badly fitting for some time, you may notice some longer term indicators such as:

  1. Depressions behind the scapulae (shoulder blades) or elsewhere under the saddle.  These may reflect a chronically poorly-fitted saddle and pressure points
  2. White hairs appear when pressure has injured the hair follicles.  However, they usually do not appear until the hair coat changes
  3. Dry patches under the front of the saddle surrounded  by sweat after exercise
  4. Scabby lesions under the front or back of the saddle

How can you assess a saddle fit yourself?

You should always ask a qualified saddler to fit and check your saddle but here are a few things you can check yourself between visits:

- Check the length – the tree of the saddle should not extend beyond the top of the last rib

- Jumping saddles are longer in the seat than dressage saddles to allow for a more horizontal thigh position

- Some pony saddles are not adequately adapted to fit relatively large young people, without being too long for a pony’s back.  The seat, knee rolls and flaps need to be designed to accommodate the rider’s growth

- The saddle should remain central on your horse’s back in walk, trot and canter, with the seat parallel to the ground.  A little movement from side to side is normal but the saddle should not swing from side to side or lift off the back.  The rider must be able to sit centrally in the seat, not tipping forward or back.  When your legs hang they should not drift forward or backward.  You should be able to stand in the stirrups and maintain your balance.

- The gullet is the central channel on the underside of the saddle which fits over the top of the horse’s spine.  It should not be in contact with the spine when a rider is on the saddle.  Check that at least two fingers’ width aligned vertically (3cm) can be inserted under the pommel when the rider is standing in the stirrups, both before and after exercise.

- Check that you can see through the gullet of the saddle.  The development of white hair on top of the horse’s back can indicate lack of clearance.

- The front of the tree should stay approximately 5cm behind the top of the back of the horse’s scapulae

- Check that the saddle stays behind the scapulae during exercise.  Ruffling of the hair underneath the saddle could indicate undesirable movement. 

- The bearing area (panels) should be in contact all the way along the back

- Material used in panels differs but this is not important provided that the panels are soft and smooth against the horse’s back

- Feel under the saddle for any gaps.  There should not be any areas where there is either reduced contact or no contact between the panels and the horse’s back.  This can also be checked by looking at the grease on the saddle if using the saddle without a numnah

Handy Tip

Dust the bottom of the saddle with talcum powder and see how it is distributed on the horse’s back.  You should not be able to run your hand under the front panel with a rider on the horse.  Feel for excessive pressure especially under the tree points, look at the distribution of sweat on the numnah under the saddle or look for the presence of dry spots on the back after exercise which may indicate pressure points.


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