Saddle Fitting, getting it right for you and your horse

If you’re the owner of a horse, and you intend to ride it, then you’ll need to select a saddle that’s a good fit. Next to your horse’s diet, saddle fitting is among the biggest determiners of your horse’s ultimate performance. Select the right one, and you’ll be able to enjoy the greatest possible range of movement, and the best possible posture as a rider.

What is a saddle for?

In order to select the best possible saddle for your horse, you’ll want to first consider what the purpose of the saddle is. It’s to distribute, as much as possible, the weight of the rider, in order to ensure the best possible comfort for both the horse and the person riding it. Ride a horse bareback and the entirety of your weight will be focussed in a relatively small space.

Just beneath the saddle are all of the horse’s vital organs, encase in the animal’s ribcage. All of these organs place a weight on the back and spine of the horse, which will need to be strong and supple in order to cope. As with every other animal, the skeleton of a horse will change shape as it gets older – and the spinal column is among the last parts of the skeleton to reach full maturity. In some horses, this can take as long as eight years. During this time, the spine must be protected against unnatural pressures, and the right saddle is the only means of doing this which allows the horse to be ridden.

How should a saddle be fitted?

When fitting an especially young horse with a saddle, it’s especially important to get things right. The horse must be able to move freely at any pace. A horse’s spine contains a total of 24 vertebrae; 18 of them thoracic, 6 of them lumbar. The ideal position of the saddle will depend on how these vertebrae are shaped. If bones are jutting sideways from the spine, then placing weight on them will cause the animal pain. If the horse only has a short back, then this may limit the options available.

As well as this, the trainer must contribute to the development and maintenance of the horse’s ‘top line’ muscles which support the spine. Where older horses have a weak top line, they’ll also suffer from an all-around lack of mobility. This can only be done with a proper redevelopment programme after consultation with a vet.

What problems might the wrong saddle cause?

If the strength of a horse’s back is not sufficient to carry both saddle and rider, then back pain will inevitably result. Other contributing factors include poor riding technique and persistent asymmetry of the horse. There are some diseases which especially effect the state of a horse’s spine, and injury might also require special diagnosis and treatment.

If your horse has to take time off and be given specific rest, then the chances are overwhelming that the shape of their spine will change, and that valuable muscle will be lost, and the shape of the animal’s spine will be altered. This will require thorough rehabilitation, which will in turn require that the right saddle is fitted before resuming any ridden work. If you’ve gone to the considerable trouble and expense of rehabilitating a horse following a serious injury, then you won’t want this work to be undone by a saddle that doesn’t fit properly.

How can problems with the saddle be identified?

If there’s a problem with the saddle’s fit, then it’ll be almost impossible to spot all of them from the rider’s position – even if you know what you’re looking for. For this reason, a trained saddle fitter is invaluable, as they’ll be able to look at the position of saddle, horse and rider from a distance, and identify any concerning movements in common movements. The more experience the fitter, the better equipped they’ll be to identify and deal with problems. A back specialist will be able to pinpoint areas of pain and identify the causes of repeating issues.

What about the rider?

As important as it is to tailor the saddle to the horse it’s going to fit, we should also tailor the fit to the rider and their technique. If you’re riding a horse and your weight isn’t evenly distributed, then the chances are that your horse will hold themselves unevenly in order to compensate. By the same token, if the horse is holding themselves unevenly, then you may feel you need to ride them differently. Eventually, the saddle will change shape in response to this, and the problem will thereby be cemented. In some cases, this might cause the saddle to impinge onto the spine of the animal.

How often should a saddle be fitted?

When a horse is old enough to be ridden, it should be given a thorough and complete check by a qualified fitter. This qualification is given by an organisation called the Society of Master Saddlers, whose members must regularly update their knowledge in order to retain their status.

After the initial fitting, it’s important that the animal is regularly re-assessed in order to establish that the horse hasn’t changed shape too drastically. In young horses (those younger than eight years old) this should occur around every six months. Some horses are more sensitive than others, and may require closer attention. If you’ve noted that your horse has required regular adjustment during its early years, then it makes sense to continue re-assessing as it gets older. Some horses may change in response to the seasons, meaning that they’ll return to a prior shape in cycles.

On the other hand, there are some animals whose shape will remain fairly consistent throughout their lives – most often those who only require a little bit of exercise. For such animals, an annual check is often sufficient.

In conclusion

In order to give your horse the best chance of avoiding injuries and postural problems, it’s essential that they be fitted by a qualified saddler, and that they be reassessed regularly throughout their lifespans.

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