Archive for the ‘Fit to Horse’ Category

Step 1: How to Determine the Correct Seat Size for the Rider

and Why Your Horse Cares.

The first consideration when selecting a saddle is the selection an appropriate horse.  A rider needing a saddle that is larger than a horse’s usable back must consider riding a different, longer backed horse. This can be a difficult decision as we bond and become emotionally attached to our horses. We want to be kind to them, but we also want to enjoy using them. If a horse is too small, or too short backed for riding, perhaps driving is more appropriate. Or, perhaps the horse should be used by a smaller rider who uses a smaller saddle.  And sometimes, if the saddle is only slightly too long (an inch or less), it can be modified to fit within the usable back.

The seat size of an English style saddle is measured from the center of the saddler’s nail to the center of the cantle. Use a yard stick or, if using a tape measure, hold it taut so that it doesn’t sag.  This tells you the size of the seat…not if it fits.  Common sizes are 17” or 18” but many riders are smaller or larger and need smaller or larger saddles. Many saddles are available in ½” increments, like 18 ½”.

The seat size is the second consideration. It must fit the rider’s pelvis and butt. When shopping for a saddle, a rider must sit on saddles. Lots of saddles. ..friends’ saddles, new saddles, used saddles, and saddles at a local tack shop.  After a saddle is balanced on the fake horse, mount up. (Remember, it is not girthed on, so don’t use the stirrups.)  Lift your knees so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Wiggle around a bit so that your butt slides down to the lowest part of the seat…the sweet spot. Now, without touching the saddle with your hands, drop your legs.  Tall riders often develop the habit of pushing themselves rearward in order to fit long legs onto the flap. Don’t do this.  If this is necessary, the saddle does not fit. The seat should fit the rider’s butt and the flaps should fit the rider’s legs. The rider shouldn’t self-adjust to fit a saddle.

In a correctly fitted saddle, the width of 4 fingers fits behind the back edge of the rider’s butt and the edge of the cantle.  Four fingers should also fit in front of the pubic area and the front edge of the saddle. But seat size is only a small part of correct fit… a starting point. (More on this in future posts.)

Since fit to both horse and rider fit is important, the length of the horse’s usable back must be determined. The saddle must allow room for shoulder movement and not rest on the horse’s kidneys. It should be placed 2 fingers behind the bulge of shoulder muscle with the back edge of the panels resting on or before the 18th rib.  This area is called the usable back.

The 18th rib is the last rib strong enough to support a rider’s weight.  The 18th rib can be found by following the direction of hair growth on the horse’s back. Hair grows downward from the spine. The hair grows forward from the hips.  At some point, the downward growing hair meets the forward growing hair forming a “Vee” with swirl of hair at the tip. Follow the point of the “Vee” upward to the spine. This is where the 18th rib attaches to the spine.

An appropriate saddle for the rider fit must fit within the horse’s usable back? If it does, great! If it doesn’t, the rider should NOT select a too small saddle with the belief that she will lose weight and eventually fit into the saddle. (It doesn’t happen.)  Or that the horse’s comfort is of primary importance and that rider will suffer discomfort as long as horse in comfy. (also doesn’t happen). Even if a saddle is well fitted to a horse, it will not fit when ridden by a too big rider. The rider’s weight will no longer be evenly distributed across the length of the panels.  Don’t do this.  Neither horse nor rider will be happy.

Why you should never ride in a Too Small Saddle.

A few years ago, when I began riding a different lesson horse, the owner of the horse requested that only her own custom fitted saddle be used.  Fine, except…..the saddle was too small for me.  After one lesson, I was bruised and extremely uncomfortable.

I have options that are not available to most riders. I am able to have custom fitted and use any saddle in our demo program.  I selected a different saddle to use that was my size and had it custom fitted to the horse.  Subsequent lessons were far more pleasant.

A frequent comment that I hear is “I want my horse to be comfortable. I know my saddle is too small for me, and I can deal with that. But please, adjust it so that my horse is comfortable.”  This has prompted me to write this post. Here is what happens when a saddle is too small for the rider:

  1. Rider is uncomfortable.  Rider can become bruised and/or chafed from constant contact of the ramp of the saddle with the pubis. OUCH! It is impossible to ride correctly and this makes carrying the rider more difficult for the horse.
  2. It is impossible for rider to sit in the “working center” of the saddle.  The rider sits in a position further back towards the cantle:  The dreaded “chair seat” position.  This off balance position makes riding more difficult for both horse and rider.
  3. There is proportionally less bearing surface for greater weight. And most of that weight is concentrated at the rear half of the saddle.  The cantle drops under the added weight while the pommel becomes higher, relative to the cantle., The rider is thrown off balance even more.
  4. With every beat of the trot, the saddle is pushed forward because the rider’s weight is not evenly distributed.  As the saddle moves forward, it eventually meets the horse’s shoulders. Shoulders become pinched and sore.

I have never been able to measure the distance that the saddle moves, but if the saddle moves forward 1/100 inch (the thickness of a human hair) with each beat, in 100 beats the saddle will be 1” closer to the shoulders.  200 beats = 2” closer. If the saddle was appropriately placed 2” behind the shoulders to begin with, after 200 beats, the saddle is banging into that shoulder muscle with each stride.

I counted beats during a recent training session.  My count was 60 sitting beats around  the arena. A little over 3 times around the arena and an undersized saddle, moving only 1/100” each beat would have moved forward almost 2”.  And I know I go around the arena at least 40-50 times each practice session.  Number of strides will vary from horse to horse, but you get the idea.

If you really care about your horse, you will invest  in a saddle that fits you and can be custom fitted to your horse.

A sweaty saddle pad can tell you a lot about saddle fit since the sweat marks happen dynamically as the horse is moving.


Saddle was too small for rider. Lots of bridging and heavy contact at cantle. Also pressure at shoulders.

This sweat pattern was from saddle that correctly fit me. Notice lighter pressure at cantle and less bridging. Still some pressure at shoulders, but less.

How riding lessons affect saddle fit.

Last week, after about 3 weeks of not riding, I went to the barn after work. The Morgan/Arab mare I’ve been using had suffered an injury and was recuperating for about 3 weeks with only light ground work. This was the first time I rode her after her injury. I was alone and somewhat apprehensive about riding her. Was she OK? Would she object to my weight on the saddle?  This very sensitive and well behaved horse allowed me to mount but she had trouble rounding up and relaxing her back. I was also tense…she probably sensed my anxiety. At the end of my ride, I examined the sweat marks on the saddle pad. It showed some serious bridging — lots of pressure at the cantle and pommel with little or no pressure in between. I knew that we needed to address saddle fit for her, as she had probably changed shape in the weeks following her injury.

The next day I had my regularly scheduled lesson. Same horse, same rider, same saddle and a clean saddle pad. My instructor (Deb Moynihan of Irish Acres Farm in Bolton, CT) worked with me to release the tension that I carried in my shoulders and hips and corrected my position. As my riding improved,  the mare began to release the tension on her back and began to round up.  By the end of the lesson, she was reaching forward to the bit and moving in a steady, beautiful trot. After un-tacking, I examined the saddle pad. What a difference! It was evenly marked with sweat. It looked like the saddle had been refitted between rides….but it hadn’t.

Conclusion:  Riding correctly is extremely important to proper saddle fit and riding lessons actually affect saddle fit. Even experienced riders tend to get sloppy and fall into old habits. Everyone needs a brush up from time to time. Your horse will appreciate the calm, steady and strong rider that you will become.

Dressage Saddle Fit Question


My dressage saddle appears to fit. But I feel out of balance ever since having it refitted to my new horse. What can be done? I know that it’s not just me.


I had the same experience when I recently started leasing a new horse.   Saddle fit it more that fitting the pommel of the tree to the horse’s back. The new horse was slightly downhill, meaning his rump was higher.  While there was good contact throughout, the saddle was too high in the cantle. We adjusted the flock to make the panels softer for the back half of their length. Now, when I mount, my weight squishes down the back of the saddle slightly. It was better, but not perfect.  Then we looked at the girthing system. This particular saddle had point billets. We changed the point billets to standard billets. Now we have a perfect fit. The point billets were actually pulling down the front of the saddle.

When fitting a saddle, it is important to evaluate the entire saddle — not just the pommel. If you think being out of balance might be the case, try adding a little padding under the points of the tree. Something like a folded leg wrap  will do. If this fixes your problem, bring or send your saddle to your saddle fitter. Be sure to explain what you did and that you want panels softened — NOT to narrow the tree. A competent saddle fitter will be able to adjust flock smoothly and evenly. But your weight and the quality of the flock stuffing will determine how much it will squish down. This is not a science–it’s an art.  Just be certain that enough flock remains to keep the spring steel bars of the tree off the horse’s back.  Purchasing a saddle with flock stuffed panels rather than foam allows this sort of adjustment.

CAIR panels


I have a Bates Caprilli AP saddle with the CAIR panels that I need to replace with wool. I really like the saddle but my mare is downhill and I need the ability to flock my saddle up in the front for better fit. Can you provide an estimate for time and cost to accomplish this conversion?


We have had many people ask us to remove the CAIR panels, but we have NEVER had anyone ask us to install them. Yes, we can replace with wool flock. The cost will be between $300 $325 and we will need to keep your saddle for a few days.

saddle width

Hi,  I am a tack consignment shop and I just received a Smith Worthington S Bar W saddle to sell.  Are these saddles stamped anywhere to tell the width?  I am not sure if it is a wide or Xwide and would like to correctly advertise it!  thanks!  Suzi
All Smith-Worthington saddles are able to be modified to fit an individual horse.  Since most saddles we sell are custom fitted to a particular horse before it leaves our warehouse, there is no way of telling what your saddle’s present width is. In fact, it may have been refitted several times. It might be in-between sizes.  I suggest that you advertise the saddle as “between Wide and Extra Wide” if that is your best guess. Then say that “the saddle can be refitted to your horse”.  A fitting guide can be downloaded from our website Current cost (June 2016) to adjust the tree is $90.

Keys to making a good diagram of horse’s back

Keys to making a good diagram are Placement, Angle, Spacing, Amount of Drop

Placement: Find the back of the shoulder muscle.  Then take your first measurement 2 to 3 fingers width behind that point.  This allows the shoulder to rotate back without interference from the saddle.

Angle: Be sure that the wires used for taking back tracings hang vertically and do not tip forward or backward.

Spacing: Take tracings at even intervals and let us know how far apart the tracings are taken.  (I usually take measurements every 7″. More often for unusual backs.)

Amount of Drop: If you have a carpenter’s level, place one end on the spine where the first measurement was taken, hold the level level, and measure the distance between the level and spine at the third measurement.

This is not rocket science – just make the diagram as accurate as possible – you should do fine.