There’s no horsing around when you need to fit an English saddle to a horse! Saddle-fitting is a very important part of riding horses. If the saddle is ill-fitting, the horse may experience discomfort or even pain. A properly fitted saddle means the horse will be comfortable, and your ride will be more enjoyable.
It is always good practice to know how to fit the saddle because, when you fit the saddle correctly, both the horse and the rider will have a happier, safer ride. You can learn how to fit an English saddle to a horse correctly to ensure maximum comfort and performance and get the most out of your horse riding.
The Parts Of An English Saddle And Other Terms
Before we get started, it’s important that you know the basic components of a saddle and their purposes. Here are some terms that may guide you if you are unsure about any of the terminology associated with fitting an English saddle:
- Saddle Tree: Saddles are built on a part called the saddle tree. They come in different shapes and sizes, but this forms the framework for the saddle. It is the basis for the strength of the saddle and the size of the seat.
- Saddle Seat: This is the part where the rider sits. The saddle seat size needs to accommodate both the horse and the rider. If the seat is too small, it will pinch the horse’s shoulders and back.
- Cantle: This is the backrest of the saddle, and it helps to keep the rider in the seat. The cantle gives support to the rider’s lower back.
- Twist: This is the narrowest part of the seat.
- Pommel: This is the front part of a saddle. It is usually the raised part of the front of the seat, and on some saddles (especially Western saddles), it could be in the form of a knob.
- Skirt: This offers protection for the horse from the bars and helps with weight distribution.
- Panels: These are the padded areas, under the saddle, which are found on either side of the gullet. They usually have direct contact with the horse’s back.
- Saddle bars: These are situated under the saddle and on either side of the horse’s spine. They help to distribute the rider’s weight, thereby reducing pressure points on the horse.
- Gullet: This is the tunnel under the fork. It provides protection for the horse’s spine that leaves a bit of space over the horse’s withers.
- Stirrup Bar: This is a solid piece of metal attached to the tree, which is sometimes recessed into the saddle. The stirrup bar is the bar that holds the stirrups.
- Stirrups: These are light frames that hold the rider’s feet. They are attached by a stirrup strap called stirrup leathers.
- Knee roll: This helps keep the rider’s knees in a stable position. It is found in the front area of the panels.
- Billets: These are two to three straps underneath the top flap. The billets attach to the girth to help hold the saddle in place.
- Girth: This is used to keep the saddle in place. It passes under the horse’s belly and is connected by the billets.
- The Saddle Flap: These are on either side of the saddle. They protect the rider’s legs as they lay over the top of the billets. This also looks stylish and makes the saddle more stable, therefore making it both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
- Saddle Pad: while not part of the saddle, this does bear mentioning. The pad is placed under the saddle. It helps to protect the saddle from sweat and from wearing out too quickly.
Properly Fitted English Saddles Make Riding Easier
When choosing a horse saddle, it is important to establish that the saddle will fit properly. You would need to consider aspects like the horse’s conformation and the rider’s weight and height. You may even need different saddles for different occasions. Here you should consider the differences between Western and English saddles.
If you are taking a horse trail where you might be crossing long, hard terrain, a Western saddle is best. The Western saddle was designed for cowboys who spent all day in the saddle. It is built for comfort and endurance. That’s why Western saddles are perfect for the harsher terrains of the Wild West.
English saddles, on the other hand, are smaller and lighter than Western saddles. English saddles are the best option when it comes to show jumping saddles and dressage saddles. This is because they allow the rider to get closer to the horse. As the rider has more proximate contact, it means that the rider and horse feel more of each other’s nuances and reactions.
The Dressage Saddle
It is noteworthy that a dressage saddle differs in appearance and functionality from other saddles. The seat is deeper, and it may have a lower pommel. This is because this saddle is designed for riders to have freedom of movement while executing intricate moves. The flaps and billets may be longer as well.
This is all because the saddle caters to the needs of the rider. The correct saddle fit is important in dressage because the rider has closer contact with the horse. This allows for greater symmetry between the horse and the rider, as they may be doing complex moves.
Preparation For The Saddle-Fitting
Before you saddle up, check that the saddle is clean and free from any debris. Checking the tack beforehand leaves less chance of the equipment failing during a ride.
Grooming the horse is also important. Use a soft brush to brush the horse down. This will remove any debris or loose hairs that could cause discomfort when the saddle is placed on the horse’s back.
Fitting An English Saddle
To ensure the best possible saddle fit and straightness, it is always best to fit the saddle on the horse while on as level ground as possible.
There are different ways to place the saddle on the horse’s back. Holding the saddle at the back and front, you can lift it up and place it straight down. Place the saddles gently on the horse’s back. Be careful not to just drop the saddle onto the horse, as the suddenness can frighten it.
Another way is to slide the saddle from the front (in the direction of the flow of the hair) down the horse’s back. The benefit of this is that you can feel the saddle sliding into place. Also, because you are following the direction of the hair, it will be more comfortable for your horse.
If you have a saddle pad in place, you can swing the saddle from the back and over your horse’s rear, hovering it over the back until you are ready to lightly set it down. This may be the easiest way to place the saddle on a horse’s back.
Position the saddle
The front of the saddle needs to be positioned behind the horse’s shoulders so that it does not restrict the horse’s movement. Use your fingers to feel where the horse’s shoulder blade ends. The saddle should slide into place just behind the shoulder blade.
Next, run your fingers along the horse’s rib cage to find the last rib, and then run them up the rib, and all the way to the spine. This is where the saddle should end.
While you check the saddle fit, also check that the horse is comfortable and not experiencing any discomfort.
Check the saddle tree width and saddle tree angle
The tree width is crucial to a saddle fitting correctly. To measure the width of English saddle trees, you would use the dot-to-dot measurement method. A narrow tree has a width of 4 inches, while a wide tree has a width of 4.5 inches. Regular trees are 4.25 inches wide.
The tree angle is just as important because, if the angle does not match the angle of your horse’s shoulders, it can cause pinching or your horse may not even want to ride. The tree angle can make a huge difference in how the saddle fits the horse.
Check the saddle’s length
The saddle length is very important. If it is too long or too wide, it can cause the horse distress or discomfort. If the saddle passes the 18th rib (the last rib), it can put pressure on the rear of the horse’s body. The saddle length is highly important because a properly fitted saddle should fit within the support areas. These are from just behind the shoulder blade to the last rib.
Check the pommel, the cantle, and the billets
At this point, you can do a visual check. The pommel and the cantle should be evenly set out, and the billets need to lay flat, pointing toward the ground. If the billets are over the ribs, the saddle may be too far back. If they are too far forward, they may jar the horse’s elbow.
Check the saddle gullet
Next, you need to check the gullet. The gullet is important because it provides a channel over the horse’s spine. It helps to keep pressure off the spine and withers (the ridge between the horse’s shoulder blades). You want to avoid putting undue pressure on both of these areas, as it can cause pain and discomfort in the horse.
The wither check
Check the opening at the front of the saddle. You should be able to fit three fingers between the saddle and the horse’s withers. If the tree is too wide, or too narrow, the saddle will tilt either forward, or backward and will not sit level on the back.
Something to bear in mind is that there needs to be three-finger clearance to the side of the withers as well. The reason this is important is that the horse’s shoulder blades rotate upwards and backwards, which creates the forward motion of riding. If the withers do not have proper clearance, the horse can experience injuries over time.
Adding the girth
When the saddle is properly positioned and balanced, it is time to add the girth. The girth is attached to the billets. Slide the billets through the keepers and into the buckles. You want to position the girth about 4 inches behind the horse’s leg. This is so that there is no restriction on movement. Then you can buckle up on the other side as well. Try to keep the notches the same on both sides.
The Importance Of Full Panel Contact And Saddle Balance
Check that the panels are evenly balanced on the horse’s back. Hold the cantle (at the back of the saddle) and the pommel (at the front) and try to rock them back and forth. If the saddle rocks, then you need to do some readjusting until the panel feels more level and stable. Saddle balance is imperative for a safer ride. You definitely do not want the saddle to slip while riding.
To do a contact check of the saddle panels, lift the saddle’s panel (on the side) and run your hand under it. You are checking that there are no gaps at any point and that there is consistent contact with the horse’s back. This will help keep the saddle balanced, and it should be a less rocky ride!
The saddle fit must be right for both the horse and the rider. If the saddle fits comfortably over the horse’s back and the rider can sit upright (just as you can on a chair), then the saddle fit should be perfect.
FAQs About Saddle-Fitting
Should I fit the saddle while using a saddle blanket or pad?
Saddle pads provide cushioning under the saddle. They can be made from a variety of materials, like wool, or even synthetic materials, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Their main purpose is to offer protection to the saddle from general wear and tear, sweat, and friction. However, when fitting your English saddle, it is best to do so without a saddle pad in order to ensure the best possible fit for the saddle.
Can You Use Pads to Correct Poor Saddle Fit?
There is nothing that can really compensate for an ill-fitting saddle. Every horse is different, and whilst saddle pads can help protect the saddle from getting damaged, it doesn’t do much for the rider’s safety, or for the horse’s comfort. The saddle should fit perfectly without any saddle pads or blankets.