Choose the right saddle

Your horse’s comfort comes first when selecting a saddle, says Kim Dyson.

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Speak to 20 riders and you’ll get 20 different opinions on saddles. So I’ve put together a list of what to look out for when fitting a saddle. The most important thing to consider is your horse’s comfort. When you fit a child’s shoe, it needs to be done so that there’s no pinching or pain. There will be a ‘behaviour change’ if there’s discomfort.

A saddle that fits properly will make the rider feel confident and the horse feel happy and even more willing to work with you.

The same applies to your horse and its saddle. And, as with a child, constant monitoring is called for. The horse’s back will change as the horse’s work changes. One saddle isn’t for life. Have the saddle checked every six months. Let your horse stand on a level surface. Give it a teff net so it’s not fidgety. Put the saddle on the horse’s neck and slide it back onto the withers until it stops. Repeat this exercise until you’re happy the saddle stops in the same place every time.

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Next, lift the flap on the saddle and look for the little leather ‘point pockets’ on both sides of the saddle just under the stirrup bars. They should be parallel to the withers. If they’re too narrow they’ll dig into the muscles which, in turn, will cause the back to make uneven contact with the saddle. Now you’re ready to assess pressure. Place one hand under the centre of the saddle and push downward to feel if the panels give equal pressure. Then run your hand between the front panels and the muscles to check that all pressure is even. Wool flocked saddles are much more superior to foam saddles as wool will conform to most back shapes and can be adjusted as necessary.

Imagine that a straight line runs parallel to the ground and ‘place’ it above the pommel (front of the saddle) and cantle (rear). The cantle should be around 3cm to 5cm higher than the pommel. Imagine the same parallel line and this time shift your focus to the deepest part of the saddle. This needs to be level in order to place the rider’s seat bones square and in balance on the horse’s back.

Only now are we ready to look at something that most people consider the single most important fitting point – wither clearance. There needs to be a space of two to three fingers between the pommel and the withers. More than three means the pommel is too high and the tree is too narrow. Less than two is a sign the saddle is too low and the tree too wide. If your saddle is stuffed with wool there’s an allowance for around 3cm to settle. There must be adequate clearance over the spine and the connective tissue through the channel of the saddle. If the channel is too narrow the horse will never be able to move correctly.

Repeat the steps
Now repeat the last three steps with the rider in the saddle, making absolutely sure the saddle clears the spine all the time.
Your saddle needs to remain still on the back. There must be no excessive side-to-side or front-to-back rocking. (This can be due to bad symmetry in your horse’s back and isn’t always the saddle’s fault.)

A saddle should never lie past the 18th thoracic vertebrae, or last rib. Beyond this is a non-weight bearing area in the back. Throughout the whole fitting process, pay attention to the horse’s behaviour. Watch its body language and ears. Is it trying to move away from the saddle? Does it flinch when you put the saddle on its back? Or does it accept the saddle?

Restriction and an unwillingness to stride out are all symptoms of discomfort. Your horse is the best indicator of the correct saddle fit. If you buy uncomfortable shoes you would rather walk barefoot. The same is true of your horse and its saddle.

Contact Kim Dyson on 082 888 6511 or at [email protected]. Please state ‘Horse therapy’ in the subject line of your email.