Choosing the right saddle for your horse

With a sport horse, the performance of the animal is critical to its success and to this end, it’s essential to make sure the saddle is chosen carefully, says Dr Mac.

Saddle sores are a common sight, especially on working horses, such as those used by the police, as the saddle is usually a standard issue, “one size fits all”. To compensate for this, an attempt is made to “standardise” the size and shape of the horses chosen. In other words, the horse is made to fit the saddle.

Conformation influences the fit
When selecting a saddle, the breed of horse is important. There’s a vast difference in the shape of the back and withers of an English Thoroughbred, an American Saddler, a Welsh pony or a Boerperdfor example. Gender can also affect the fitting, as a gelding will have less muscling and much higher withers than a stallion.

Conformation problems such as excessively long or short backs, sway back or roach back, or even a horse with hindquarters higher than its withers, can also make saddle-fitting difficult. And it isn’t always easy to find a suitable saddle for excessively fat horses with loaded withers, or very thin horses where there’s little muscle covering the bones.

A few basic rules
The saddle tree should fit the back, with the two pads lying evenly along the twin muscles on each side of the spine. If the saddle tree is too narrow, it’ll pinch the horse at the base of the withers and saddle sores will develop. If the saddle tree is too wide, the front arch (pommel) will press down on the withers and an elongated oval-shaped saddle sore will develop on top of the withers over time. To check if the fit is OK, ask someone if they can insert three fingers between the pommel arch (in front of the saddle) and the withers after you’ve mounted the horse.The saddle shouldn’t touch the backbone at any point, as this can also cause severe damage to the vertebral spines. When the saddle is in position, you should see light shining through from the back if you angle your sight through the channel. The girth fastens just behind the horse’s elbows and the saddle should remain stable at all gaits.

Some simple tests
The rider’s centre of gravity and that of the horse should coincide. The padded tree will distribute the weight of the rider evenly along the spinal muscles on each side. The rider will naturally sit upright and won’t be forced to lean with the angle of the saddle. In a horse that’s higher behind, a saddle with a higher pommel should be selected.

A sway-backed or skinny horse may need extra padding under the saddle and a ‘riser pad’ can be inserted on top of the numnah or saddle blanket.When the horse is saddled and the girth tightened, hold the pommel and cantle in each hand and gently rock the horse sideways, to and fro. The saddle should move with the horse and not slide to the side. Try and lift the cantle on the back of the horse. A well-fitting saddle shouldn’t lift. If you can move the cantle up and down then it will cause the horse a great deal of discomfort.

Fortunately, the science of saddle-fitting has made great strides and there are specialists in saddle fitting. There’s even an electronic instrument that can measure the pressure of a saddle where it touches the body of the horse.