The Basics of Saddle Fit

Photo © Jess Clawson

BY JESS CLAWSON

If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes in any horse-based Facebook group, you’ll come across questions about saddle fit. “What jump saddle fits a thoroughbred with shark fin withers?” or “Who prefers wool versus foam?” are all over the feed, while others talk about “fully adjustable” saddles and “interchangeable gullets.” But what does it all mean?

Cathy Frederickson of Millwood Equestrian is a certified saddle fitter. She is trained by the Society of Master Saddlers in England, is completely brand-independent, and understands how to teach people what they need to know to make sure their most expensive and important piece of equipment serves them and their horses the best.

So, when do we need to call a saddle fitter? Sometimes it’s just time to replace a beloved but aged saddle, or we got a new horse with a completely different shape than the last one. But other times, our horses might be having performance or behavior problems that we can’t quite pinpoint. An ill-fitting saddle might just be the culprit.

Start with back tracing, evaluating whether it’s too wide vs too narrow; gullet channel is too wide/narrow on spine, then go into panel test. Indicate back tracing is done by the saddle fitter. If you’re curious about how your saddle is fitting, Cathy recommends what she calls the powder test too look at even contact of the saddle’s panels with the horse’s back (hidden part that people don’t always look at; home tool that you can do, along with spine width, length of saddle). It’s simple: put talcum powder on your horse’s back and then place the saddle on. Remove the saddle and flip it over. Is the powder evenly distributed or are there obvious places where the saddle is bridging and creating pressure points? You can also do a wither tracing of your horse using a flexible ruler to get a rudimentary idea of whether your saddle is too narrow or wide. 

A talcum test. This saddle fits the horse unevenly. Photo © Jess Clawson

If you think your saddle might need to be fitted, or it’s time to get a new one altogether, you might want to select a saddle fitter who is qualified and independent. The Society of Master Saddlers trains, tests, and credentials saddle fitters. Saddle companies will hire brand representatives and give them training, but some are required to sell you a saddle of their brand or family of brands. Sometimes the way a particular brand makes its tree is just never going to work for your horse, regardless of the tree size itself. If a saddle fitter works for a company but will help you find a saddle regardless of brand, you’re in luck. Independent saddle fitters strive to sell you a saddle that actually fits your horse regardless of brand.

This view is critical for saddle fitters. Photo © Jess Clawson

When the fitter arrives, they’ll start by evaluating your horse’s conformation and ask you questions about what you do with your horse, how she’s going, and generally get to know you. Cathy looked over my horses carefully from a variety of angles to determine if they were even in their bodies. She even stood on a stool behind them to get a good top-down view of their backs. Then she did several tracings, beginning with the wither, the mid-back, the top of the last rib, and the drop from the wither to the back.

Juno is very round with flat withers. She uses an XXW tree and is a tricky fit because the saddle always wants to slide to the right. Photo © Jess Clawson

She took the flexible ruler and made tracings on a big sheet of paper that I get to keep for my records—very helpful in case a horse’s back changes over time (many do). We also took the ruler of the first wither tracing and held it up to a tree so she could show me whether or not the saddles I had for my horses matched my horses’ shape and if not, what tree size and panel shape we’d need as a starting place.

Cathy likes to look at horses from this angle too to give a better idea of ribcage conformation. Photo © Jess Clawson

But, there’s a lot more to saddle fit than tree size. The shape of the tree matters a lot too. Some horses have curvier backs than others, and thus need a curvier tree to match so it doesn’t bridge and create pressure points. A curvy tree on a straighter back will rock— not good.

Panels also impact fit. Round horses, think cob types, might need flatter panels that will accommodate their curves. The thoroughbred and many modern warmblood types may need fuller panels, perhaps even gusseted ones, for extra support. The paneling under the cantle may help determine whether the saddle sits level on the horse’s back. Horses with an angular ribcage (again, think thoroughbreds) may need fuller or gusseted rear panels to ensure the point of balance of the saddle is in the appropriate place to keep the rider centered. A horse with a rounder ribcage, like a pony or a draft, will likely want the flatter panels.

Red, who is very old, has shark fin withers, a big dip behind his shoulders, and an angular ribcage. Even in his youth, when he had a more developed topline, those conformation features remained. Photo © Jess Clawson

Finally, there’s the topic of adjustability. While technology has come a long way, most saddles are only partially adjustable. It’s important to remember that the gullet size and the tree size are two different things, and while brands vary in their adjustability, in most cases a saddle can only be adjusted up or down two or three sizes. In most saddle brands, you can’t take a narrow saddle and turn it into an extra wide or vice versa, because the gullet still has to line up with the rails of the tree.

An interchangeable gullet. Photo © Jess Clawson

Some saddle brands have an adjustable tree (as opposed to an interchangeable gullet), but you should always have a certified saddle fitter adjust it for you. There may be construction issues too with some brands.

Adjustability can also come in the form of flocking. In normal wear and tear and exposure to heat from the horse and chemicals from the sweat, panels harden and flatten regardless of what they’re made of. This becomes an issue of comfort for the horse as well as adjustability for fit. Wool flocking and CAIR panels can be changed. Wool is great, because the fitter can just do it on site in under half an hour if all you need is an adjustment. For a complete reflocking, they’ll usually take the saddle to a shop and remove the panels and replace the flocking that way. CAIR panels can be changed out by a saddler, but you have to live without your saddle for awhile. Foam can be replaced too, but again, you’ll have to send the saddle away. This is usually done less for fit, and more because the foam becomes quite hard over time and needs to be replaced completely for the horse’s comfort.

This monoflap jump saddle has front gussets (see the seam most visible on the left panel) and pockets for the billet straps, which allows them to be attached to the tree, and a better girthing fit for the horse. Photo © Jess Clawson

Billeting is the last way to adjust a saddle, and not one that people often think of. Some brands of saddles have up to five points for billet attachment. If you’re having trouble with a saddle that fits being unstable, your saddler can sew billets onto the extra attachment points and send you on your way. If you’re not in the middle of your horse, you’re not safe. Billeting can be the answer to this problem.

Saddle fit is complicated, and there’s a lot more to say about horses’ conformation, saddle structure, and rider type. We’d love to know what questions you have about saddle fitting. Send them to [email protected] and maybe they’ll be featured in upcoming columns.



About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
Read More from This Author »