We’ve all read and seen articles and videos on saddle fitting and its importance. But what do you really know about it?
When I was training for the BHS exams I did a small bit on saddle fitting and would always remember the basics. I also went to an interesting demo on it by Alan Ward of Saoirse Saddlery. So I know a bit (emphasis on the bit though). It can be extremely complicated and it is getting more technologically advanced.
Types of Saddles
Let’s talk about saddles. There are various different saddles out there, but here are the ones you’ll see most (bar Western, which I know nothing about).
- General Purpose (GP) or some people call it All Purpose (AP) . This saddle is used for Dressage, Show jumping and Cross Country as well as hacking and is a cheaper alternative to purchasing one for each discipline, perfect for the amateur or leisure rider. It has a slightly forward saddle flap allowing the rider a forward position for jumping and a deeper seat than a jumping saddle to allow for dressage.
- Dressage saddles have a long straight cut flap and (usually) long girth straps to allow the rider to have a longer leg position. They also tend to have a higher pommel and a deeper seat to allow the rider to sit comfortably.
- Jumping/close contact saddles have a more forward cut flap than the GP to allow the rider to go into a forward position for jumping.
- Racing saddles are designed not to interfere with a running horse and to be as light as possible. It has a long seat with very forward flaps that accommodate the rider’s very short stirrups and extremely forward position.
- Show saddles are used for showing and is designed to show off the horse’s conformation. There are no knee or thigh rolls.
- Side-saddles have only one stirrup and two pommels. The ‘fixed’ pommel (sometimes called a ‘horn’ or ‘head’) and the ‘leaping head’. Most side-saddles are designed so that the rider sits with both legs on the near side and with the rider facing forward.
Flocking is the filling in the saddle and there are different types; wool, foam and air. As with anything there are pros and cons to each one.
- It’s a natural fibre that breathes and maintains elasticity.
- It can be easily adjusted and customised to fit a changing horse
- Panels have rounded edges which are easier on the horse’s back
- Panels can be raised in the front/back to make the saddle balance
- Maintaining wool flocked saddles is relatively easy and inexpensive
- Compresses over time and needs to be checked regularly
- Wool panels are thicker than foam
- Offers a more versatile fit as the foam holds its shape and doesn’t mould to the horse
- There’s greater cushion with less bulk than wool, which offers a closer to the horse feel for the rider
- Are extremely resilient and maintain their original shape which can be helpful if it is to be used on different horses.
- Foam doesn’t breathe and can overheat the saddle area
- Cannot be altered for a change in the horse/different horse
- Foam panels that breakdown over time become hard and cracked, and it’s expensive to replace the entire panel.
There are two main types of air panels CAIR & FLAIR. CAIR panels are air sealed pockets in each panel. They are not adjustable. FLAIR consist of two sealed pockets with valves that are enclosed within each panel, allowing you to add or remove air to customise the fit. They are adjustable.
Pros of CAIR Panels
- Maintain their original shape
- Can easily have the air pockets removed and the panels converted to wool flocking if desired
Cons of CAIR Panels
- They use plastic pouches to encase the air and this does not breath and can cause the saddle area to overheat
- Cannot be altered to fit a horse
- Can be affected by changes in temperature & weather, which can cause them to feel over/under inflated.
Pros of FLAIR Panels
- Are adjustable and are ideal for horses with difficult conformation
Cons of FLAIR Panels
- Again they have plastic pouches which can cause overheating.
- Can also be affected by temperature and weather
- Should only be adjusted by professional saddler that is trained on them.
Personally I use wool flocking. The old saying; ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ comes in to play here. Wool flocking is a tried and tested method of flocking for 100s of years. I’m open to advances in technology and design, but here, I feel that they have yet to come up with a suitable substitute.
As you can tell, your saddle flocking will need to be maintained and checked regularly. You need to keep an eye on your saddle fitting as your horse may change shape for various reasons; loses/gains weight, loses/gains muscle, etc. If you have wool flocking you will be able to adjust your saddle.
Another important part of saddle maintenance is cleaning and oiling it. In an ideal world (if you had little minions) your tack would be cleaned after each use. If however, you’re like me and have a full time job and are trying to fit in riding two horses and keeping up with friends & family in between sleep, then it’s not always possible. As often as you can you should use saddle soap to rid the leather of dirt, sweat and grime that will have made its way onto the saddle. Make sure to rinse off any soap completely and then apply a leather moisturiser/conditioner.
You oil your saddle less frequently. When oiling your saddle use a piece of cloth or a sponge and work the oil into the leather. I always use oil and/or soap on the underside of the leather as well (such as under the saddle flap) to make the leather a bit more supple. I use an old artists paint brush to brush it on.
If you are cleaning and oiling a bridle, make sure to take it apart so that it gets a thorough clean. If you are not used to do this I would recommend taking photos or taking it apart one bit at a time because there is nothing worse than looking at 20 pieces of leather and not having a clue how to get them back together!! My routine used to be sitting down to watch a film and just working away on my tack as I watch the film in by the fire on my sitting room floor.
Tack storage is also another concern. In Ireland we have an extremely damp climate come winter. I bring my saddles inside as much as I can. I also have saddle covers for them. As well as this I bought cheap bridles for everyday use and they are synthetic leather and don’t mould (added bonus). Then my good bridles get a clean and are put away for the winter. This is where the synthetic versus leather question when choosing a saddle may be of significance.
It’s not just the saddle itself that you need to keep an eye over….
Your girth straps are extremely important too. Nothing like coming into a jump and your girth strap snaps! I’ve had the stitching repaired on my straps a few times and sometimes you might even need new straps put on.
Stitching in general on the saddle will need to be maintained and looked after. Sometimes the saddle flap can loosen at the seams, which is annoying when your leg catches on it!
Your saddle accessories will also need the once over; stirrup leathers, stirrups, girth & numnahs/saddle cloths. We all know someone who has snapped a stirrup leather and even some who have snapped a stirrup!
If your numnah has hard dirt or is coming apart at the seams, this could irritate your horse’s skin. I saw an interesting video recently from a horse physio detailing why numnahs with gel pads that go straight on to the horses back are not a good idea.
I recently brought my saddles to get reflocked but was told that there was actually an issue with the gullets- too much movement in the gullet. Not the news I was hoping for and means I have to now get new saddles, or new to me ones. So how to choose a saddle?
Choosing A Saddle
A saddle needs to fit your horse (a given) AND you. Most people don’t consider themselves when they’re looking at saddles, they’ll have a rough idea of the size 17.5 but even still you need to sit on it and if possible ride in it. Seat size will affect your comfort level, ability to move and your effectiveness. You need to be able to fit your hand (3/4 fingers) behind your back and ensure that you are not on top of the pommel in the front.
Depending on what your discipline is other factors will come into play. Comfort should be a number one factor. If you aren’t comfortable, then you’ll be tense on your horse. I have a crap saddle that I got for the beach only, so that I wouldn’t wreck my good saddles. The seat is rock hard and sooo uncomfortable. The last time I used it all I could think about was hard the saddle was and I wasn’t enjoying my beach trip – the whole point of the outing!! But then another time I was trying saddles for my old horse and I tried this lovely GFS GP saddle, which was like an armchair and soo comfortable. The problem with it was the knee rolls were far too thick and my leg was too far off the horse I felt – as well as widening your hips and making you walk like John Wayne!! So it’s a middle ground for me and I’m not a fan of big knee rolls – I actually took them off my dressage saddle. It’s each to their own so sometimes you have to try a few before you find your ideal one. Another thing to watch out for is saddle flap length. You don’t want it to interfere with the top of your boot. I admit to wearing wellies a lot riding and with my GP saddle the top of the wellies and bottom of the flap can get caught up, not a great feeling if you’re jumping!
For the discipline riders; dressage riders need to sit deeply in a neutral, balanced position to be effective on their horse and showjumpers will need a shallow seat with a low pommel and cantel as well as a forward and short flap.
Fitting the Saddle to Your Horse
- First off put the saddle on your horse without any saddle pad.
- Look at your horse from the side, the saddle should stop an inch short of the shoulder blade.
- The pommel and cantle should be level (approximately and will differ with different types of saddle). The centre of the seat should be level so that the rider isn’t tipped forwards or backwards.
- Look for the last rib of the ribcage. The saddle shouldn’t go any further back than this is the end of the supported area for the saddle
- You should be able to feel 3/4 fingers between the wither and saddle under the pommel
- If you look from the back of the horse the pommels should sit evenly on the horse’s back (be careful doing this as I had a mare kick me once whilst I was attempting this!!).
If you are not comfortable fitting the saddle to your horse, then you should ask a qualified Saddle Fitter or someone with more experience in saddle fitting.
This picture is unfortunately a little fuzzy,but you still get the gist. He is not standing up straight here so you can’t get a proper idea of how it fits. Below you can clearly see that the gullet has good clearance over his withers.
I’m sure by now you realise that this whole saddle business is not a cheap one. Not everyone can afford a brand new saddle, and why should you? I have had both brand new and second hand ones and the important factors are still the same, fitting them to your horse and comfort for you.
However if you are buying a used saddle there are a few things you need to look out for.
- Saddle tree – is it broken? You can check this by holding this saddle with the pommel towards you, then try and pull the cantle towards you. There should be a certain amount of give, but if there’s an excessive amount or you hear cracking then drop that saddle and run!!
- Check the panels for wear and cracking to the leather. Older saddles may have some cracking and dryness, but shouldn’t be excessively hard/stiff and there should be no wrinkles.
- Check the stitching to see if it has come undone anywhere. This is an inexpensive issue to fix.
Make sure your saddle is up to whatever job you need it for.
About the writer: My name is Aisling and I live in Co. Galway, Ireland. I have two horses; Fred & Cu Chulainn, 1 dog; Rusty, 4 cats; Snoopy, Bluto, Clio & Raggy, and a goldfish; George. I work full time and try and juggle this with riding and competing. Dressage is my favourite discipline but I also do a bit of jumping, showing and XC. Fred excels at dressage and showing, and Cu Chulainn at jumping. I blog about our lives; training and competing, things going right & wrong, at The Irish Horse Life. I update the instagram a lot with pictures and stories of what we’re up to. On the Facebook page I like to share tit bits of what we are up to as well as interesting articles and videos.