The saddle is arguably the most crucial piece of equipment when it comes to good communication between horse and rider. Regardless of which part of equestrian sport one is involved in, the saddle’s task is to make the ride as pleasant as possible for both parties. Investing in a saddle that can do this is often an expensive pleasure, but it is absolutely worth the money. Besides being an important communication tool, the saddle can also cause immense damage to the horse if not chosen carefully.
However, for most riders, navigating the saddle market is a jungle. Just figuring out what to pay attention to can be quite a challenge. Naturally, the best approach is to ally oneself with someone who knows what it’s about. Before doing so, however, one can gain a lot by pondering oneself. But what should you actually consider?
Saddle maker Maria Mogensen from Hestenes Sadelmager is a co-author of this article. She has been working with saddle fitting since 1998 and has her own workshop in Sundbylille in North Zealand. She is a dressage rider, and her own horses have often served as test pilots to create synergy between theory and practice. In this way, Maria has developed both a dressage saddle and a girth under the name Connector.
Let’s start with you – the rider. The first thing you should consider is the seat. It is important that the saddle, as far as possible, can keep you balanced by supporting you correctly. Ironically, a short rider should choose a dressage saddle with a larger seat and smaller knee pads than a tall rider. This is because the knee of the short rider meets the knee pad higher up than the tall rider with longer legs. The thigh lies more vertically on the tall rider than on the short one. In some cases, this means that the short rider needs more seat space.
Whether the knee pads should be large or small is a matter of taste. Most riders prefer relatively prominent knee pads. Their placement can often be changed by a saddle maker, but of course, only to a certain extent. As a rider, you should primarily choose a saddle where you feel you ‘swing’ with your horse’s movements. You must not feel locked in. Only you can assess which saddle you are comfortable in. Therefore, never underestimate your initial thoughts when trying a new saddle. They are usually right.
The traditional saddle type with a relatively flat seat and lightly curved knee pads is actually good for both horse and rider, but it places high demands on the rider’s balance. More modern saddles with a deep seat and large knee pads do not do this to the same extent. That’s precisely why they have gained significant ground. The deep seat, in turn, places new and greater demands on the padding, as the tree curves more downward than the horse’s back.
If you prefer large knee pads, it may be a good idea to choose a saddle where they lie flat against your thigh. Many knee pads are not shaped to fit the rider’s knee. It can feel as if the knees are being forced to the sides rather than being supported, and of course, it should not be like that.
If you are unsure whether a seat suits you, you can advantageously try it out in a canter. When you canter, you must not feel that the front and rear girth disturb your movements. If the seat is too small, you can become sore or tired in the lower back. If the seat is too large, you will feel that you are sliding back and forth.
Let’s move on to the horse. Many people think that horses look alike. However, if you are a rider, you can easily see whether a horse is of the robust or noble type and maybe also which breed it belongs to. But spotting the small details in the horse’s back, which mean that the horse requires a very special adjustment of its saddle, only a few can do. The fact is that horse backs can vary in an infinite number of shapes. This means that the saddle that a rider chooses for their horse very rarely fits as it is. Often it needs new padding and modifications to the girth system to work optimally for the horse.
A saddle should have a good width between the pads so that the horse’s spine is not subjected to pressure. No horses should, as a starting point, go with a saddle where there is less than four centimeters between the pads. Most horses can go with a saddle that has a normal tree width, but if your horse is broad of breed, there often needs to be more space.
Many horses should also go with a relatively wide gullet to avoid being pinched in the front part of the saddle tree. It’s called the trapezius area. Here lies a very overlooked muscle tip, which can shrink if one uses a saddle with too narrow a gullet. In the worst case, it can cause tendon injuries to the forelegs because the horse shortens its natural stride length in an attempt to avoid the gullet pinching. If you have or have had a saddle that pinches your horse in front, you have probably experienced that the horse almost sneaks when it has to go downhill, jumps wrong in the canter, or makes pace errors in the trot without actually being lame.
The saddle pads are assessed in relation to the horse’s build. Some need so-called wedge pads, while others need round pads. It is not uncommon to see horses that are overbuilt. This means that the hindquarters are higher than the forequarters, and here the round pads are best. Horses with a large saddle area should have a larger bearing surface in front, which is why wedge pads are best. Unfortunately, many horses go with too small pads in the trapezius area, so one should definitely pay attention to that.
There are many immediate rules of thumb circulating about the fitting of saddles. Presumably, they were created in an attempt to make it easier for the individual rider to figure out, which is sensible enough. For example, you may have heard that you should be able to place three fingers upright between the horse’s mane and the saddle tree. Or maybe you have overheard someone say that the front girth should be three centimeters lower than the rear girth. Such rules can, of course, help you on your way, but you can also risk assessing completely wrong. As is well known, there is never a rule without exceptions. And when it comes to horses and saddles, there are often more deviations from than conformities with these rules of thumb.
Regarding the space between the mane and the tree, it depends entirely on what the horse’s mane piece looks like. Is the mane high or low? Is it short or long? Or is it somewhere in between? Some horses naturally fill out the saddle’s chamber completely, while others are not even close to it. Therefore, it varies greatly whether something needs to be done about it. The same applies to the relationship between the front and rear girth. How high they should lie depends on how deep the seat is. So, it’s not always a good idea to be convinced by general rules. In the worst case, you can end up with a saddle that does not fit at all – and that is without you having the slightest idea about it.
When finding the right saddle, you should also pay attention to the horse’s feed condition. If the horse is overweight, it will often be broad over the back, meaning it will fit a wider saddle. If it is thin, it will often be pointed in the topline and therefore need a narrower one. Due to the significant difference in the needs of a fat and a thin horse, it is immensely important to keep your horse in a suitable feed condition all year round. Otherwise, you can very quickly risk the saddle causing discomfort. When you can just feel the horse’s ribs but not see them, it is in perfect feed condition. That’s what the saddle should be adjusted to.
If you have a young horse, you might naturally think that it will change shape over the first few years it is in riding. However, this is rare. If your young horse is in suitable feed condition when it gets its first saddle, the saddle will often fit for many years. It just needs to be adjusted regularly.
Read also: New horse in the herd? How to integrate it
Generally, horse owners are very good at keeping their horses in a reasonable feed condition. It is mostly in the summer when the grass quickly settles on the horse’s flanks that problems arise. This means that the saddle can start to press or slide forward. For the sake of both the saddle and the horse, it is, therefore, a good idea to keep the four-legged as slim as possible in the summer half of the year.
If your horse has gained or lost weight, whether in fat or muscle mass, you can simply find out if the saddle is causing discomfort. You do this by taking a look at the saddle while it is on the horse’s back. The deepest point of the seat should be right above the deepest point on the horse’s back. The shoulder should be free, and the rear pad of the saddle must not rest on the last rib.
As most riders know, the horse uses itself correctly during riding when it lifts its back. Therefore, there should be plenty of space for the back in the saddle chamber. You can quickly test this in the stable aisle. Stand on the side of the horse and get it to lift its back by pressing your fingertips a little massaging against the middle point in the horse’s girth area, i.e., right under the belly. Some horses lift their back with just a little pressure, while others require you to press a little harder. If the rear pads of the saddle lift from the horse when it lifts its back, something is wrong. In such a case, the saddle will lie on top of the horse instead of following it. If the horse is in pain due to this, you may experience that it is tender and lowers its back when you groom it in the saddle area.
When it comes to padding, it can be very difficult to find a saddle that is not padded too hard. Fortunately, a saddle maker can do something about it. If the padding is too compact, the saddle will lie high on the horse. This often results in the horse tensing up under the rider after a few months. Padding should be yielding and shape itself after the horse – and it can’t do that if too much is put into the saddle pads.
When you choose a saddle maker to repad your newly purchased saddle, you do well to ask about the type of wool he or she uses. The best are the long-fibered and elastic wool types, which do not collapse. There are many short-fibered wool qualities, which are both soft and lovely to touch, but which are certainly not suitable for weight bearing.
If your saddle is newly padded, it should usually be checked by a saddle maker after you have ridden in it about 30 times. After that, it is wise to have it checked semi-annually. The money is well spent, as you get the opportunity to detect any problems early on. Good padding should, of course, be maintained with adjustments, but it should only be replaced approximately every five years.