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Saddle Fit to Rider Part II


When saddle is too small for the rider, all of the rider’s weight is concentrated at the rear of the saddle.

When a saddle properly fits the rider, weight is evenly distributed over a larger surface.
By Ruth Hanks, Smith-Worthington Saddlery

It is often said that the first step in correct saddle fit is selecting the right horse. If you need a narrow twist, and your horse needs a wide one, you will forever be searching for something that doesn’t exist. Be prepared for a less than perfect fit or be prepared to invest in a new horse. No saddle on Earth will change that. Assuming that your horse’s conformation is compatible with your own, proceed as follows.

How to try a demo saddle

Set up a time to meet at the barn with your instructor, an independent saddle fitter (who will not try to sell you a saddle), and a knowledgeable friend who can take some notes and take some photos for you. Bring the demo saddles, your notebook with your notes taken at the tack shop, assorted padding items and a camera.

First, have your independent saddle fitter evaluate the fit of each saddle to the horse. Since these demo saddles have not been custom fitted, your fitter will need to determine:

• Is the tree the correct basic shape for this horse?
• Is there enough room in the panels for necessary flocking adjustments?
• Does your horse have enough “usable back” to carry a saddle that is correct for you?     If not, can adaptations be made to the saddle to accommodate a short back? (It’s possible with some saddles.)

Set aside for return any saddles that cannot potentially be modified to fit your horse.  Use your padding items to temporarily correct less than perfect fit of the demo saddle. Remember how you balanced each saddle in the tack shop?  You will need to do the same on your horse. Refer to your notes for a starting point.  For example:  1 ½” inches between pommel and cantle. Place saddle on horse’s back leaving plenty of room for the shoulders to rotate and bulge without being pinched by the saddle.  Add padding as necessary to get the same cantle/pommel difference as you had in the tack shop. Girth up and re-evaluate.  Depending on the muscle tone of your horse, and the fluffiness of the corrective padding, the saddle might squish down when you tighten the girth. If this happens, you should correct the padding.

Mount up. If the saddle becomes unbalanced under your weight, add or subtract some padding.  If you do not take the time to do this, you will get a poor ride – all because the saddle wasn’t balanced. Lack of balance can turn a winner into a loser. All this padding will not be necessary once you purchase a saddle and have it custom fitted to your horse.  A thin quilted pad to keep the saddle clean will be all that’s necessary.

Everything will feel different when the saddle is on a real horse and the element of motion is added.  Ride all gaits. If you can’t watch yourself in a mirror, have your instructor and friends evaluate your riding and even take some photos and/or videos.  Your instructor can notice things that you cannot.  Do you get forced into the dreaded “chair seat”? Do you lose the natural curvature of your lower back?

Other things only you can feel. Does your pubic bone bang against the ramp of the pommel?  No one can get inside your body and feel what you feel. Have your friend take notes.

If you are considering more than one saddle, repeat with the second saddle, taking care to balance correctly. Since muscle memory is short, you should ride saddles back-to-back.  After riding the second saddle, set aside the “loser.  If necessary, ride each saddle two or more times.  Once you have chosen your “winner,” proceed to the next saddle.
When riding the second round, compare the “winner” of first round to the third saddle. Repeat the process with each saddle.  DO NOT GO BACK AND RIDE THE LOSERS. Comparing three saddles at a time will only confuse you.  At the end of the day, you will have one winner and will have made a good decision.

After you have purchased the saddle, you can have it custom fitted to your horse and both you and your horse will be happy campers. You will want to continuously evaluate fit to the horse.  Horses, like people, change shape throughout their lives depending on age, diet, level of fitness, and general health. A good saddle with a sturdy tree can be re-fitted many times without weakening the tree. And good quality wool flocking can be re-adjusted or re-stuffed.

Why you should not ride a too small saddle.

I have had plus sized riders say to me: “I know this saddle is too small for me. I plan to lose weight. But in the meantime, I want my horse to be comfortable.  I don’t mind being uncomfortable…I just want what is best for my horse.”

Please, don’t do this! Your poor horse is suffering. This is what happens:

 Your weight is placed behind the working center. Indeed, sometimes your butt bulges over the back of the cantle. Not very flattering and...

The pommel lifts as the cantle drops under your weight. This will usually force you into a “chair seat” making riding difficult. Then, with each downbeat of the trot, your weight pushes the saddle forward slightly – perhaps .005” (the width of a human hair).  After only 400 downbeats the saddle will move forward 2”. Your weight bangs down on only a few square inches of surface area.  How many of us limit our ride to a few times around the arena? The ride will be painful to both you and your horse. Bucking or other undesirable behavior may result.

Perfect fit for both horse and rider is essential, especially if you’re plus sized. If you really want what is best for your horse, ride in a saddle that fits both of you and ride as well as you can. Regular lessons are a must.

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