All saddles, regardless of type (all-purpose, dressage, close contact, saddle seat, western) must sit in the correct location before a determination of fit can be made.
The saddle needs to sit back behind the shoulder blade two fingers width. By moving saddles back, a number of problems are solved. First, the horse's shoulder is free to move without restriction. Secondly, the need for riser pads is reduced, if not eliminated. Thirdly, the horse?s back is less likely to be sore under the cantle.
Have your horse stand on a level surface with his head facing forward at a normal angle. In other words, don't let him put his head down to graze and don't let the cross ties hold his head up too high.
Place the saddle on his back without any pad or girth. Remember, the front panel should be behind his shoulder blade by the width of two fingers. Now step back and look at the saddle. Look at the deepest part of the seat; is it parallel to the level floor? Is the cantle higher than the pommel or are the two somewhat level?
One goal of good saddle fit is to have the deepest part of the seat level to the floor. If it is, the cantle will be somewhat higher than the pommel. How much higher depends on the type of saddle. The cantle of a deep-seated dressage saddle will be higher than the cantle of a shallow close contact saddle on the same horse when both saddles fit the horse correctly. Both saddles must have the cantle higher than the pommel for good fit.
If the deep part of the seat is not level with the ground and seems inclined forward, chances are that the saddle is too wide for the horse Often a wide saddle will sit down on the horse's spine, allowing little to no clearance between the horse and the gullet. This situation is usually easy to detect. If a horse is ridden with a saddle like this for long, the withers will become extremely sore. The horse will carry his head at a high angle, he may shorten his stride up front and the rider will often feel pitched forward, struggling with leg position.
If the pommel appears to be almost level with the cantle and the deep part of the seat is inclined back, the saddle tree is probably too narrow. This situation can also cause sore withers. The horse is often extremely sore under the cantle of a too-narrow saddle. The rider will have trouble keeping her lower leg back under her and will often complain of hitting the pommel during a rising trot. The too-narrow saddle (sometimes referred to as "cantle low") is a little harder to diagnose than the too-wide saddle.
Another test to determine proper saddle fit is also done with the saddle on the horse, without pads or girth. Again, be sure the horse is standing squarely on a level surface. Place one hand on the pommel and the other on the cantle and alternate pressure from one hand to the other. If the saddle rocks like a rocking chair on the back then the saddle isn?t a good fit. The less motion you get, the better the fit.
The goal of saddle fitting is to make your horse comfortable so he can do the job you are asking of him, in a way that will keep him sound and happy. A properly fitting saddle will also encourage a horse to develop muscles along his topline, which will make the work easier to accomplish. A word of caution: a saddle that fits well today may not fit after six months of steady work. Consequently, it is a good idea to check and re-check your saddle every few months to be sure it is still comfortable for your horse.
Saddle fit is part science and part artistry. If you are unsure whether your saddle fits correctly, and if your horse has a sore back, it is always wise to call your veterinarian and a saddle-fitting expert.
Karen Clark owns The Horseworks in Williston, Vermont. She is a Certified Saddle Fitter, Master Saddlers Association, USA. She competes her elderly thoroughbred, Jeb, in the New England area, showing in adult amateur hunters and adult equitation. Contact her at 802-879-8935.