One of the most important things you can do for your horse is to make sure his saddle fits properly. Poorly fitting tack is equal to poorly fitting shoes: too tight and you've got squished toes and painful feet, too loose and you've got blisters.
A horse suffers the same fate when a saddle that is too small pinches his withers or a saddle that is too big rolls around on his back. Saddler Mike McCloy, owner of the La Jolla Saddle Company in Julian California learned his craft at the famous saddle town of Suffolk, England and with Dutch master saddler Theo Jonas. He offers his tips on getting the right fit.
Step One Choose a Size
English saddles generally come in sizes 30, 31, 32, etc, (denoting the width of the tree from point to point) or narrow, medium, and wide. A wide saddle from one English brand may not be the same wide of another brand as trees, flap widths and flocking (stuffing) varies. The best way to find the proper size is to trace your horse’s withers. To do this purchase a device called a ‘Flexi-Curve’, which is an inexpensive flexible drafter’s tool sold in art supply shops.
1. Stretch the Flexi-Curve over your horse’s withers, start with the center of the curve across the wither, and down two fingers behind the point of the shoulder.
2. Set the Flexi-Curve down on a bit of cardboard and trace the inside shape.
3. Cut out the shape and take it with you to the tack store. Set this little template inside the pommel of the saddle (pretend the cutout is your horse’s shoulders and withers) to find a close fit. If you’re purchasing a saddle through the mail, send the template in with your order. The cutout should not fit perfectly inside the pommel like a puzzle piece. You should be able to fit four fingers between your cutout and the pommel. The bottom half (the shoulders) should fit well inside the panel (the part that touches the horse is called the panel).
Step Two First Impressions
1. Stand your horse up on a flat area.
2. Place the saddle on his back without a pad or a girth.
3. Move the saddle around. A properly fitted saddle should nestle into your horses back. If the saddle slides around, it’s not making good contact on his back.
4. Check for proper contact. Put your hand on the top of the saddle and put pressure on top of the saddle to make contact. With the other, slide it underneath the sweat flap next to your horse’s back. Push with your fingers along the panel to see if your fingers can slide underneath it at any point. If they can, the saddle is not making good contact with your horse’s back.
Step Three Find the pommel clearance
1. Place four stacked fingers under the pommel for proper clearance. Horses with smaller withers require less clearance, however, allow for at least three fingers. The clearance will shrink to 2 1/2 stacked fingers after the saddle breaks in.
2. If you can fit more than four fingers on a new saddle, it’s too narrow, less than three and it’s too wide.
Step Four Has it got the proper balance?
1. Check to see if the flat area of the seat is parallel to the ground. The cantle should be slightly above the pommel. Note: The cantle will vary in height due to saddle style.
2. Make sure the pommel is not higher than the cantle. Your balance will be off if the saddle is not sitting correctly.
Step Five Add your pad
Be careful not to use too thick of a pad because it will skew the fit of the saddle. A nice thin quilted pad is your best bet for a properly fitted saddle. If your horse requires a therapeutic pad keep the extra thickness of the pad in mind when you are choosing the width of the saddle. A thicker pad may mean a wider saddle.
Step Six Test ride
1. Now is the time to check your fit. Add your girth and stirrups and mount up. A good fit is one that allows you to place four fingers sideways behind your seat.
2. Walk, trot and canter your horse and go through your routine. You’ll soon discover if that particular saddle is the one for you. You should feel able to get your leg on your horse properly and be able to sit and rise to the trot without hitting the pommel. However, since saddle comfort is a personal thing, you may find that the brand you want may not be right for you. Some riders prefer a deeper seat while others like shallower. Some saddles are built for wide pelvises and others for narrow. Discuss your preferences with the tack storeowner, trainer or saddle representative to choose a brand that may suit your needs.
Tack Shops and Catalogs offer trial saddle periods. Never purchase a saddle without trying it on your horse first. Remember to give the saddle extra care. Saddles returned scratched or worn won’t be accepted back. Ask the tack shop how they want you to protect the saddle against stirrup leathers rubbing. Most suggest wrapping the stirrups with leg wraps or plastic wrap for protection.
A Word about Sweat Patterns: Don’t rely on sweat patterns to find your English saddle fit. Sweat patterns can be erratic with a new saddle or a newly flocked saddle. The flocking or stuffing needs a chance to break into the shape of your horse’s back. After two weeks if the sweat patterns are still uneven, contact the company or have the saddler look at the saddle again.
Saddle Lingo: Re-flocked = a saddle re-stuffing. Flocking is the material used to stuff the panels of your saddle; it’s usually made of wool.
Tack Care. Have your English saddle looked at once a year. Don’t oil your English tack too frequently-perhaps once or twice a year. Today’s English saddles are built for comfort with softer thinner leathers. Oil causes the fibers of the leather to separate and pressure will break down the leather. Mike recommends Effol dressing with balsam as required for conditioning rather than oil.
English Bridle Fit
1. Cob size usually fits Arabians and Welsh Cobs or horses with small heads
2. Horse size is normally for horses with medium sized heads.
3. Warmblood size is for horses with larger heads.
Bits: The average size is 5, but the best way to find your horse’s size is to measure with a bit of string. Tie a knot on one end of the string. Slide the string through your horse’s mouth to the other side and make a knot on the end. The knots should rest at the corners of your horse’s mouth. Measure the string and round up if you get an odd measurement. Figure in one size up if you’re choosing a loose ring snaffle. The rings can pinch if they don’t clear the edges of your horse’s lips.
1. The bit hinges should clear the corners of the horse’s lips. Move the hinges around to make sure they don’t pinch.
2. Adjust the cheek pieces so that the bit wrinkles the corners of your horse’s mouth in one or two folds.
3. The standard noseband should fit two fingers below the cheekbones. You should have enough leather to be able to tighten the noseband so that only one finger fits under it.
4. The top of a flash noseband should also fit two fingers below the cheekbones. You should be able to adjust the bottom half of the noseband quite tightly below the rings of the snaffle.
One fist sideways should fit inside the throatlatch.