Saddles are not all made equal, and neither are the horses they're supposed to fit. Each horse has a unique body shape and size, and the saddle will also sit a little differently with each rider. If you want to ensure that both you and your horse are happy, a properly fitted Western saddle is essential. An ill-fitted saddle will not only cause discomfort for both of you, it may also lead to injury or behavior problems in your horse. Unfortunately, the proper fit of a Western saddle is often overlooked by horse owners and beginning riders. You most likely won't be able to buy a custom-made saddle, so knowing how it should fit will help guide you through the saddle store.
Get more in-depth with this fully illustrated saddle fit guide
Get a basic idea of how the saddle fits
While there's a lot that goes into proper saddle fit, this short guide will give a good overview to get you started. At very least, it'll let you know if you currently have a bad fit, and let you know what's most likely a good saddle for your horse. Initially, it is best to fit a new saddle without pads.Pads may correct small issues and make your horse more comfortable, but they can also hide potential issues with a given saddle. Setting it on your horse's back with nothing in the way will give you a good sense of its true fit.
The part of the saddle tree that runs across just below the fork of the saddle, called the bars, must be in contact with the sides of your horse, right along the spine on both sides. Check every contact point on the saddle to make sure it's not laying against your horse's withers or bony areas along the spine. There's little padding in these areas, so a bad fit will wear away the hair and could even rub holes in the skin itself.
Look at the horse head-on. Does the saddle settle over the horse's back while leaving a small space above the withers? Do the bars stick out or dig into your horse's sides? Does it look like the saddle rides too high? If the saddle is too narrow, it could put a damaging amount of stress on your horse's spine.
Be especially careful with short-backed horses, as there may be an increased danger of “bridging." This means that the saddle sits on the withers and croup, but doesn't make solid contact along the back. This puts increased pressure on the horse’s withers and hips, and could cause a back injury if extra weight is concentrated in these areas. Checking the fit of the bars with no padding is one of the best ways to make sure that there's no bridging.
Do a thorough check for spots where the saddle might rub
Your horse should be able to move without disturbing the position of the saddle, and without any parts of the horse's body hitting against it. When strapped in place, the saddle shouldn't rock back and forth or from side to side.
With a halter and lead on, gently bring your horse's head as close to its side as it will comfortably allow. Check for pinching in the withers, and watch for body language that may indicate your horse is uncomfortable. Now bring the horse's head to the other side and repeat the observations.
Once you're satisfied that the front part of the saddle fits properly, lead your horse in tight circles -- first to the right, then to the left. Watch for pinching, but also make sure that the saddle doesn't impede the rotation of your horse's pelvis or the movement of muscle as it walks.
Know your horse's anatomy before you go saddle shopping
Test out the saddle from your horse's back
The mounted part of checking your saddle fit is ideally done with a second person to lend distance observations. Mount your horse, paying attention to how comfortable the saddle is for you when you're properly seated. With your full weight in the saddle, feel for the gap above the withers to make sure that the saddle hasn't been pressed down too far.
Now ride your horse around in tight circles, just as you did from the ground. Watch for the same pinching and body language, but also make sure that it feels like your horse is moving right during each rotation. Ride around a corral at a walk, trot, canter and full gallop to make sure that each feels smooth and natural, and the saddle still doesn't rock or slip.
Does Western saddle fit make sense? Get a great visual guide with this video
Once you have the right saddle fit, it's time to super-charge your riding
Consequences of a bad saddle fit
An ill-fitting saddle will make your horse sore, and will probably make you sore too. Your horse can't just tell you when something is wrong, so they'll act out their discomfort in a number of ways. If you notice your horse laying its ears back when you mount, side-stepping, kicking or biting at you when it's well-mannered without the saddle, then there's a good chance that your saddle doesn't fit right. During rides, a sore horse is more likely to be irritable, shy easily and turn barn sour. Even worse, your horse may choose to buck, rear, or run with the bit when it's had enough of being in pain.
Most quality saddle shops will allow you to bring your horse to the shop to check the fit before making a purchase. Call the saddle shop first, notifying them that you're bringing your horse for a fitting. If the shop will not allow you to fit the saddle on your horse before buying, you may want to find a store which will allow you to do so. Learning how to fit a Western saddle is very important if you want to enjoy your daily rides.
Purchasing a Western saddle will most likely be the most expensive equipment investment you will make, so it's critical that you buy the right one. A well-fitted saddle will ensure your time riding is pleasant and fun for you and your horse, and you'll be amazed at how much more you and your horse can accomplish together.
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Tori Leumas on September 22, 2012:
Good hub! I love riding western!
Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 17, 2011:
In a wheelchair but rides horses, does not compute!!!LOL I love to ride even though I am wheelchair bound. In my case the saddle not only has to fit the horse but the rider also. Good saddles are easy to find for people who have the use of their legs, try it when the legs don't work. Add to that a small backed horse and you've really got problems. Actually I had a working saddle two weeks after I bought my first horse. The people had me bring myself and the horse to the saddle shop, it took a little longer than for most people but was well worth the trip. I knew enough to find a good saddle shop as my father rode for years and knew that a good fit was important.
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on March 16, 2011: