Western Saddle Fit
Fitting to the Horse
Saddle fit is all important. Just like for hats and boots, but more so. Fit to the rider is necessary, but fit to the horse is critical.
If you're going to be ordering on-line you do need to make sure the saddlery has the information it needs to achieve proper saddle fit to the horse.
Notice we said "proper fit" - there's no such thing as a perfectly fitting saddle. As a horse moves, the shape of its back varies. A properly fitting saddle compensates for these changes and will not cause the horse discomfort.
Whether you're ordering from a saddle shop across the country or just heading down the street, the information here will be of value to you in getting proper saddle fit.
There are several options to choose among to get this information for the saddle maker or saddle shop, together with a few rules of thumb worth keeping in mind.
Rules of Thumb for Saddle Fit
- Rule of Thumb #1: All saddles don't fit all horses.
- Rule of Thumb #2: Some western saddle (trees) fit most western or stock horses. Specifically, the semi-quarter horse tree will fit most horses.
- Rule of Thumb #3: If you purchase a saddle based on appearance alone, it won't fit.
- Rule of Thumb #4: The more information you gather, the better your chance of success.
- Rule of Thumb #5: If you don't know a lot about horses, get someone who does to help you out.
- Rule of Thumb #6 (Golden Rule): You won't know if you have good
saddle fit until you put it on the horse and go for a ride.
With these rules in mind let's find a measurement approach that works for you.
Four Ways of Measuring For Saddle Fit
A: The "Take A Chance" Approach. Here you purchase or order a saddle because it "looks nice". The combination of Rule #1 and Rule #3 is deadly. You might luck out but the chances are fair to good that the saddle won't fit.
This can be a bit of a hassle especially if you've had it shipped halfway across the country. Needless to say this approach is not recommended.
B: The Expert Opinion Approach.
If you or an aquaintance is informed about horses and knows something about the horse this saddle is intended for, plus knowing the intended use of the saddle, estimate the gullet size and bar type or angle and provide this information to the saddle shop. Rule of thumb #2 comes into play.
Getting the information right gives you a better than 80% chance of getting a proper saddle fit.
These odds aren't bad if returning the saddle isn't going to be a problem but it's not the best approach if you're after a custom or show saddle that's fairly pricey. You'll want better than 80%.
- C: Basic Measurements
We'll look at three approaches to measuring the horse's back where the saddle will sit.
- C1: The coat hanger. Taking a coat hanger cut in half ( or any fairly stiff piece of wire a couple of feet in length) measure the angle across the horse's back at the withers. You are in effect determining the angle of the bars at the fork, a critical measurement. (You should also provide information on whether the withers are pronounced or rather flat).
There's nothing basically wrong with the measurement itself but my own belief is that it's too easy to measure incorrectly and get an angle that's either too narrow or too wide. Not good.
Some folks who should know think highly of this method however and if you are careful in determining the angle it may be just fine. In any event we likely have significantly better than an 80% change of good fit here.
- C2: I really believe this is the minimum effort you should make. Take a tracing of the contour of the horse's back across the withers and let the saddlery use it to make a template to determine bar angle and gullet size.
An element provided by the tracing is an indication of what
the gullet size should be. The bars of the saddle will contact
the horse approximately 2" below the top of the withers.
The width of the withers measured at this point would be an alternate
measurement but the tracing better defines what the bar angle should be as well.
You need a fairly flexible piece of wire ( not too flexible, you want it to hold the shape until you can make the tracing). A piece of heavy gauge wire, #12 house wiring , baling wire, or an architect's flexible ruler* which you may find at a local office supply store, will do the trick.
* There is a product on the markst called Curvex which is not terribly expensive and probably well worth the cost to get a good fit.
- C3. Same as the above but measurements are taken in several places.
Starting at mid-withers take five contour measurements (about 6" apart) where the saddle will sit and a fourth contour along the horses spine. This will give you a rudimentary 3-dimensional "model" of where the saddle sits and give the saddlery good information to work with. It's easy, inexpensive, and provides a great deal of important information - our recommended approach for all but the very difficult to fit horse.
Rule #4 kicks in - the more quality information the better.
(By the way, mark on the tracing of the contour of the horse's spine
the points where the other contour measurements were taken,
ensuring and accurate "model").
- D. Advanced Measurements
To be very, very certain - or for a difficult-to-fit horse you may prefer this approach. Things can start getting a little costly at this point but, depending upon your circumstances, you make the call.
Make a mold of the back of the horse where the saddle will sit. If the saddle fits the mold it will fit the horse, right? Probably, but the mold doesn't move like a horse and don't forget Rule #6 - you won't know if you have a good saddle fit until you try it out. But this is a good approach if you're having a custom saddle made.
Two methods come to mind. We've tried neither, nor have we a vested interest in either product. But many have used them and a little research suggests that both methods are well thought of in many quarters. So we offer them to you as possible approaches.
A warmed sheet of material is placed on the horses back, allowed to cool and stiffen resulting in a mold that can be shipped to the saddlery. The provider of this device is EquiMeasure and they have an excellent article
together with an informative page of
Frequently Asked Questions
about about their product.
A second product, by Saddle Tech uses a number of precise measurements. Judging from what we've read about it their approach gets you about as close as you are likely to come to an "exact' fit. This
product is used by some saddlemakers ( of course it's handy when the horse is nearby).
(These last two suggestions are things you may wish to discuss with the saddlery.)
From Personal Experience - Why the "Test Drive" is Important to Ensure Good Saddle Fit.
Even with good saddle fit you haven't necessarily avoided the problem of discomfort to the horse.
Noticing some white hairs near the right hip of my mare Miss Ivy, I recalled that if a saddle or saddlepad wasn't fitting right, hairs on the horse could eventually turn white at a pressure point.
I put on the saddlepad I always use and guess what - the reinforced corner of the pad, which is rather stiff, lay an inch or so from the white hairs. In motion, the corner would make contact, creating enough pressure to eventually result in the white hairs.
Whether Miss Ivy felt any discomfort from this I don't know. She never gave any indication. Still, corrective action was in order.
You won't discover this kind of problem on a single riding excursion but the message is to watch for signs of rubbing, observe sweat patterns, or anything else that indicates too much pressure is being concentrated on a small area.
In this case, a stiff saddle pad corner, not the saddle itself, was the culprit. But the message remains - you can never tell for sure that everything fits right until you've been for a ride or two - or more.
You'll find out even more about saddles and saddle fit at one of the web's largest saddle shops - fittingly named:
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