The saddle is the all important link between the horse and the rider, writes saddler Pat Power. It must fit both horse and rider and be suitable for the task and discipline for which it is intended.
Clearly it would be unwise to use a light flat-racing saddle for mustering in the high country, or a dressage saddle for the Grand National steeplechase.
However, let’s confine ourselves to basic saddle fitting, and particularly to the all purpose/general purpose saddle that most recreational riders already own.
There are six points that should be addressed to ensure the horse can carry the rider comfortably in a saddle.
Is there clearance along the spine or backbone of the horse? Check the channel of the saddle. Remember we are talking about clearance which means not touching.
Check it with the rider mounted. And as the padding compresses you may have to add some to maintain the clearance.
Horses change shape — we all do. They put on weight and they take it off. They age, lose muscle and build muscle up.
So remember the first point: Keep checking the clearance along the spine.
Keep an even bearing; with the rider mounted there should be an even pressure over the horse’s back.
It is the most difficult to check yet it is so very important.
On a straight-backed horse a saddle with a rounded panel will rock like a rocking horse. For the same reason, on a hollow-backed horse a saddle with a straight panel will touch in the front and rear only which will be pressure points.
The same problems confront us on the other axis. A saddle with a wide gullet on a narrow withered horse will have pressure points near the top of the shoulder.
And of course we have the opposite problem with a saddle with a narrow gullet and a horse with a wide wither.
Horses do change shape: they mature and they get old; they get fat and they get thin; they put muscle on and they lose muscle. All this can be quite a problem. But there are several techniques available to check the evenness of the bearing.
- Girth up the saddle and allow the rider to mount.
Check with your fingers to feel the amount of pressure down from the withers and behind the flap to the rear of the panel.
Have the rider raise their leg and check under the flap.
It has its limitations but is often the only way you can check it.
- By measurement — take a piece of No. 8 wire and bend it so it fits the shape of the horse’s wither where the front of the saddle will fit.
Draw the shape on a piece of cardboard and cut it out.
Check the cut-out fits the horse, and find a saddle to fit the other or have one altered to fit.
- Another method is a little more complex so if you are not into maths forget it.
Looking at the problem from an engineering point of view we have two identifiable forms. The first is a curve, the curve of the horse’s back over the saddle area parallel to the spine.
This can be classified as a radius curves with the same radius will nest into each other. (like spoons)
If we lay a straight stick of a known length along the horse’s back then in the centre of the stick measure down to the bottom of the curve we can calculate the radius of the curve.
Call the length of the stick L. (430mm)
The depth of the curve D. (35mm)
The formula is D squared plus L divided by two, squared divided by two times D.
(D² + (L/2)²)/2 x D (1225 + 46225) / 70 = 678mm radius
Use a calculator but you do need to understand the formula.
You can make a cardboard pattern of this shape also. It may well be that the radius is not the same each side so check them both.
The third point is common sense; match the saddle length to the horse and rider.
While understandably most people think in terms of 15, 16, and 17 inch saddles it is only a guide.
A short-coupled horse with too long a saddle may be damaged in the loins and kidneys. At the least you will get a very rough ride.
A short saddle on a long-backed horse means you are not distributing the weight over as large an area as is desirable.
Generally speaking the modern saddle will not give problems in this area, but watch out for some of the older ones.
The fourth point is quite obvious: check for an absence of lumps and solid objects in the padding.
Believe it or not pieces of brick have been found in saddle panels, and tacks can inadvertently fall into the flock during the padding process.
Constant use will cause salt-laden sweat to soak through into the padding, then when it evaporates it leaves salt encrustations behind.
These lumps of salt-encrusted padding can be quite large and very hard.
So check your panel for hard lumps and solid objects.
Addressing the fifth point can give us problems with the first; the rider should be in as a close contact as possible to the horse.
This means the padding, the tree and the seat must take up as little thickness as possible.
Italian cavalry officer Frederico Caprilli, about 100 years ago, came to believe (no doubt as the result of a fall) that it is better to keep the horse between you and the centre of the earth.
To do that you need to be well forward when travelling at speed and as close as possible to the horse.
However it is only 40-odd years since we have had a saddle to do this, developed by a Spaniard Count Ilias Toptani, which became the ancestor of the general purpose saddle.
So don’t select a saddle that is as thick as two short bricks, you will be perched up on the horse like a pimple on a pumpkin.
The last of our six points is the one we humans can relate to best of all.
The horse’s back must be saddle fit.
Have you ever worn a new pair of shoes or other footwear to town for the day?
Ever been for a tramp in borrowed boots? Or carried a pack for a few days?
All of these can cause blisters, chafing and considerable discomfort unless we allow time for our skin to desensitize, thicken, and become fit.
If you take your horse trekking or trail riding without any build up your leg muscles and the inside of your thighs can become very uncomfortable and chafed.
Be aware that your horse’s back needs time to become saddle fit, otherwise even with careful attention to the other five points you will have an uncomfortable horse after you have been riding for any length of time.
- Clearance over the spine
- Even bearing
- Match the length
- No lumps or solid bits
- As close as possible
- A fit back
Have your saddle checked from time to time — most saddlers will do it for free.
Saddlery is an old trade and while most saddles are now made in factories with very little hand work, saddle repairs and maintenance is carried out in small saddlery shops and is very labour intensive so can cost more than you expect.
Look after your saddle. Select one to suit you, your horse, and the type of riding you intend to do, and enjoy that very special experience of horse riding.
Article first published on Horsetalk.co.nz in October, 2000.