Saddle Fit for a Horse

An excerpt from The Horseman’s Guide to Tack and Equipment.

Check Saddle Fit

te385One quick assessment of saddle fit involves positioning a saddle on a horse, but without using a pad or fastening the cinch. Photo by Darrell Dodds.

There are different ways of checking to see how a saddle fits. Some horsemen advise dusting the underside of the saddletree with baby powder before placing it on the horse, and then lifting the saddle to check the pattern left on the back. Other riders check for even sweat patterns under the saddle, believing dry patches are a sign of poor fit.

One way to do a quick barnyard assessment of fit is to place your saddle on the horse’s back with no pad and without fastening the cinches. Of course, the saddle must be placed in the correct position on the horse’s back to start. Then walk the horse and watch to see what the saddle does. It’s not a bad idea to have someone else walk the horse while you walk at the horse’s side where you can keep an eye on the saddle.

If the saddle stays in place and doesn’t move while the horse is walking, this is a good sign. If the saddle “walks” its way down the horse’s back, this is a strong indication of poor fit. In this case, have your helper stop the horse before the saddle hits the ground or a horse bucks it off.

At Martin Saddlery in Greenville, Texas, Brad Vance likes to get a baseline on saddle fit by checking for even bar pressure and contact. To do this, he places a saddle on the horse’s back in proper position, but without a pad and without fastening the cinch.

“The front concha is located at the front of the bars of the tree. When the saddle is in the correct position, this concha should be right behind the horse’s scapula,” says Vance, who is vice president of sales at Martin Saddlery and has competed for years in team roping, calf roping and cutting.

te074A pillowcase can be used to check for gridging, where the saddletree bars should have contact in the middle of the horse’s back, but don’t. Photo by Kate Bradley.

“With your palm down, knuckles up, slide your hand up and under the skirt and underneath the bars. Feel for even bar pressure front to back and top to bottom. If you feel more or less pressure on the back of your hand in any area, this tells you the weight of the saddle [and rider, once he or she mounts] is not evenly distributed. You want flat, even bar coverage. If you don’t have it with this saddle, you would try a saddle with a slightly different bar pattern and/or maybe even a wider gullet.”

“It’s hard to evaluate how much of the tree’s bars are contacting the horse’s back in the middle,” says Jeremiah Watt of Watt Bros. Saddles in Coalinga, Calif., who uses the “pillowcase” test to check for contact.

“Lay a pillowcase folded in half lengthwise over the horse’s back,” Watt says. “Put the saddle on the horse’s back in the proper position and do up the cinches lightly. Reach up under the fender and gently pull on the pillowcase. Ideally, it should not pull out easily, and that tells you there’s good contact by the bars through the middle. If the pillowcase pulls free easily, you basically have a bridge fit; you can adjust this by how you pad the horse.

“Then do the test again and cinch up tight, like you’re going to ride. If you can still pull out the pillowcase easily, this tells you that you have a pretty big gap, as much as a quarter-inch or more. Even with a bridging fit, you’re going to get a closer fit once you’re mounted and the horse is collected because the bars are going to have more contact, not less.”

It’s worth mentioning that each of these tests looks at saddle fit only while the horse is standing still. The tests are static measurements and can’t take into consideration the weight of the rider or the movement of a horse and movement of rider together.


Editor’s note: The Horseman’s Guide to Tack and Equipment focuses on the form, fit and function of various items of horse gear, from halters to protective leg gear and all points in between. Topics include cinches, pads, headstalls, bits, hackamores, reins, mecates, martingales and breast collars, and three saddle chapters consider construction, design and fit.

Although The Horseman’s Guide to Tack and Equipment details many equipment options, this book isn’t a buying guide, but a usage guide. To work most effectively for the rider, horse gear must first work well for the horse, with tack properly adjusted to fit his conformation and range of motion.

With those goals in mind, author Cynthia McFarland, a lifelong horsewoman and award-winning journalist, has consulted industry experts. These top horsemen and tack makers consider equipment use for general riding and specific activities, as well as common fitting mistakes, tack care and more.

Among the book sources are Martin Black and Chris Cox, with whom McFarland previously has written Cow-Horse Confidence and Ride the Journey. These top hands are only two of many professionals sharing their knowledge in the book. Contributors include Roger Allgeier, Tom Balding, Craig Cameron, Al Dunning, Scott Grosskopf, Benny Guitron, Mike Major, Curt Pate, Ted Robinson, Les Vogt, Jeremiah Watt and others.

This Web excerpt addresses saddle fit for the horse. Click here for fitting the saddle to the rider.

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