My searches for the “just right” saddle have never been simple. Long before the availability of different tree widths, I rode a very round, mutton-withered, aged grade pony mare in 4-H and regional hunter shows. An all-purpose pony, she had run barrels, traversed trails, and circled the Western pleasure ring. We threw on her a surreptitiously fitting all-purpose English saddle from our motley collection—one which I promptly outgrew. The right saddle, which we special ordered, took many moons to arrive (I clearly recall opening a tiny Christmas present containing a catalog photo of the saddle). When the beautiful specimen of leather and brass arrived, we kept it for the rest of the pony’s long life—it fit her and only her.
After I converted to eventing in the years following, my own conformation became the issue. My lanky Thoroughbred with his relatively “normal” back was fairly easy to fit, but finding a saddle that wouldn’t trap my long thighs between knee roll and cantle proved nearly impossible. Another wrapped-up catalog photo Christmas later, and I had my next right saddle. Years later it sits unused because, while it fits me like a glove, most horses I ride these days are wide-backed draft crosses.
So it’s always seemed to me that horse people make concessions: Fit the rider, or fit the mount. Catch riders or professionals at the shows had one saddle they used on every horse, with support teams carrying necessary pieces of equipment to make it work for each one. In riding schools and collegiate tack rooms, I saw saddles labeled with school horses’ names and carefully retrofitted to the named animal, but not without an array of requisite foam accouterments, trimmed to various shapes and compressed from use to different widths.
Thankfully for our horses (though not necessarily our bank accounts), selecting a properly fitting saddle has become even more complex in recent years, and rightfully so. Our sources for the sports medicine article in the Feb. 2014 issue, who are studying a variety of facets of saddle fit, remind us: Horses come in an endless variety of shapes, and manufacturers have come up with a host of saddle design options to accommodate them. Comfort and ease of motion are crucial, lest they end up sore and lame as they haul us around and perform.
So while fits of yesteryear involved carefully setting saddles on clean horses’ backs, taking care not to leave girth marks on the billets, our experts now freely urge us to take test rides to see how the horse moves and how we feel before purchase.
And we must keep in mind how our horses’ bodies change; just as it doesn’t make sense to buy a full wardrobe immediately before marathon training, or any other event that might alter your physique significantly, it’s best not to fit a saddle to your horse before he’s reasonably fit and conditioned. And it’s essential to check fit periodically for the same reason.
A good fit still means searching carefully for that perfect match and hanging on to it when you find it.
Column originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.