Let’s break this HUGE topic down into ‘7 simple things to check’
1. Horse Behavior
When diagnosing whether your horse suffers from an ill-fitting saddle, there are visual and behavioral signs that might give you clues.
Any of these look familiar?:
- Moves away as you approach with saddle
- Tries to bite at you while saddling, or bites the saddle itself
- Sets ears back against the head
- Won’t stand still for mounting
- Swishes the tail, especially in gait transitions and lead changes
- Has lost ‘forward’ or stumbles and trips more often
- After your ride, dips away from your touch on their back
- The longer you ride, the worse the behavior becomes
- Never seems to relax under saddle
- Nods their head up during transitions, bucks or rushes
2. Saddle Appearance
Place your saddle on your horse (note proper position: link). First try without a pad and cinch in place, then with it all tacked up. Observe each scenario with these considerations:
- Is your saddle sitting low in front enough to touch the wither or not leave at least a few finger widths of space?
- Is it perched up too high so it looks more like a steep roof in front instead of a hug around the shoulders?
- Shows room under the front around the shoulders…or not? Run your hand under your saddle and pad against your horse’s shoulders up at the level of the tree. Do you feel tight pressure.? (This determination should be finally assessed when saddle is tacked up with pad and appropriate shim and girthed ready to ride).
- Look unbalanced? Is the lowest part of the seat (greatest weight bearing area) where you will sit? (This determination should be made when saddle is tacked up with pad and appropriate shim).
- Does it look too “downhill” in front? Too flat-level? Too uphill? A saddle tipping downhill in front could mean it is too big in the gullet area, but a tapered foam shim can help greatly (more about that: link). An uphill saddle could mean it is too small in the gullet area, will pinch shoulders when the horse tries to move and could be adding pressure at the back. A too-flat-level saddle (where the lowest part of the seat is dead center) might put a bit too much pressure on the horse’s forehand because it will be hard to access your balance point on the back edge of your seat bones. A well-leveled saddle will have the low point behind the center so you’ll be able to curl your pubic bone forward enough to sit on the back edge of your seat bones.
- If you run your hand under the saddle/pad (along the bar area of the tree)- can you feel any large gaps or tight spots? While you need to allow room for your horse’s back to lift and expand when being ridden, tight spots will only get tighter
- Does your pad add too much bulk under your saddle and create tightness? O – Don’t rely on simply fitting a saddle to a naked horse to check these things – the pad & shim (The “Interface” between the underside of your saddle and your horse’s body and cinch make a difference!
Consider shimming if your saddle is too tight at the shoulders! A tapered foam one is best. This can help you manipulate the space under the saddle in many beneficial ways. For example, you can adjust the balance point of the saddle, create lift off the working shoulders, make up for lost muscle and create even contact until training facilitates reconditioning, or help a horse with conformation issues. Learn more about the benefits of simple-method shimming by watching our short video here. You can also see our range of exclusive ‘tapered foam shims’ and pads by clicking here.
3. Sweat Marks
Sweat marks have long been a GO-TO for people to establish saddle-fit. They can reveal some things, but not all. Sweat patterns (as long as the horse has sweat significantly) can be impacted by a lot of things but generally :
- Dry in the center yet wet in the front and back can mean your saddle is not contacting through the centre. This creates pressure points and means your saddle is “bridging”. A little bit of bridging can be a good thing, as some extra room under your saddle for your horse’s lifting back in motion is very comfortable and promotes athletic biomechanic
- Sweat marks only in the rear could mean you have too much pressure at the back of your saddle (check seat size is correct and the balance of your saddle – where is it bearing weight most?)
- Sweat marks in front could mean your saddle is too narrow at the shoulders or the position needs to be addressed. Please see our article on Saddle Position and how important this can be
- Sweat marks should be even however, this can be affected by the length and intensity of your ride – horses generally sweat at different places in their bodies at different times
- Dry Spots/Sweat Marks can be deceiving as TOO MUCH pressure can also cause dry patches. Excess pressure inhibits sweat glands from working – For sweat to be created you need air to be present.
4. Temporary Swelling
When your horse’s back has too much pressure in areas it can cause a restriction in blood flow and can lead to swelling. Pay close attention to your horse before and after each ride as part of your grooming routine. Indents, lumps, soreness – it is up to you to find these things on your horses bodies in an effort to help them.
5. White Hairs/Visual Indents
White hairs are caused by too much pressure occurring in the same spot. The excess pressure inhibits blood flow. This damages the sweat glands resulting in white hair. This can be permanent damage so if you see roaning (flecks of white) start paying very close attention. Whilst roaning over larger areas can simply mean there is ‘movement and friction’ between the saddle and rider and may not be permanent, concentrated areas could be telling a different story over time.
6. Muscle Atrophy
If you see that the muscles of the horse’s body are underdeveloped (atrophied) and some are overdeveloped (hypertrophied) this can indicate they are using their bodies incorrectly and your saddle could play a part. It is also important to note that riders influence the way horses use their bodies also. Any unnatural way of moving can change our horse’s bodies conformation. Long term this can have devastating results in their performance and longevity as a riding horse. Perhaps read our article Saddle Fit and Performance to learn more about rider responsibility and how to enhance your horse’s performance.