Saddle fitting is one of the most important parts of horseback riding, but it can be tricky to find the right fit for you and your horse. Read below on common myths and misconceptions, plus our recommendations on fitting your horse.
First, let's address some common myths and misconceptions regarding saddle fit
Myth: Gullet Size Determines Fit
Gullet size is commonly used for saddle fit, but 60 years of fitting saddles has shown that this is not accurate or reliable. The gullet can only be accurately measured on the bare tree of the saddle, before it's assembled, so it won't be the same measurement that you can take on your horse. Most importantly, not every saddle with a specified gullet measurement will fit the same. The angle and twist of the bars affect how the saddle will fit, so a narrow and extra wide saddle can share a gullet measurement while maintaining completely different fits.
Misconception: Saddle Fit is Consistent Across Brands
While we keep saddle fit consistent between Tucker, Circle Y, and High Horse saddles, there is no standardization for tree fit in the Western saddle industry. This means that, while semi-quarter horse (SQHB) and full quarter horse (FQHB) fits may be useful as general guides, your horse may not need the same size in every brand, which is why Tucker doesn't use those terms.
Myth: My Horse is Really Tall, so He Needs a Wide Tree
Actually, the horse’s height has nothing to do with proper tree fit. You’ll want to look at the horse’s conformation starting at his withers – are they well defined or are they rounded? Is his back typical or dropped? Answering these questions first will help your horse enjoy a comfortable saddle fit. More important than height will be the shape of your horse's back and the length of the spine.
Misconception: My Saddle is Pinching, I Need a Wider Tree
Not always. If the bar angle is too wide for the horse, it will pinch at the contact point. If your horse has a narrow “A” shape, the saddle may be too wide. In the illustration, you can see the same horse shape with three different tree fits. The wide example pinches at the top of the bars, with no contact at the bottom of the bars, and the gullet sits too low. The narrow example pinches at the bottom of the bars, with no contact at the top of the bars, and the gullet sits too high. The good fit shows even contact throughout the bars and the angle of the bars matches the angle of the horse.
Myth: My Horse's Breed Needs a __ Tree
We hear this a lot, from thoroughbreds to drafts to quarter horses to Tennessee Walkers. What we've found is that, while some breeds may generally share attributes that lead to similar fits, there is still plenty of room for variety. While most vanners will use wide or extra wide trees with rounded skirts, we've fit them and other draft crosses and even full draft horses in regular trees due to the shape of the individual horse.
It's important to think about where the saddle is going to sit on your horse, and critical to remember that the saddle tree is what we're trying to fit. This is only about 8-9 inches on either side of your horse's back, and the length of your horse's back.
The only other consideration here is that if your horse has a short back you'll most likely want to select a saddle with a round skirt, however, this will not impact the fit of the saddle.
The average, defined wither will usually fit a Medium/Regular tree. This horse will have a more refined body with definition in the withers.
This mare is 15.3 HH with a heavy bone structure but needs a regular tree due to her defined wither.
A more rounded, mutton wither with a flatter back will usually fit a Wide tree. This horse often has a blocky build and can be considered a foundation build.
This horse requires a wide tree due to his rounded withers and flatter back
Horses with very wide, very flat backs will usually require an Extra Wide tree. This is generally considered a draft tree, however, we've seen the occasional lighter breed use this tree due to their shape.
This horse uses an extra wide due to his stocky build and very flat back and withers.
Age and maturity of the horse
A saddle you buy for your two-year-old today may not fit as well when he fills out in another year or two
As a mature horse progresses into its senior years, changes in conformation can alter the fit of your existing saddle
The body condition of the horse you are fitting
Significant weight gain or loss can alter the way a saddle fits
Look at your horse as an individual and not a breed type
Identify if there are any conformation issues to address
Great saddle fit is identified when the saddle is level and there is adequate gullet clearance. Make sure your saddle is positioned correctly with the front bars of the tree behind the horse's shoulder blades.
The front of the tree bar should be just behind the scapula. Step back and look at the saddle on the horse’s back. The saddle should be level. If the saddle is not level, you can try adjusting it by using shims, sliding it forward or back to raise or lower the front, or trying different rigging positions. When all else fails, you may need a different saddle with a better fit.
Placing the saddle too far forward over the scapula can cause unnecessary rubbing and pressure (white spots). The pad and the saddle skirt can cover the back of the scapula but the tree bars must be behind the shoulder blade. If the saddle is placed too far forward it will often travel to the sweet spot.
For horses with shorter backs a round skirt saddle design can help with fit, as a longer skirt can hit the horse and move the saddle. It's important to be able to fit the saddle on your horse's back while keeping the front of the saddle right behind the scapula.
Make sure your saddle is positioned correctly with the bars of the tree behind the horse's shoulder blades.
It's important to do this WITHOUT a saddle pad, as your saddle pad will impact fit
If the front of the saddle is resting on your horse's withers or if there is only room for one finger between the withers and the gullet, that's a good sign the saddle is too wide and a narrower tree is needed to distribute the rider’s weight.
You can see in this example that the saddle is tilting forward, with the front resting on the horse and the back of the saddle not making contact.
If the front of the saddle is perched up on the horse's withers that's a good indicator that the saddle is too narrow and a wider tree may be needed.
In this example, the saddle is perched on the horse's wither, and a side view would show that the saddle is tipped back.
Sweat patterns can give an indication of how the saddle fits. Ideally, the sweat pattern will be even, without dry areas that indicate pressure points, areas where the hair has been rubbed off, ruffled hair, or swirl marks than indicate excessive movement. Keep in mind that damage from past saddle fit issues can cause areas of dry spots or white marks. Ask yourself: has this horse ever sweated there before? Is my brand-new wool pad doing its job and soaking up the sweat?
This photo shows sweat patterns from a bridging saddle. The saddle bars put pressure at the front and rear only and not down the middle creating pressure points against the horse. Serious damage and soreness will occur. A bridge pad is needed to fill the gap between the horse’s back and tree bars to distribute the rider’s weight.
All saddle trees are built to fit the average build. If your horse's conformation is outside of average, he'll need a pad solution to create a better saddle fit.See more on corrective padding
Do not over-tighten the cinch because it will create more pressure before you sit in the saddle. Especially, do not over tighten the cinch to compensate for a saddle that rolls. Make sure the saddle correctly fits the horse. Try a different saddle pad (make sure you aren’t over-padding), or use a wider cinch, neoprene cinch, or flank cinch to help secure the saddle. The front cinch should be about as tight as your belt - if it’s comfortable for you, it should be comfortable for your horse. This rule of thumb applies to general trail riding, not extreme trail riding. Use discretion and consult a trainer if necessary.
Most people use the flank (rear) cinch incorrectly. It provides stability to the saddle and should be snug (not tight) against the horse. A rule of thumb is to be able to slip two fingers between the flank and the horse at the apex of the belly. It should not be loose or hang below the horse’s belly-a loose flank cinch is a danger to the horse and rider. Always use the connecting strap between the front and rear cinches to position the flank cinch properly and prevent it from becoming a “bucking strap”. If the back of your saddle is moving side to side or up and down at the walk, trot, or canter, the movement can cause a scrubbing action, irritating the skin, over time these can scar and become white spots. We recommend that you use a flank cinch.
Don’t over-pad your horse. The more pads you use, the wider it makes your horse, and the higher your saddle will sit on the horse’s back (the saddle will roll easier, more leverage being higher). Excess padding will not allow you to feel the horse’s movement as well. If you are riding for extended periods, you need a pad to absorb sweat and dissipate heat.
Natural fiber pads and blankets are more breathable and comfortable for your horse. Wool is an ideal example of natural moisture-wicking and shock-absorbing properties. Neoprene is a shock-absorbing material and is great for performance horses that will not have a pad on all day, but we don't recommend them for long trail rides. Neoprene doesn’t breathe or absorb moisture, and white spots, rubbing, and pulling of the hair follicles can occur.
Keep your horse’s back clean, taking special care where the saddle, pad, girth, and other gear will sit as dirt is abrasive. The movement of the horse and the rider creates movement of the saddle. The abrasiveness of dirt combined with movement can cause skin irritation. Your horse’s back should be cleaned, brushed, vacuumed, or washed and dry before and after riding to remove sweat and dirt. Keep your blankets, pad, and cinch clean.
Consider how you sit in the saddle. For the tree to function, you must sit balanced. If you sit in the saddle like a recliner with your legs out in front, you exert twice as much force on the back of the bars and dig the bars into the horse’s loins. The rider must sit in a balanced position, vertically with your legs under you. This position allows the bars of the tree to function properly and spread pressure equally front to back. Heavy riders require the tree to distribute more pounds per square inch on the horse. For this reason, proper saddle fit and equitation are critical with a heavy rider.
A horse is no different from a human athlete; horses get sore muscles when they are not in shape. Long trail rides, once-a-month barrel races, or competitions when a horse is not in the proper condition will make a horse’s back sore. When pressure is applied to an unconditioned horse’s back, swelling will occur which will accentuate or create saddle fit issues. If you feel heat or swelling after long or strenuous use of your horse, let his back rest and heal.
Do not jump to the conclusion that your saddle does not fit if you find your horse's back is sore due to being in poor condition. A horse’s back will drop when it is not in condition or is overweight. When this happens, bridging of the saddle tree can occur. Strong abdominal muscles support and straighten the back of both the horse and the rider. Daily riding and conditioning will keep your horse’s back tough and strong.