A Guide to Western Saddle Fitting
Finding a saddle that fits your horse is extremely important. A poorly fitting saddle can result in a sore back and other compensation injuries that can take months to rehabilitate. In this guide to western saddle fitting, we will explain what a good fit looks like, and how to identify obvious fit issues with your saddle.
This diagram will help you understand the terminology we use in this post:
Is Your Horse Comfortable in Your Western Saddle?
As much as we wish that they could, our horses can’t tell us when they are in pain, so it’s essential to know the signs and watch for them. Poor saddle fit on a horse most often leads to soreness in their back. Common symptoms are bare spots or discolored hairs at their withers (shoulder blades), like in the photo below.
It takes hours of wear to discolor hair or rub it away, so once you see it, you must fix it before further damage occurs. Other signs your saddle may not be fitting well is if your horse is tossing its head in pain when you get on or off, or if your horse flinches away from the pressure when you gently run your fingers along its spine.
My Horse is Uncomfortable. What Do I Do?
First, make sure you are placing your saddle on your horse correctly. When you saddle your horse, the concho on the latigo keeper should sit right behind your horse’s shoulder blade. When placed properly, the cinch will sit about 2 inches behind the horse’s armpit. A saddle that is too far forward will pinch your horse’s withers. A saddle that is too far back puts too much pressure on their spine and causes soreness in the back and lumbar.
Once you are confident your saddle placement is proper, check your cinch and saddle pad. We all know the horror stories of a rider forgetting to tighten their cinch and slipping sideways under the horse. Unfortunately, fear of this often leads riders to over-tighten the cinch out of caution. A cinch that is too tight can cause a well-fitting saddle to pinch and rub. Make sure you can fit two fingers between your horse’s side and your cinch.
Western saddle pads come in all different sizes. If your pad isn’t thick enough it can make your horse sore. You can purchase saddle pads with reinforced wither areas that provide an extra cushion in common problem spots. The back of the saddle pad should not touch the horse’s hips. If it does, the saddle will tip toward their withers, causing an incorrect angle and leading to pain for your horse.
Signs Of a Poorly Fitting Saddle
If you rule out incorrect placement, an over-tightened cinch, and a too-thin pad, it’s likely your saddle just isn’t the correct fit for your horse. Understanding what the problem is will help you either find one that’s a better fit or find a saddle maker (using the GoHorse Map) to make the necessary adjustments.
Place the saddle on your horse without cinching it up. Slide your hand beneath the gullet. You shouldn’t feel a lot of pressure on your horse’s withers, but the saddle shouldn’t be sloppy either. It should sit securely on your horse’s back without any notable pressure points. If the gullet of your saddle is too narrow, it will pinch your horse’s withers. If it’s too wide, it will cause the saddle to sit directly on the spine.
A saddle’s gullet size is typically referred to as the “bars” Western saddles come in medium, regular semi-Quarter Horse Full-Quarter Horse or wide bars. Knowing what your current saddle is will help you identify which size you need to move into.
If the gullet feels okay, you will want to check how the saddle tree (the part that holds everything together in the middle of the saddle) contacts your horse’s back. You can test this by placing the saddle on your horse without a pad (do not cinch it up).
Make sure the saddle is making even contact along the length of your horse’s back. If the saddle makes contact at either end but not in the middle this is called bridging and can lead to sore hips or withers. If your saddle only touches the middle of the horse, this is called rocking and it can cause nerve pain and a sore spine.
Sometimes a saddle bridges because it is too long for the horse’s back and is on their hips. The best solution for this is a shorter backed saddle. Other times it’s a confirmational problem with the horse (body shape). You can fix that with extra padding, shims, or a custom saddle.
Rocking is a common saddle fit problem in mules and gaited horses because of the shape of their backs. A specialized gaited or mule saddle can alleviate this, and if it’s not too severe, it can also be fixed with a thicker pad or shims.
If you are unsure of what exactly the problem is with your saddle and having trouble identifying it using the methods above, you can saddle your horse completely with a pad and work them on the ground until they begin to sweat. Then remove the saddle and look for dry spots. Anywhere where it’s dry suggests that the saddle is pressing so hard into your horse’s back that the area is losing circulation and unable to sweat. This is not recommended if your horse is in notable pain just wearing the saddle.
Once you figure out the source of your saddle fitting issues, you will likely need either a saddle maker or a tack store to fix them. You can find the closest ones to you by entering your address into the search function of our map. If you are lucky, there may even be a professional saddle fitter nearby to help you through this process.