The Basic Ins and Outs of Saddle Fitting

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 Why do saddles need fitted

The primary reason for fitting saddles is for the comfort and welfare of the horse, this fact should always remain at the forefront of your mind. Saddles are also fitted for the following reasons:

  • A new saddle/ second hand saddle
  • The horse and/or rider has changed shape
  • The owner feels the horse is displaying discomfort
  • To optimise the horse and/or riders preformance

For horses that are in moderate work 3-5 days a week, saddles should be checked every sixth months, providing no drastic changes have taken place. Young horses and competition horses should be checked every three months, this also applies to horses who have weight to gain and/or lose. Newly purchased saddles should be checked six to eight weeks after purchase.

Things your saddler fitter will ask you about your horse and the Reasons behind the questions.

All Saddle Fitters should template, and all those qualified with the Society of Master Saddlers are mandated to do so. As well as filling in information about your horse, your saddle fitter will also measure your horse, this means that at each visit you will be able to see how your horses has changed.

  • Age

Age is a very important factor as it will give you an indication of the changes that will take place. Horses generally mature skeletally at the age of six, though larger horses tend to mature a little later. As a general rule of thumb, blood horses such as Thoroughbreds and Arabs, tend to mature fully at five and a half six, while Warmbloods and Cold Bloods mature at seven or eight.

Thoroughbreds tend to grow in an upward fashion, starting off towards a medium wide fit with a broad twist, with the wither becoming more prominent as they reach maturity. Warmbloods, depending on their blood, generally grow in an " up and out" pattern, with most of them ending on the wider side of a medium fit. All horses tend to do 75% to 80% of their growing in the spring. Older horses tend to lose muscle tone, with their backs becoming more dipped as they age.

  • Work Being Done

This is a very important factor, not only in terms of muscle condition, but as a gauge to possible adjustments to the saddle that may be required.

Horses is certain forms and amounts of work should hold a certain muscle tone. As a rider/trainer/saddle fitter you should be able to recognise these attributes in the horse, furthermore you will also learn to recognise when a horse is working incorrectly, resulting in muscle loss and atrophy,added to this you will learn over time that there are certain trends in terms of yards, riders and instructors. For example if a horse is in correct work 4/6 days a week, it should have significantly more muscle tone than that of a horse in work 1/2 days a week, if it does not then there is a problem, either in the horses way of going, or the way it is being trained.

If a horses work is to be increased this will have an influence on its muscle tone, for example horses that are being backed or horses that are returning to work, this fact will need to be considered when fitting the saddle,as the horse will most likely change shape. One must remember that fat takes up more room than muscle. Careful attention needs to be paid to horses where a rider has decided to become competitive after a few years of owing a horse, especially in terms of the horses soundness and the riders capabilities.

It is also important to note who the trainer is, and if any one else other than the rider you see will be working the horse, as rider weight and ability can influence the way the saddle fits.

  • Vetting/History(including treatments)

Information regarding whether or not a horse has been vetted and any history of lameness is very important to note, as well as the date on purchase.

Staring with the date of purchase, this is important to note as it will give you an idea of changes to the horses condition and muscle tone. If you know your clients well you will be able to gauge on whether the changes will be positive or negative. It will also give you an idea on whether there may be a positive or negative change in the horses temperament.

If you are uncertain as to whether the improvements will be positive or negative cast your eye over the other horses either belonging to the owner, or those in the yard. From this you should be able to tell whether the thin horse in front of you in likely to gain weight or remain in the same condition.

Noting whether the horse has been vetted and by whom will give you an indication of its soundness and suitability for the work being done, and may also allay any concerns with a horse that may be presented for saddle fitting, which may be irregular in its movement. It is important to get the client to confirm what type of vetting was done, as there is a vast difference between an insurance vetting and a five stage vetting, it is also important to note whether x rays were taken. Any problems that the client is aware of from the vetting should be noted. You must remember that you are not a vet, there is a very fine line to walk between expressing concerns over a horses soundness and passing judgement, however since the welfare of the horse is paramount, any concerns should be noted and the client advised.

History of the horse is important to note, for example if a horse has kissing spines you will want to note the following; when it was diagnosed and by whom(there is a vast difference between an assumption and proper diagnosis), what treatment was given in regard to medication, physio/chiro,rehabilitation work. The same will apply to other injuries. This is why as a saddle fitter your knowledge will also need to encompass to a degree some knowledge of veterinary as well as farriery skills. History is important as it can make you aware of future problems that may affect the fit of the saddle and the way the horse goes. For example if a horse has a suspensory injury and you are fitting it prior to the beginning of remedial work, it is important to note the work that will be done, as incorrect work may result in the horse becoming unsound again, ofttimes with you as the saddle fitter being blamed for the unsoundness.

Intermittent and undiagnosed lameness' also need to be noted with care, as again if they are a reoccurring issues, the saddle may also be incorrectly blamed.

It's also worth your while to note the name of the Physio/Chiro and for what reason their services are used. Often if I see a horse with a sore back I will recommend a physio to help improve the situation.

  • Condition (including Height and Weight)

Calculating a horses weight is the most accurate way of measuring weight, the following formula is one of the most accurate:[Girth (cm) × Girth (cm) × Length (cm)] / 11,900 = Weight(kg) Horse's body type (i.e., very heavy or thin barrel) might affect the accuracy of this estimate.

This calculation might not provide accurate estimations of weight for very tall horses and should not be used to estimate weights in miniature horses.

Calculations specific for estimating the weight of growing horses are more complicated, and a scale is recommended to monitor growth rates in these horses. Weight determination in growing horses is more important for ensuring smooth, consistent growth patterns than for ideal "body weight" with respect to fat coverage. Rapidly growing foals can be prone to developmental problems and orthopedic diseases such as epiphysitis or osteochondritis dissecans.

Problems with saddles fit and the consequences

Too narrow(width)- often if a saddle is to narrow in front it will pinch behind the scapula and trapezius, and may in some instances result in atrophy either side of the wither. Also the saddle will often not be in balance creating pressure points towards the rear of the saddle, this May result in the horse moving in extreme cases short behind. There may also be bridging, this is were there is a gap between the panel and the horses back.

Too wide(width)- in extreme cases the underside of the pommel will rub on the wither, causing a fistula wither. The points of the tree will also sits to low down, trapping the scapula. Also since the balance of the saddle will be out, this may cause the back of the panels to "bounce"

Bridging-this is where there is a gap in the contact between the panel and the horses back.

Out of balance- this is were the saddle doesn't sit in balance, either because the tree shape or panel shape is wrong for the horse.

Side rail angle- if the side rail angle is to narrow it will "pinch" on the spinal processes and may rock. If to wide, it will cause the saddle to sit to close to the horses spine.

Too long- where the saddle sits past the 18th rib

Sitting left or right- when saddles are not sitting straght it may be rider related, check the saddle first to make sure the tree is not twisted, followed by the stirrups, the rider, then the horses development. Most often the saddle sitting to one side is a result of a crooked rider.  Asymmetry in the horse may be a result of unsoundess or incorrect work. 8 out of 10 horses are more developed on the left.

Wrong tree shape

Wrong paneling. 

The Rider

Rider weight has become a very intensely debated subject, ultimately the facts are the facts, yes some horses happily carry more weight than others. However is you expect your horse to be an athlete, should you not expect a little athleticism from yourself? when saddle fitting I ask a rider their height, weight, age and gender. All of these are very relative to how the saddles fit.  Rider skill also weigh heavily into the equation, the latest study to this effect is being presented in the UK this month by Dr Sue Dyson MA, Vet MB,PhD,DEO, FRCVS of the Animal Health Trust. the Society of Master Saddlers has also done similar studies, with very interesting results.

Below is a  very interesting article, especially considering that there are very few TB's weighing over 559kgs, and most warmbloods don't go much over 650kgs. In regard to young horses, the vertebrae only fuse at 6 years old, so rider weight plays a huge impact.

To get a fairly accurate assessment of your horses weight you can use the following formula:[Girth (cm) × Girth (cm) × Length (cm)] / 11,900 = Weight(kg). This formula is far more accurate than a weight tape.

To determine your weight, put your riding gear on, grab your saddle and jump on the scale. Then it's one small step to work out your percentage of your horses weight.

Different breed do carry weight differently, with some breeds being more capable than others,depemding on their bone structure, but the basic premise of the article below is sound

At the end of the day the welfare of the horse is paramount, and being an "equestrian athlete" means holding up your end of the deal.

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The Horse...

Some horses will test you.
Some will teach you.
And some will bring out the best in you.