BASIC POINTS OF SADDLE FIT

BY EILEEN GUNIPERO WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRIS ROMANO

Reprinted from The Icelandic Horse Quarterly: Issue One 2010.
The Icelandic Horse Quarterly is the official publication of the US Icelandic Horse Congress. The magazine is printed four times annually and mailed to the membership. Back issues may be purchased for a small fee and may be read online at www.icelandics.org/quarterly.

So often I feel almost desperate to be able to do something that doesn’t require a manual, a continuing ed class, a teaching video, or anything other than basic common sense. Alas, just like my cell phone, camera, and even my GPS, saddle fitting is not one of those things.

I sometimes cringe when I introduce myself as a “saddle fitter.” It seems a bit pretentious. I don’t feel especially enlightened or more able to see the mysteries of angle alignment, panel balance, or any of the other various and sundry points of saddle fit than the next guy. But, I guess, the difference is that at some point I got geeky about the process and “read the manual” from cover to cover, and I continue to search out new thoughts and ideas about the elusive perfect fit. Maybe some people are meant to be able to program my newly acquired remote weather station with digital readout and some people are meant to be able to see if a saddle fits.

I think the most daunting part of assessing a fit is the responsibility to the horse. Every one of us who cares enough to look at the compatibility between equine and tack is doing it because we care about the comfort and health of the wearer. Without a voice, the horse relies on us for its comfort and well being. It is as important as it is intimidating.

While many voluminous books have been written on the subject of saddle fit, it makes sense to consolidate the subject to a few key points in this article. Any of these points can be dealt with in greater detail, and I encourage the reader to do research on any aspect of interest or to better answer any questions not adequately addressed here.

Again, in consideration of space for this article, I will assume that the horse has been assessed and found to be healthy and without major physical issues. Also, it is assumed that the saddle has been evaluated and found to be sound, balanced, and suitable to the discipline for which it is intended. Both issues are subjects for additional articles.

  1. POSITION

The first step is to get the saddle in the correct position. Checking that the horse is standing square, place the saddle some- what forward of the withers. Put one hand on the seat of the saddle and the other on the pommel. Slide the saddle back towards the rump until you can feel it “seat.” Do this several times to insure that where it stops is the same place each time. If the saddle doesn’t seat, but rather slides continuously over the rump, you know right away that this saddle doesn’t correctly fit your horse. If you can’t get the saddle back far enough to allow enough room between the edge of the scapula (shoulder blade) and the points of the tree (the finger-like extensions that form the pommel) to allow movement without interference, again, the saddle doesn’t fit. If you are feeling particularly brave, and have an assistant to help catch the saddle should it slip, you might place the saddle on your horse—ungirthed—and walk her around a bit. Should the saddle not naturally settle into place, but rather slips or shifts, it probably does not fit. Ideally, the girth should act to stabilize the saddle, not tie it on!

  1. POINTS OF THE TREE

The second step is to look at the relationship between the angle of the points of tree and your horse. The points are on either side of the pommel, often housed in leather pockets just ahead of the stirrup bars. They should lie parallel to the withers. Check both sides. One shoulder is usually a bit larger than the other. The deviation from the slope should not vary more than 10 degrees or about half an inch. You can physically assess fit by placing your hand, palm up, between the saddle and horse. Run it from top to bottom under the points, checking for consistent, pinchless pressure.

  1. PANEL PRESSURE

You can then slide into the third step and begin to feel panel pressure by moving your hand from front to back under the length of panel (the wool or foam stuffed “pads” on the underside of the saddle). The entire length of the panel should contact the horse’s back, allowing for optimal weight distribution of the rider. A gap in contact in the center of the saddle is referred to as bridging, which forces the rider’s weight to be placed on four distinct—and painful—areas on the horse’s back.

If the bridging is caused by a need for additional flocking, this is easily remedied. If the bridging is a result of a tree that is too narrow, the saddle clearly does not fit. Narrow tree points will cause the saddle to sit too high and will pinch the trapezius muscles. Tree points that are too wide will cause the saddle to sit too far down on the horse and may pitch the rider forward. It can cause the pommel to sit on the withers. Check for “rocking.” Put a hand on the pommel and a hand on the cantle. Alternate pushing down on each to see if the saddle shifts excessively. An incorrect tree size could be the culprit, but so can uneven flocking or panels with an unsuitable shape.

  1. LENGTH

Check the length of the saddle as the fourth step. The panels should not extend past the last rib, or the eighteenth thoracic. Past the last rib there is no solid structural support, only muscle and soft tissue. Icelandic horses vary greatly in the actual length of back. Palpate to feel for the last rib, and then follow the curve up to where it connects with the spine. Some horses are surprisingly short-coupled.

  1. POMMEL TO CANTLE

For the fifth step, observe the pommel- cantle relationship. Looking at the profile of the saddle, the cantle should rise higher than the pommel; the difference should be somewhere between one and two inches, depending on the depth of the seat and the model of the saddle. In any case, if the cantle is even with, or lower than the pommel, the fit is incorrect.

  1. LEVEL SEAT

Checking the levelness of the seat is step six. The goal is to have the deepest part of the seat in the middle of the saddle and parallel to the ground. It’s handy to use something like a chapstick or some other small cylinder and place it on the saddle so that it can roll from pommel to cantle. Where it settles makes the lowest part of the saddle very easy to see.

If the deepest part of the saddle is too far forward or too much in the back, it will profoundly effect the balance of the rider and effect the saddle fit as well.

  1. POMMEL CLEARANCE

Observe the pommel clearance as step seven. It’s practically gospel that the clearance needs to be three fingers between the pommel and withers. Not only has the industry shifted its collective opinion of this mantra, but with the Icelandic breed it often makes no sense. The design of the saddle and the panel angles influence the clearance. If there is adequate clearance with the rider mounted, then there is adequate clearance. The gullet channel should never come in contact with the spine or the soft tissues that lie on either side of it—a width of approximately 2.5 to 3 inches (and in some cases even greater).

  1. CANTLE CLEARANCE

Note also the clearance at the cantle, which will be step eight. Make sure that with the rider mounted the saddle has enough structural integrity to support the rider’s weight throughout.

  1. LATERAL STABILITY

Step nine is to check lateral stability. The saddle should not shift excessively from side to side. Remember that if the shifting only occurs with the rider up, it may be a function of the rider’s symmetry and not the saddle. If the saddle shifts without the rider, you may need a qualified fitter to help you assess the problem.

  1. THE HORSE’S RESPONSE

While the horse’s response is often listed as step ten, it should be monitored consistently throughout all the steps. Watch your horse’s body language. Does she try to avoid the saddle? Does he get antsy when girthed? Do you notice a distinct change in movement from liberty to being saddled? Many Icelandic horses tend to be a bit more stoic, and so your detective work has to be that much more keen. Relax, breathe, and trust your instincts. This really is not rocket science and is not meant to cause anxiety. It is a skill set most horse people can master at the basic level. Get a piece of paper and make an outline of the ten steps to take with you to the barn. Make notes alongside each step. You can do all ten steps at once or you can break it up into a couple of sessions. I strongly recommend going through the entire process more than once. And always remember to check both sides! Horses have physical anomalies and asymmetrical development just as we do.

Keep your notes and check your saddle fit every six months or so. Horses change with muscle development or loss, weight fluctuations, and seasons. Saddles are dynamic as well. Leather wears out, stitching weakens, and flocking compresses. By monitoring saddle fit you take a proactive role in protecting the health of your horse and the quality of your riding experience. It’s another tool in your good horsemanship toolbox!

Official Publication of the United States Icelandic Horse Congress (USIHC), a member association of FEIF (International Federation of Icelandic Horse Associations).

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