How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider
A correctly fitting saddle is essential for horse and rider comfort and for optimum performance.
If the saddle doesn’t fit the horse properly, back problems can result. At the very least, the horse won’t be able to work through his back, and he may become tense and hollow.
Also, the saddle has to fit you too! If the saddle causes you to slip to one side, or forces you to lean backward, you won’t be able to sit in a correct, balanced position, and that will affect your horse’s way of going.
Although you are advised to have your saddle fitted by a qualified saddle fitter, it’s helpful if you have an understanding of the basics of how to fit a saddle.
The Nine Fundamental Points of Saddle Fitting
The nine fundamental points of saddle fitting are used by the Master Saddlers Association when training saddlers.
The nine points are used as a basic checklist to identify a saddle’s suitability for a particular horse and rider.
Before beginning your evaluation of the saddle’s fit, make sure that the horse is standing square on a flat surface.
Also, do not use a saddle pad or cloth. The saddle should fit the horse without any need for padding underneath it.
1. Saddle position
Start by placing the saddle gently on the horse’s back, slightly forward on the withers.
Place your hand on the horse’s neck in front of the withers. Take the pommel with your right hand, and pull the saddle sharply back and down.
The saddle should “lock in” when it’s in the correct position. Repeat the process to check that the saddle stops in the same place every time.
The saddle shouldn’t sit too far forward, which would prevent the horse’s shoulder from moving freely. When the horse moves, his shoulder blade (scapula) can move backward by up to three inches. The placement of the saddle must allow the saddle to clear the shoulder so that the horse can move freely.
The saddle tree “points” should be far enough behind the horse’s shoulder blade that they don’t interfere with his movement.
If the saddle tree is the wrong size for the horse, it will move around, causing considerable discomfort when the horse moves forward with the rider on his back.
2. Saddle seat should be level
Once you have the saddle correctly placed on the horse’s back, look at the deepest part of the seat. The deepest area of the saddle’s seat should be centered between the pommel at the front and the cantle at the back.
The deepest part of the seat should be level. That allows you to sit correctly and effectively without placing too much pressure on the horse’s back.
If the saddle’s center point is too far forward, you’ll slip forward toward the pommel. Your natural response to correct that is to brace against your leg, making your aids less effective.
If the deepest point of the saddle’s seat is too far back, you’ll slide backward toward the cantle, placing too much weight on the horse’s back and causing him to hollow away from the discomfort. Also, when you ride in sitting trot, you’ll find that you will tip forward onto your fork so that you don’t feel as though you’re being “left behind.”
Sometimes, as long as the saddle’s tree fits the horse correctly, it’s possible to correct these problems by asking a qualified saddle-maker to adjust the panels.
3. Cantle-to-pommel relationship
The cantle of a dressage saddle is always higher than the pommel. That’s because the design takes into account the amount of sitting trot that a dressage rider does.
So, the cantle always should conform to the anatomy of your seat.
However, provided the saddle tree fits the horse, if the saddle is too low behind you, your saddler may be able to boost the seat slightly by adding extra flocking to the back panel.
4. Clearance beneath the pommel
The saddle must give adequate clearance to the horse’s withers so that it doesn’t rub.
Place one of your hands perpendicular to the ground and slide it into place between the withers and the pommel. You should be able to fit two to three fingers into the space without difficulty.
So long as the saddle tree fits the horse correctly, a saddle fitter should be able to add extra flocking to balance the saddle properly to ensure that it clears the withers.
5. Point angles
The saddle tree’s points determine the width of the saddle and dictate whether it fits correctly.
The saddle tree points are found in front of the billet straps, under the saddle flaps. You’ll see what looks like a pocket. Inside this pocket, you’ll find the points of the saddle.
Place the saddle on the horse and look at the angle of the saddle points relative to the angle of the horse’s body. The points should be parallel to the horse’s body or within ten degrees of parallel.
If the angle of the saddle points is too steep, the tree is too narrow. If the angle is larger, the saddle is too wide.
If the saddle tree doesn’t fit the horse, it will cause discomfort. You can’t alter a saddle tree, so if it doesn’t fit the horse, you’ll need to replace the saddle.
6. Panel pressure
Of course, a saddle might look like a good fit without the weight of a rider in it. But what happens when you apply pressure to the panels?
The saddle panels should be as big as possible to ensure even weight distribution.
Place the palm of your hand on the saddle and apply downward pressure. Use your other hand and run it from the top to the bottom of the saddle underneath the points to check that pressure is consistent throughout.
Now move your hand along the length of the panel, feeling for any points where the saddle doesn’t touch the horse and areas of pressure. Be sure to check both sides of the saddle. Most horses are not completely symmetrical, so ask your saddler to adjust the flocking in the panels if necessary.
Place one hand on the pommel and the other on the cantle, and see if you can rock the saddle. If the saddle rocks back and forward like a seesaw, it’s likely that the flocking is uneven and requires adjustment. Also, rocking can be caused by an ill-fitting saddle tree.
7. Gullet clearance
Stand behind your horse and look down the gullet of the saddle. The gullet should clear the whole length of the horse’s spine without touching the back on either side.
Next, push down on the cantle and look again. Sometimes, if a horse is asymmetrical and you place weight on the saddle, it can shift over onto the spine, causing discomfort for the horse.
This problem can usually be corrected by adding some more flocking, adding a balance strap, or changing how the saddle is girthed.
8. Saddle length
The surface of the saddle that carries your weight should be between the horse’s withers and the place where the last rib meets the spine.
If your saddle rests too far behind this point, it will rest on the horse’s lumbar region. That area is the weakest part of the horse’s back, and the pressure of a rider’s weight on this area can cause injury.
9. How the horse reacts
If a saddle fits correctly and is comfortable, the horse will move freely without hollowing, swishing his tail, or showing other signs of discomfort.
Girth the saddle but don’t use a saddle pad or cloth, as that could prevent you from clearly seeing the fit of the saddle. Note that the girth should sit around five inches behind the horse’s elbow.
Mount up and ask someone to check the saddle’s fit as follows:
- The pommel should clear the withers by two to three fingers
- The person on the ground should be able to see clear daylight running right down the length of the gullet when viewing the saddle from behind you
The saddle should feel stable underneath you. You should feel balanced, not tipping forward or backward or struggling to sit up straight.
Now begin schooling your horse as you would do normally. He should be able to move freely, and he should be relaxed, showing no signs of resistance or tension.
How should the saddle fit the rider?
Now you know how the saddle should fit your horse, you’ll need to be sure that it fits you properly too!
Dressage riders need to sit in a neutral, deep position in good balance. A good quality dressage saddle should have:
- A deep seat
- Long, straight flaps
- Thigh blocks
- Long girth straps
There are dozens of different styles of dressage saddle to choose from, and the one you’re most comfortable with is largely a matter of personal preference.
You might like a very deep seat with large knee blocks, or a shallower seat with smaller blocks might work better for you. Again, to accommodate individual body shape, you might prefer a saddle with a narrow twist or a wider one.
The stirrup bars on the saddle should be located such that they allow your leg to hang down naturally from your hip.
The girth straps on a dressage saddle should be extra-long so that the buckles are not underneath the saddle flap where they would interfere with the rider’s leg contact with the horse’s barrel.
When a dressage saddle doesn’t fit you
There are a few red flags that tell you immediately that you’re in the wrong dressage saddle:
- You feel as though you’re tipping forward
- You feel as though you’re tipping backward
- You slide from pommel to cantle (seat is too big)
- Your seat overflows from the saddle’s seat (seat is too small)
- You struggle to give leg aids as the saddle flaps are too long
- The saddle flaps catch on your boot tops (flaps are too short)
- You feel as though you are perching on the saddle because your leg is overhanging the knee block
Always make sure that the saddle fits BOTH you and your horse. It’s no use having a saddle that fits your horse perfectly if you can’t ride him in it!
Many saddle trees are damaged over time through incorrect mounting.
Always mount from a mounting block and never from the ground unless you have no other alternative.
Mounting from the ground encourages riders to pull themselves up into the saddle by using the cantle for leverage. Over time, that will twist the saddle tree.
Dressage saddles can have short or long girths, depending on the billet length.
Most dressage riders prefer a short girth. A short girth means that the buckles and other bulk are located directly on the horse’s body, rather than underneath your thighs. Long girths create bulk underneath your legs and can be uncomfortable.
Short girth fitting
If you choose a short girth, the buckles must lay above the horse’s elbow. Use the longest short girth possible. That’s because the farther the girth is from the saddle tree, the more unstable the connection is with the tree.
If you use a saddle pad, the ends of the girth should be close to it. You should be able to fit two fingers between the top of the girth and the saddle pad.
Long girth fitting
A long girth should be fitted below the bend in your knee, about two or three holes from the end of the billet.
Long girths provide better stability.
If the girth is too long, the buckles will sit too high on the billets, interfering with your leg position and diminishing stability.
How tight should the girth be?
The girth should be tightened correctly.
If the girth is fitted correctly, you will be able to slide the flat of your hand underneath it on either side. That should feel like a polite handshake, not a bone-crushing squeeze!
When the girth is adjusted correctly, it will sit symmetrically in the center, with the buckles at the same height on each side.
Adjust the girth gradually, rather than cranking it up abruptly. Tighten the girth one hole at a time, working your way up until the girth is tight enough.
If you overtighten the girth or crank it up too quickly, your horse will respond by tensing his ribcage. You’ll most likely find that you need to pull the girth up another hole or two once the horse has relaxed.
Also, a girth that’s too tight can deform your saddle tree.
Many horses struggle to perform or show resistance because of the discomfort caused by an ill-fitting saddle.
The flocking of the saddle can shift from time-to-time, causing the fit of the saddle to change. That can be adjusted by a qualified saddler, and it’s worth having your saddle checked over regularly to make sure that no pressure points have formed.
However, if the saddle tree is the wrong size or shape for the horse, you will need to replace it.
Always have a new saddle fitted for your horse by a qualified, experienced saddle fitter, and make sure that the saddle is the correct fit for you too.
If you have any other saddle-fitting tips or stories, please share them with us in the comments box below!
- How to Take Care of Your Horse’s Tack to Ensure it Lasts
- How to Choose and Correctly Fit a Bit for Dressage (Single Bit/Bridle)
- How to Introduce Your Horse to a Double Bridle
- How to Use Your Upper Leg