Saddle Fitting


   “Performance equals potential minus interference” 

 Tim Gallwey, Sports Psychologist

I would like to extend my gratitude to a great veterinarian and teacher, Dr. Kerry Ridgway, DVM. He is a very talented teacher at Equinology.  In his private practice in Aiken, SC, he combines acupuncture and chiropractic modalities to the physical therapy for healing horses.  He is very dedicated to helping riders find the best saddle fit and help relieve pain in their horses.  Dr. Ridgway has also published a DVD titled Saddle Fitting From A to Z.  It is available on his website, links above.



Paula, Miriah and Pantz 

Where there is Pressure there is Pain

Let me start by talking about pressure points
I find that many horses I work on have pain related to saddles.  If you have ever seen white hairs on the withers or anywhere under the saddle area, that is evidence of injury from an improperly fitting saddle (or perhaps even a blanket).  This area with the white hairs does not even have to have been rubbed raw for the damage to occur.  Since the saddle can really cause pain if it does not properly fit, it is very important for us to provide them with the best fit that we can.



Imagine trying to carry a backpack load full of camping gear, climb and exert yourself, and move balanced under the load.  It’s hard work.  Now imagine if the hard frame of that backpack has a point which is causing you pain!  You will move differently, try to avoid the pressure point, and certainly you will look at it with a stink eye when you have to put it back on after lunch.  At least I would.  I don’t like pain, and I don’t tolerate it very well.  Where there is pressure, this means that the blood supply to the muscle is shut off.  It does not take much pressure to do this.  0.75 PSI (pounds per square inch) of pressure over an area where blood is supplied to the muscle (Arterial side of blood flow) is enough pressure to shut off the flow of blood to the muscle.  Over an area where blood is returned from the muscle (Veneous side of blood flow), pressure above 0.4 PSI shuts off blood supply.  Low pressure over a sustained time of 20 minutes or more is enough time to produce deep tissue damage. Posting allows the horse to tolerate more pressure from the saddle by interrupting the sustained pressure which is the most damaging. If the rider is posting, this acts as a pump, both moving toxins from the area and allowing air to get under the saddle.  

Miriah stretching Washashe’s neck



“After that last session, Washashe went down the trail straight as an arrow.  She had never been straight before that.”  Kacy Heinrich, Oregon City, OR



 An ill-fitting saddle can cause or contribute to lameness of the horse.




    If the saddle causes pain the horse will change its way of moving to protect itself from the pain. This means that if the saddle digs into the horse on the right lumbar (back) area, this horse will move differently in the corners going one direction than going the other. If the saddle hurts the horse at the shoulder or withers, this horse may not want to go over a jump, slide to a stop, or walk down a steep trail.
    It may take a shorter stride rather than have that shoulder be hurt under the ill-fitting saddle. If the saddle hurts the horse’s back and he compensates his movements, soon he may develop lameness elsewhere from compensating.
    The hocks may be involved if the pain is in the back (where saddles sit). In order to escape the pain caused from the saddle, this horse may not bring its back leg fully under itself when moving forward . If the saddle pinches so hard that it damages muscle or skin tissue, there can be inflammation to the area and this too, could cause the horse to be lame

An ill-fitting saddle can cause several behavioral problems.

Pain causes fear and fear causes avoidance reactions. 

  • The horse would likely be cranky to saddle and cinch. 
  • The horse may show that it is upset by pinning its ears, swinging its head at the rider, or raising a threatening kick at the thought of the upcoming pain.  When mounted the horse may reach back to bite the rider, jump or buck, or act very disobediently.  He may be cranky at all gaits, and unhappy or “cold-backed” until warmed up sufficiently.
  • This horse could even start by being unhappy at getting haltered in the stall, knowing that what comes next – being saddled and ridden – is painful.

Rocker or Arc are terms used to describe the shape of the saddle’s curve from front (pommel) to back (cantle).  If this curve does not match your horse there are pressure points created that will cause injury to the back. If the rocker angle is steeper than your horse, the pressure will be greater in the center of the horse’s back when you are riding.  If the curve is shallower than your horse’s back, there will be pressure points where the saddle contacts your horse at the cantle and at the pommel in the shoulder area.  In between will be a bridging problem, where the saddle will ride above the horse and not provide contact.  Both of these situations are very painful for the horse. 


To test this on your horse place the saddle on the bare back (no pads).  If you press on the back of the saddle and the front comes up, or you press down on the front of the saddle and the back comes up, this saddle has a steeper rocker than your horse’s back.



Width of the Tree  –  If the saddle sits high at the pommel, this could mean too narrow a tree, not allowing the saddle to sit down properly on the horse.  A narrow tree is very painful when it digs into the shoulder blade and working muscles of the shoulder.  You can feel this by sliding your fingers under the front of the saddle where it touches the horse’s shoulder.  It should not be digging in, but should have enough room for the horse to move its shoulder with every stride.  Tightness here is a common problem.

If the saddle sits low at the pommel, this could mean too wide a tree allowing the gunnel to sit down on the withers.  The horse needs to have plenty of pommel and gullet clearance above the withers (use 3 vertical fingers as a guide) in order to allow room for the withers to move side to side with every stride.

Treeless Saddle is the term given to a saddle with no tree or frame inside.  It is a very flexible, lightweight saddle made with a very thick saddle pad type base, with the pommel and cantle attached.  I have ridden in one and enjoyed it very much.  I purchased it when I was leasing a horse and hadn’t bought my horse yet.  A treeless saddle solved the problem of spending too much money on a saddle that wouldn’t fit the horse I purchased in the future, because I would have bought it to fit the horse I was leasing.  The problem occurred several years and miles later when the treeless saddle that I owned had “broken down” and was causing pressure points in the middle of my horse’s back where it bent and hurt her.  She would buck quite a bit on the trail and this went away when I changed saddles.  Treeless saddles are made of different materials by different makers, and my experience was limited to the one I owned.  To test yours, hold it by the front and back and see if there is a noticeable and dramatic bend in the middle which may be uncomfortable to your horse.  If it bends like this, make sure to pad your horse’s back well.

“Miriah – I so enjoyed your demonstration last weekend –
just wish I had dressed a little more warmly! 
I’m anxious to check saddle fit on my guy
and incorporate some of the stretches.
Thank you so very much for the invitation and the information.”

Shari Woodcock, Hillsboro, OR

  The stages involved in a saddle fitting include first examining the horse’s back for pain and evidence of pressure points.  After the horse’s session of bodywork, we then examine the saddle off the horse.  Here we are looking for spots where the flocking is worn down in the English saddle, areas where the fleece has worn off or bunched up in the Western saddle, feeling for points that would hurt, and checking for broken tree or uneven wear of the panels.

Next we evaluate the saddle on the horse. This pictures shows that there is adequate room for the shoulder to move, the tree is not too tight for this horse.  There is also adequate clearance above the withers and this saddle will not drop down and damage her withers.

This picture shows how the cantle lays on Honey’s back and also shows adequate gullet clearance
above her spine.

This picture is of the sheet liner used to test the saddle fit while riding.  The blue color is from construction chalk that was applied to the horse before riding.  Then the horse was saddled as normal, including the pad.  After a warm up and 20 minute session of trotting work, she was unsaddled and this liner was used to look for pressure points.  I did purchase this saddle for her, and had it reflocked by a master saddle maker in Bend Oregon.

Your local saddle shop will hopefully have the names of saddle repair professionals and reflockers.

I highly recommend taking your horse to the saddle shop for assistance with fitting.  My experience is that saddle sellers want the best fit for you and your horse and they are very pleased to help with the process.

Amy and Tehyo

“Oh my goodness.  His neck looks looser.


I can’t get over how he’s moving his neck.


He is totally free in the atlas.” 


Amy Spencer, trainer, Canby, OR 


Topics on This Page: chiropractic | dvm | saddle fitting | back pain