We talk a lot about saddle fit for the horse, but fit for the rider doesn’t seem to get nearly as much press – and believe me, it’s just as important for the saddle to suit the rider as it is for the saddle to suit the horse. “If the saddle fits my horse, I don’t care how it feels for me – I’ll learn to love it.” This is a statement I hear a LOT, and unfortunately, it’s just as untrue as “If the saddle fits me, I don’t care how it feels for my horse – he’ll learn to love it.” If both parties in the equation aren’t happy with the saddle, they’ll both wind up miserable.
So how do you know if a saddle fits the rider? There used to be the “one hand” rule: if the saddle was correct for the rider, the rider should be able to put one hand across the saddle seat between the back of their butt and the end of the cantle. But given today’s wide variety of seat depths and saddle types, that rule has gone the way of not wearing white after Labor Day. In my experience, fit for the rider is much more subjective than fit for the horse. So much depends on the depth of the seat, the set of the flap and blocks, placement of the stirrup bar and overall balance of the seat … and that’s not even taking an individual’s preferences into consideration! Some people like more room to move, some want to have more support, some prefer a small block … the combinations and opinions are endless.
Of course, there are some obvious red flags. You don’t want the rider sliding from pommel to cantle in a too-large seat and struggling to give aids through flaps that hang down to the ankles; conversely, you don’t want the rider overflowing a too-small seat or sitting like a frog on a lily pad because their knee is going over the block and extending past the front of the flap. Let’s take a look at a rider in a few saddles, and analyze what we’re seeing.
In this photo, things are looking pretty good:
The rider’s in good balance, well-supported without being restricted. The thigh is parallel to the front of the flap and snugged up to the back of the block, and the flap extends roughly 1/3 of the way down the rider’s calf – long enough to clear the boot top, but short enough so as not to interfere with leg aids. Very nice overall picture!
In this next photo, the overall fit is basically correct. However, this is “too much” saddle for this particular rider, and her body is a bit overwhelmed by it:
If you’re riding for trail or pleasure, aesthetics aren’t a huge deal – rider comfort is, and if the rider told me they absolutely loved this saddle and it suited their horse, I’d call it good. If, however, the rider was going to be showing, I’d probably recommend a more “streamlined” saddle to match the rider’s build.
Flap length is another issue to consider. In this photo, the seat size looks pretty good, but the flap is almost too long:
This flap is long enough to interfere with the leg aids. Unless the rider gives the aids almost exclusively with the seat, it might be best to consider something else (or see if a saddler could shorten the flaps sufficiently).
Now, let’s take it to the other end of the spectrum. In the following, the seat size is acceptable, but the flap is too short:
With either of these saddles, if the rider needs to use the leg forward of the ideal position, of if she were riding in shorter boots or half chaps, the tops might get caught in the bottom of the flap.
The length of leg with which you ride makes a difference, as well. In this photo, the rider’s stirrup is up in a jumping position:
This is fine, though if the rider wanted to shorten the stirrup to jump bigger fences or gallop cross-country, her knee would be over the block and off the front of the flap – a more forward flap-set would be needed.
On the other hand, this rider’s leg position is too long for this particular saddle:
The front of the rider’s thigh isn’t parallel to the front of the flap, and the knee is well below the block. This will result in an unstable, “floating” leg. A straighter, less forward flap would probably suit this rider better.
Even if the rider brings her leg up, this saddle is still not suitable:
Even if the rider was comfortable with the seat size – and some people do like more room to move – this flap is too long and too far forward for this particular rider. It extends too far down her calf and too far past her knee – she can’t even begin to reach the block on this saddle, no matter how much she shortens her stirrup.
Block shape and placement are also vital to rider fit. In this photo, everything looks good, except for the fact that the rider’s knee is below the “sweet spot” on the block – that’s the little indentation situated just about at the top of the rider’s knee cap:
If the rider attempts to adjust her position to snug her knee into the correct spot, this happens:
She jams her butt up against the cantle and locks her lower back – not good for her OR her horse! This block would need to be re-shaped with the “sweet spot” lower in order to suit this rider.
Finally, the way the saddle fits the individual horse will have a lot of bearing on the way it feels for the rider. If the saddle sits pommel-high, the rider gets thrown into the back seat:
If it sits pommel low, the rider will be rolled forward onto the front of the pubic bone, and the back will hollow:
Given the plethora of saddles and the bazillion fitting options available for both horse and rider, there’s no reason that one party needs to sacrifice fit and comfort to suit the other. It may take some time and experimentation, but it can be done, and you and your horse will perform the better for it.