Saddle Fit For The Rider

Written by Kitt Hazelton on August 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm

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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.

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Written by Kitt Hazelton


11 Responses to “Saddle Fit For The Rider”

  1. Mary Valletta says:

    Can you tell me which saddle is in the first two pictures? Wonderful article. I am having some luck with saddles fitting my horse but not me! I am 5’3″ with a long torso and short legs, approx 110 lbs. Any particular suggestions for my build as far as dressage saddles?

    THanks, Mary

  2. kitt says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Mary – I’m glad you found the article helpful! The saddle in the first photo (and the article header photo) is a Black Country Equinox. The second saddle is a Trumbull Mtn. Killington, made by Saddler’s Bench.

    Mostly any quality dressage saddle can be ordered with a shorter flap; sometimes this option costs more, and sometimes not – depends on the saddle company. Without knowing what your horse’s fitting needs are, I’m afraid it’s tough to make specific recommendations. But if you’d like to send a template of your horse’s back and a good conformation shot (or if you’re close enough to make an appointment and truck in for a fitting), I’d be happy to make some comprehensive recommendations.

  3. [...] that may be the better option. (If you'd like some in-depth info on fitting the rider, check out my Saddle Fit for the Rider article on the shop's website.) 1/7/2012 Saddles for sale: [...]

  4. brienna says:

    Hi there,
    Great article! I have been tryikng to figure out if the saddle I am trying out fits me as its supposed to. This article definitely helped. I’m looking at an all purpose saddle. Can you tell me…does it matter if the back part of my thigh goes diagonally from the back of the panel to the edge of the seat of the saddle like overhaning the leather a bit- does that mean its too small?
    Thanks,
    Brienna

  5. kitt says:

    Hi Brienna –
    Thanks for the kind words – I’m glad you found the article helpful. If I’m understanding what you’re describing, that doesn’t necessarily mean the saddle’s too small for you – it could simply mean that the flap is cut a bit narrow front-to-back for your personal build. But if you aren’t getting pinched, and if you and your horse are comfortable, that’s what really counts.

  6. Vicki says:

    Thank you for this article. I just returned from a six hour ride trip in a saddle that I “thought” would be “ok”. Never again. From reading this article, I now know what I’m to look for in a saddle. You can only guess how many sales folks think they know how to fit a saddle, and sadly…don’t. Thank you again!!!

  7. Kitt Hazelton says:

    Hi Vicki –
    Thanks for the kind words – I’m really pleased that you found the article useful, and sorry you’ve had such a hard time finding something. If we can be of any further help, just let me know!

  8. Beth says:

    Enjoyed the article. It has been a struggle to find the best fit for both my horse & I. Im 5’4 with a long femer bone. I require a foward flap for my jumping cc saddle. My thoroughbred requires a med tree but it seems forward flap saddles create pressure on his shoulder blade or interfers with his shoulder movement. I dont hav thousands of dollars to pay for a custom saddle. Can you recommend a saddle maker who offers a foward flap without obstructing the horses shoulder?
    Thank you.

  9. Jay McGarry says:

    Beth,
    There are companies that offer options for TB horses such as Black Country. Generally, as long as the tree point sits behind the scapula and doesn’t interfere with shoulder rotation it shouldn’t be an issue. A forward flap is often available at no extra charge. The most important thing is proper fit and balance of the saddle to keep it from diving into the wither and scapula.Feel free to call us and we can discuss.

  10. Tiffany says:

    Enjoyed the article about proper saddle fit. I have been struggling to find a saddle to fit myself. I am 5’8, weighing about 140. I have a longer thigh and struggle to find a close contact or cross country where my knee doesn’t go over flap and knee roll. I want a saddle that I can use for flat as well as jumping fences under 3 foot. Any suggestions?

  11. Jay McGarry says:

    Tiffany,
    Many companies such as Black Country offer forward or long, forward flaps at no extra charge. Typically we make sure the saddle is a good fit for the horse before we order a saddle with the special options.
    Jay

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