Frequently Asked Saddle Fitting Questions

Q: Why do you want me to send a template/tracing?

A: There are several reasons. First, we want to save you as much time, money and frustration as we possibly can. An accurate tracing can tell us exactly what width you’ll need in any given saddle, and also tell us what tree shape and panel configuration will be your best bets. Because there’s little standardization in tree width (even among saddles measured in cm.), one saddle’s measurement of “wide” might be a med-wide or even an x-wide by another saddle’s standards … so saying, “My horse needs a wide tree” or “My horse needs a 34 cm. tree” can be open to a lot of interpretation. A tracing certainly isn’t a substitute for trying a saddle, but it can tell us which saddles are worth shipping and which aren’t; instead of sending you two or 3 saddles of a certain size (since each will probably all measure differently), we can send you two or 3 saddles that, according to your tracing, have a good chance of fitting.

Second, we want – and need – to have you involved in this process. You know when you’re comfortable in a saddle, and we’d bet that you know when your horse is happy as well. If you try a saddle that isn’t quite right, your feedback will be invaluable in choosing another saddle for trial. If you tell us the wide tree Quantum seemed a good fit for your high-withered Thoroughbred but just seemed to sit a little too close to the wither, you might want to try one with a wither gusset or a trapezius or K panel. If the Eden seemed to rock a bit front-to-back, an Eloquence might be a better choice. If you liked the way the Duett Fidelio sat on your horse, but it didn’t quite feel right for you, we might suggest trying a Passier with the Freedom Panels.

Finally, we believe you’ll find that being involved in the whole process is a great learning experience, and will help you when you’re working with the saddle fitter or if you ever need to shop for saddles again.

Q: Why do I have to send three tracings? Can’t I just do a tracing of the withers?

A: We ask for the three measurements so we can make a more comprehensive recommendation based on the conformation of your horse’s whole back. If we just have the wither template, we can tell what tree width you horse needs, and maybe make recommendations regarding the configuration of the front of the panels, but that’s only part of the overall picture. Here’s what the different measurements tell us:

THE FIRST TRACING (3 FINGERS’ WIDTH BEHIND REAR EDGE OF SCAPULA): This tracing corresponds to where the tree points will lie, and tells us what tree width you’ll need. It’s also helpful in determining if you’ll need a standard tree or a hoop tree, and what – if any – modifications (wither gussets, dropped panel, etc.) you will need in the front of the panels.

THE SECOND TRACING (LOWEST POINT ON THE BACK): This measurement tells us what panel configuration will work best. If your horse has a broad, flat back, we might recommend a saddle with a shallower gusset; if your horse is “roof backed” (think of an inverted “V”), a plain panel might work best.

THE THIRD TRACING (TOPLINE): This tracing tells us what tree shape and panel depth / configuration will work best. If your horse has a very low wither and is pretty flat front-to-back, a flatter tree and perhaps a shallower gusset might be best. If your horse has very high withers and a dropped, dippy back, a curved tree and a deeper gusset would be a better choice.

Q: I have a saddle on trial from you, but it doesn’t fit my horse. Why do you want to see photos?

A: Seeing how a particular saddle fits (or doesn’t!) can give us a good idea of what other saddles would be worth trying, and which wouldn’t. While no two saddles fit exactly the same, we can often make some generalizations regarding fit. For example, if the tree in the Black Country Eden is too curved for your horse’s back and makes the saddle rock front-to-back on your horse, we know we need to send you a saddle with a flatter tree, like a Baines Elegance, Black Country Eloquence or Quantum X, or Duett Largo. On the other hand, if an Eloquence bridges on your horse, we need to look for a saddle with a curved tree, like the Eden, the Baines Reflex or Enduro, or the Arthur Kottas Imperial.

Photos can tell how a saddle is fitting you, as well. We can make recommendations regarding seat size and flap length, and offer thoughts on what will make you comfortable, too.

Q: Do I really have to have the fit of my new saddle checked after only a couple months?

A: For foam-flocked saddles, probably not (unless your horse’s back has changed somehow, or unless you notice a change in balance, clearance, or your horse’s way of going). But for wool-flocked saddles, definitely. Saddles with wool flocking will settle and conform to your horse’s back after about 20 hours of riding. Some of the more softly-flocked saddles, like the Black Countrys and Frank Baines, may need to be looked at sooner. If you notice any of the changes mentioned above, please don’t wait to have the fit assessed and adjusted as necessary.

Q: Which is better – foam or wool flocking?

A: Both have advantages, and both have disadvantages.

Foam advantages:

Foam never changes – if it fits your horse today, it will fit your horse as long as his back stays the same.
Foam is very resilient, and a lot of riders – particularly hunter / jumpers – feel it holds up better than wool does.
Foam panels are also thinner than wool panels and can offer a “closer feel”.
Since foam doesn’t conform to the horse’s back, it’s a good choice if you’re using one saddle on multiple horses.
It’s also good to note that the foam used in saddles today is far more resilient than the foam used in the past – it no longer degrades or crumbles into that nasty, sandy mess.

Foam disadvantages:

· The fit of the saddle can’t be “customized” the way wool can – with foam, the only way to adjust the fit is through the use of shims and corrective pads.

· If your horse’s back changes radically, it’s realistic to say that a saddle with foam panels may wind up not fitting properly.

Wool advantages:

Wool will conform to the horse’s back.
Wool is more breathable than foam, and helps keep your horse’s back cooler.
Wool flocking can be adjusted for a “customized” fit.

Wool disadvantages:

Since wool will conform and compact, saddle fit should be checked every 6 – 12 months (or after about 20 – 30 hrs. of riding in the case of a new saddle), and flocking adjustments made as necessary.
Eventually, wool will lose its resilience, and the saddle will need to have all the old wool removed and replaced with new wool. How soon (or how often) this needs to be done depends on how often you ride, the conditions you ride in, and how often the fit of your saddle needs to be adjusted. In extreme cases – a competitive trail rider who logs lots of miles in the rain, for example – a total re-flock may need to be done after only a couple years.
Wool panels are usually thicker than foam, and they don’t offer the quite the same “feel”.
Finding a reputable fitter who can adjust the flocking correctly can be difficult.
Since wool wants to conform to one horse’s back, it can be problematic to use on multiple horses. If you use it on horse A every day for a week, and then put it on horse B, it won’t fit horse B as well, since it’s started to settle into the shape of horse A’s back.

Q: Can I use one saddle on all my horses?

A: If your horses have similar back conformation, it’s possible, particularly with a foam-paneled saddle. It’s always advisable to make sure the saddle fits the wider of your horses, and then use corrective pads for the not-so-wide horse(s). Using a wool-flocked saddle on multiple horses can be difficult, given wool’s ability to conform to a horse’s back (for a more detailed explanation of this issue, see the last entry under “Wool disadvantages” above).

If, however, your horses are of very different builds – say you have a 14 h. Haflinger who’s built like a barrel, and a 16.2 h. Thoroughbred with shark-fin withers and a dippy back – there’s no one saddle, whether foam or wool, that will work for both of them.

Q: I bought a foam-flocked saddle, but now I wish I’d gotten one with wool flocking. Can you take out the foam and replace it with wool?

A: In some cases, yes. It depends on the individual saddle. Since foam panels are often thinner than wool-flocked panels, there is sometimes just not enough room for the amount of wool needed to adequately cushion the horse’s back from the tree. Also keep in mind that it’s a relatively expensive process, and the results are rarely as satisfactory as if you’d started with a wool-flocked saddle.

Q: What does “adequate clearance over the wither” mean?

A: It means that the saddle is not coming in contact with the wither at any time, no matter what activity you’re pursuing. On a high-withered horse, “adequate” clearance may be 2 or 3 fingers’ width, but on a “barrel bodied” horse with a broad back and low wither, the saddle may have less clearance – and that’s fine. Saddles tend to sit lower on the real round horses – there’s less lateral roll if the saddle isn’t perching up high. As long as the fit is correct and the saddle is clearing the wither at all times, the clearance can be considered “adequate”.

Q: What’s a “spring” tree? How does it differ from other saddle trees?

A: Spring trees are constructed from laminated wood (often beech or birch) and reinforced with spring steel bars (hence the term, “spring” tree). The spring steel bars reinforce the tree and so that the wood in the tree can be thinner, making it lighter and more flexible. Rigid trees, which are common in polo saddles and some of the less expensive Indian-made saddles, are all wood; they’re heavier and don’t have the flex a spring tree offers. Injection molded trees are made of plastic and, since they’re made in a mold, they all tend to be exactly alike (though British-made spring trees have to be correct within a 2 mm. – approximately 1/16” – tolerance, and that’s pretty darn accurate). Injection-molded trees can be flexible or rigid, depending on the material, and are pretty light-weight. Because they’re easier to produce than spring trees, they’re also less expensive. And just to clear up one common misconception regarding spring trees: while they can be adjusted about 2 cm. (roughly one tree width) wider or narrower by a saddler with the proper press, they do not automatically adjust to your horse’s back.

From the left: spring tree, injection molded tree and an example of lamination.

Q: What’s the difference between a hoop tree and a standard tree? Can’t I just get an xxw regular tree?

A: The gullet of the hoop tree is shaped more like an inverted “U”, whereas a standard tree is more like an inverted “V”. If you’re trying to fit a low-withered, table-backed horse, a hoop tree is going to be a better bet than a really wide standard tree, because it will follow the horse’s back shape better. For a more in-depth explanation, see our “The Wide Horse Challenge” article.

Q: When I was a kid, I had one saddle that fit every horse I rode. What’s changed?

A: For one thing, the range of horses we ride in English saddles. 30 years ago, the “average” riding horse tended to be the Thoroughbred type, with lean sides and a pretty good wither, so the “average” saddle was a decent fit. Nowadays, we’re riding horses that, back then, would have been considered driving or harness horses (drafts or draft crosses, Friesians, Haflingers, etc.) or western horses (Quarter horses and Paints). When the Warmbloods started gaining popularity in America, English saddles had to change to accommodate the broader backs and lower withers. Older-style saddles often had plain, non-gusseted panels, a “banana-shaped” tree and a fairly narrow channel between the panels, while many of today’s saddles have gusseted panels, flatter trees and a more generous channel.

Another change is our awareness of saddle fitting. Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and diagnostics, soundness issues can be traced and pinpointed with greater accuracy, and what was once might have been diagnosed as leg lameness can now be attributed to back soreness and saddle fit. Training issues like refusing to bend, bucking after a jump or being cold-backed are also being traced back to saddle fit

Q: I had an old County / Passier / Albion that fit my horse perfectly. Unfortunately, due to its age and wear, I had to retire it. I bought a new one – same model, seat size and tree width – but it doesn’t fit! What’s the problem?

A: Saddle companies are always trying to improve the fit and ride of their saddles, and make modifications they hope will do just that. Each time modifications are made, the fit and ride of the saddles can change. If you bought your saddle in 1992, chances are very good that its 2007 counterpart will have gone through some (sometimes very radical) design changes and may ride and fit very differently.

Q: How do you determine seat size? I’ve been riding in a 17” seat, but my new trainer tells me I should be in a 17.5” or 18” seat! I’m 5’8” and weigh 135 lbs, so I’m not fat; why is she telling me I need a bigger seat?

A: Seat size is determined more by the length of your thigh than the size of your butt. If you have long legs – in particular, a long femur – chances are that your trainer may have a valid point. Say that you have two people, both 5’6” and 135 lbs. Person A has a 21” femur, while Person B has an 18” femur. If you put both people in the same make and model of saddle, Person A might fit perfectly in an 18” seat, while Person B might need a 17” seat.

Another thing to consider is seat depth and the set of the flap. A deeper-seated saddle with a straighter flap will ride smaller than a more open-seated saddle with a more forward flap. A cut-back head or very high cantle can also make a saddle ride smaller. This is one reason that someone who rides in a 17” close contact saddle might need a 17.5” or 18” dressage saddle.

Personal comfort plays a big role, too. Some people like a little more room to move, and some people don’t. The most important considerations are:

The seat needs to be comfortable for you. You shouldn’t feel pinched or jammed, and you shouldn’t feel as though you’re sliding around.
Your knee should not come forward onto the knee roll / thigh block, or off the front of the flap.
The seat should be large enough to spread your weight as evenly as possible over an adequately large area of your horse’s back without putting weight past the 18th thoracic vertebra.

Q: I’ve been riding my horse in a 32 cm. Stubben, which he’s outgrown. I tried a 32 cm. Prestige, but that seemed even tighter. How do cm. measurements compare?

A: Basically, they don’t – there’s really no standardization, and it’s pretty confusing. While 32 cm. is the widest tree that Stubben makes, a 32 cm. Prestige is considered narrow. A 28.5 cm. Stubben is narrow, while a 28.5 cm. Passier is wide. Given that saddle makers use a variety of different trees, and often measure their saddles at different points, there’s not any real way to tell how a 32 cm. Duett would compare with a 32 cm. Courbette, unless you’re familiar with both saddles. Even among saddle makers who label their saddles narrow, medium, and wide, there’s little standardization. A wide Prestige isn’t quite as wide as a wide Frank Baines, which isn’t as wide as a wide Equinox.

Width and fit will vary depending on tree design, as well. For example, Black Country’s hoop tree is shaped like an inverted “U” in the pommel arch, and is designed for a low, mutton wither and a wide back. A wide hoop tree fits very differently than a wide standard tree, which is shaped like an inverted “V”. The Black Country Quantum, which is built on a standard tree, works well for the Thoroughbreds and modern Warmblood builds, whereas the Quantum X, which is built on the hoop tree, is the better choice for the “plus size” Warmbloods, draft crosses, and the like. See our “Wide Horse Challenge” article for more on hoop vs. standard trees.

Prestige 34cm on the left, Largo 34cm on the right

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about different panel configurations and options and their role in saddle fitting. Can you explain some of them, and how they work?

A: Options in panel configuration can make a huge difference in how well (or badly!) a saddle fits. Here are a few of the more common options, and their uses:

Wither gusset: Works beautifully for filling in the “dips” that so many high-withered horses seem to have below the wither. Often used in conjunction with a deeper panel, like the K or Trapezius panel.

Trapezius (dropped) panel: Used for horse with prominent withers and dips below and behind them. “Fills in” the dips and low spots.

K panel: Used for horses with prominent withers and “roof” (think inverted “V”) backs. Again, it “fills in” the low spots.

Upswept panels: Very helpful when you have a rider who needs a roomier saddle on a horse with a short back, or if you have a horse who’s croup-high. The panels are “swept up” rather than squared off and make a little less contact under the cantle area.

Thicker (or thinner) rear gusset: Thinner gusset is often useful on a flat-backed (front-to-back) horse where a thicker gusset might make the saddle sit cantle-high.

Thicker gusset works well for a horse with a high wither and a dropped, broad back – it lifts the rear of the saddle so it doesn’t sit cantle-low.

Finally, panel placement must be considered. For example, Passier’s Freedom Panels are often a good choice for a wide horse with a broad, substantial wither. The panels are sewn in 2 cm. (about ¾”) lower in the pommel arch than the standard panels, the channel is wider and the panels in the rear 1/3 of the saddle are broader, making this saddle a good choice for a substantial horse, while the standard panels are a better choice for a leaner, more “roof backed” horse.

On the other hand, Trapezius panels and wither gussets – great for horses with high withers and dips below them – will make a tree fit less generously.

Q: I’m having a really hard time finding a saddle that fits my horse, and have been told that my only option is to have one custom made. I can’t really afford the prices I’ve been quoted for a custom saddle, but what other choices do I have?

Given all the different saddles and fitting options available today, it’s very, very rare to find a horse that really “needs” a fully custom saddle. Many saddles, particularly those made in the UK, can be “bench-made” – that is, customized – to your horse’s specs, and in many cases, a bench-made saddle is no more expensive than an “off the rack” model. If your Eventing horse has really high, “shark fin” withers with dips below them and a dropped back, wither gussets, a dropped panel and a deeper rear gusset might be in order. If your trail horse is barrel-bodied and slightly croup-high, a shallower rear gusset, a hoop tree and a full front gusset might be the best options. Some companies will even build one saddle on another saddle’s tree – say, a Black Country Eden on a Vinici tree.

Q: My saddle is wide enough for my horse, but it rocks front to back and makes my horse sore. What’s the problem?

A: Though it’s hard to tell for sure without actually seeing the horse and saddle in question, it could be a number of things. First, there might be too much flocking under the stirrup bars. This can be remedied by either removing some of the flocking or using a masher (or the heel of your hand and a lot of energy) to beat on and compress the flocking in that area.

Second, if your horse is pretty flat-backed, it could be that the tree is too curved for your horse’s back – think of the rocker of a rocking chair on the floor. The curve of the tree needs to follow the curve of your horse’s back.

Finally, it could be that your panel configuration isn’t quite right. For example, if your horse has hollows below the wither, the front of the saddle may “fall into” them and cause the rocking. A wither gusset would be a good option to explore in a case like that.

Q: What exactly is “bridging”, and what causes it?

A: “Bridging” refers to a saddle that makes contact under the pommel and the cantle, but not under the rest of the seat. If you run your hand palm-down between the saddle and your horse’s back, you’ll be able to feel the gap. This is often caused by putting a flat-treed saddle on a horse with a dropped back, but it can also be caused by a too-shallow panel. Trying a more curved “rocker”-shaped tree or a deeper panel like the Trapezius or K panel would be advisable (see previous question).

Q: My horse has a broad back and a very well-sprung rib cage – he’s shaped sort of like a pear – and the saddle AND the girth slip forward when I ride. What can be done to fix this?

A: We see quite a few horses with the conformation you’re describing, and it seems that many “pear shaped” horses also have a very short, forward girth spot (behind the forelegs, the flat area on the bottom of the barrel where the girth needs to lie). Put your saddle on your horse’s back in the “ideal” spot (the actual tree of the saddle should be about 3 fingers’ width behind the rear edge of the scapula) and see where the billets fall. If they hang straight down, chances are very good that they’re falling behind your horse’s girth spot. If this is the case, a shaped girth like the Red Barn Comfort girth or the Prestige Anatomical girth would be worth trying. This particular girth can often strike a happy medium by keeping the girth forward in the girth spot, while allowing the buckles to lie back further, in line with the billets.

Another option is a saddle with forward-set billets, like the Passier GG. This configuration allows the saddle to sit in the optimum position even on a horse with a very forward girth spot. A point billet can be worth trying, as well, though some horses (often ones with big, laid-back shoulders) don’t appreciate the extra snugness behind the scapula.

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