In my years spent working in the tack store, one of the common questions was, how can I make sure the saddle fits my horse, if I can’t bring him in the store to try it on? It’s a very valid issue, we’re not dealing with J. Crew and khakis here! It’s easy enough for you to sit in a saddle, and be able to gauge, with a fair amount of accuracy, whether it fits you and your needs properly, but fitting what goes under the saddle, can be a challenge. More and more brands are offering flexible trees, which is the skeleton of your saddle, and that does assist in proper fitting to a degree, but ultimately, you need to have a good understanding of the mechanics, so when you do get the saddle home, you know what to do and what to look for.
I can’t speak for every tack store, but the one I worked in, did allow for a saddle to be taken home, and carefully tried, to ensure a good fit. That’s your ideal situation. Some may even allow multiple saddles to be taken, for a deposit, to save you trips back and forth. Here’s what I’ve shared with my customers, to help them in their decision…
We aren’t all models. Some of us are slim fits, others are husky, horses are no different. If you know your horse might not fall into the “average” fit category, think about your available resources. Do you know others who have saddles, similar to what you’re looking for, that you can borrow to try out? The withers seem to be the biggest source of trouble for tough customers, if you’re wondering about whether their high/low/narrow/broad withers and a good fit, there are specific fitting tools you can buy, or, you can take soft wire (like the cheap dry cleaners hangers) and mold it across the highest/widest point. Use that molded wire, and trace it on a piece of sturdy cardboard, then cut out the shape of your horse’s withers, and take that to the store with you. It’s not exactly the same as asking them to try it on, but it helps, and you don’t have to clean up after cardboard! Anyone familiar with the saddles they sell, should be able to at least help you narrow the field of selection, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Once you’ve made a selection and saddled your horse, give them a walk around, up close, and again at a few paces off. Does everything appear to be “correct” just by looking at it? Is the saddle sitting up on top of your horse, is it smothering them, do they appear obviously uncomfortable? You know your horse best, so even if they can’t say “ouch,” or “that feels funny,” you should be able to tell if there’s an immediate issue. Chances are, you’ve already seen what a properly-fitted saddle looks like on your horse, so you should have that image in mind, for comparisons sake.
Next, even if you don’t normally lunge your horse, give them a few minutes on a long line, or in a round pen, and let them work on their own. Watch for any signs of discomfort, working in both directions. If everything seems fine, then mount up, and try it all together. As long as your horse will stand quietly, do some reaching and turning, move around a bit, thinking about anything you plan on doing in the saddle and mimic those motions. Is your horse still peaceful under you, or are they turning to inspect, maybe even nipping? Sure, they don’t speak English, but they still have opinions and ways to share them with us. Listen closely.
After you’ve established things all seem to be okay, up to this point, you’re ready to go to work. If you’ve taken the saddle on a trial basis, remember whatever rules you’ve been given about keeping it clean and free of marks, but still try to have your usual ride. If all goes well, when you’re done, take another walk-around for a second visual inspection. So far so good? Perfect, now see what your horse has to say. Once you’ve removed the saddle, still watching for any unusual behavior from your horse, examine the sweat and hair pattern under the pad. Sweat and wear should appear evenly distributed. Any unusual dry patches, or hair obviously mashed in another direction, are good indicators that you have a fit problem. The dry patch usually says “too tight,” while mis-laid hair can tell you if something isn’t lined up properly. Finally, let your horse loose, or back on a long line again for a few minutes in each direction, and make sure they aren’t showing any signs of discomfort. Some issues don’t really present themselves until the horse is free of restriction.
I always used a shoe shopping analogy when explaining how to find a good fit. If you buy shoes that aren’t appropriate for your needs, like heels for running a 5K, it doesn’t matter how nice they look, you’re going to be miserable. If you buy shoes that are too big, they’ll give you blisters from rubbing. If you buy shoes that are too small, adding another pair of socks isn’t going to make them less uncomfortable, in the same way that adding a second saddle pad, won’t make a tight saddle less uncomfortable for your horse. There are a number of gel pads on the market now too, which are great for small fit and comfort issues, but please don’t think that the pad is going to solve all your problems, it’s simply a band aid. The other piece to remember, is you get what you pay for. Sure, there’s always a good deal to be found, but don’t buy something from the clearance rack, just because it’s on sale, make sure you’re getting exactly what you need, and it’s worth every penny.