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Fitting an English Saddle

English saddle parts

The angle and depth of the seat varies for different saddle styles and disciplines.  The pommel is the highest point at the front of the rider, with the cantle as the highest point behind the rider.  Knee pockets vary in thickness or may be absent.  The tree of the saddle is the stiff inner structure of the saddle, with the gullet more specifically referring to the distance and angle between the left and right side of the tree, but these terms are often used interchangeably to describe the width and angle of the saddle as it sits on either side of the horse’s spine.  The billets are the leather straps attached to the girth to hold the saddle in place. 
English saddle billets
Much of the ideas of saddle fit are the same as fitting a western saddle, with a few specific considerations for different varieties of English saddle riding styles.  Here is some information (edited to concentrate on English saddles) from the Cooperative Extension website.

 

Taken from “Selecting a Saddle” – a Cooperative Extension article published July 31, 2019, found at https://horses.extension.org/selecting-a-saddle/

Authors: Melvin Bradley and Wayne Loch, Department of Animal Sciences; Revised by Elaine Long Bailey, University of Maryland Extension 4-H Youth Development Educator and with the assistance of Jennifer Nabors.

EDITED HERE TO COVER SPECIFICALLY FITTING ENGLISH SADDLES

Not every saddle fits every horse, just as one size or shape of boot does not fit every human. Saddle selection depends on discipline, type of horse and the needs of the rider. The following article discusses the different types of saddles, how to properly fit a saddle to a horse and general use of a saddle.

A saddle is one of the first pieces of equipment most people buy after they acquire a horse. It is a major investment; selecting and purchasing a functional saddle requires much deliberation and knowledge. The life span of most saddles is several times that of a horse, so take great care in selecting a saddle.

Considerations for 3 Primary English Saddle Types

Hunt Saddle

English jumping saddle English jumping rider

Hunt-jump saddles are usually rather light and easily handled. Here, too, a wide variety of designs and prices is available. This type of saddle allows the rider, in most cases, to sit close to the horse, to feel it and to communicate more readily with seat and legs. As a rule, these saddles require more training of the rider in developing a sure seat than with [western] saddles. Such training usually leads to much better equitation form.

The basic design of a [hunt] saddle usually allows some latitude in placement. The hunt-jump saddle positions the rider through the center of the seat. A rider can use various billet combinations [to attach the girth], however, to change the position by as much as 3 to 4 inches. This permits the saddle to be placed properly for different activities or to accommodate a variety of [horse] conformation differences.

The extreme forward seat jumping saddle was designed only for jumping. The rider must use relatively short stirrups and be out of the saddle–that is, not sitting in the saddle much of the time. When the stirrups are long enough to allow the rider to sit down and relax, the knees tend to drop out of the knee pockets and the back of the saddle tips forward.
Probably the most critical test for hunter-seat riders is the position of the knees in the knee pockets. Regardless of length of seat, unless the knees fit into the knee pockets with proper length of stirrup, the saddle does not fit. Although measurements can be made, it is usually advisable to try a hunt-jump saddle for size as it rests on a horse before purchasing it.

Gaited Horse Saddles

English gaited saddle English gaited rider

Saddles used to ride and exhibit gaited or park horses, such as the Lane Fox saddle, are rather limited in use. They retain many of the advantages of the hunt-jump saddles — they are lightweight and allow ease of communication. However, they place the rider so far behind the withers that the only way for the rider to be in balance with the horse is to have the horse well collected and working off its hindquarters. This style of saddle provides minimum security for the rider; any rider must learn to ride such a saddle properly.

The more collected a horse is, the farther to the rear the center of balance is displaced. Therefore, the rider of a gaited horse in a collected center needs to be well back from the withers to free the forehand and put his or her weight more over the horse’s quarters.

Dressage Saddles

English dressage English dressage riderDressage saddles are designed to provide the rider with ease of communication with the horse. The design aims to keep the rider in perfect balance and form, whether the horse is highly collected or mildly extended. As with many other riding styles, the saddles are designed to meet the needs of the rider within the rather narrow limits of tradition.

For All Saddle Styles
  • The saddle must be safe.
  • The saddle must fit the horse.
  • The saddle should not interfere with the performance or the ability of the horse to perform.
  • The saddle must fit the job or the activities desired.
  • The saddle should fit the rider physically.

Fitting a Saddle to a Horse

Not every saddle fits every horse, just as one size or shape of boot does not fit every human. Some points of the horse’s anatomy that must be checked when considering a saddle include the size and shape of the withers, length of back, slope of shoulder, spring of rib, and muscling, especially of the shoulder. To some extent, you may need to consider the overall size of the horse, especially on smaller horses and ponies.
Horse skeleton

Most saddle fitting problems occur at the withers. There must be ample clearance at the withers to prevent injury, yet not so much space that all security is lost. Also, pressures should not be concentrated on small areas of the back and withers. Insufficient clearance [at the withers], even with a heavy saddle blanket, means the [pommel] of the saddle is too wide, or the withers of the horse are too high and narrow, or both. Adding a heavy pad or a second or third blanket may help. It is better, however, to get a narrower saddle if possible.

Injury to the withers is usually the result of a poorly fitted saddle. In addition to being painful to the horse, it frequently results in bad habits such as bucking and head slinging, and it may cause the horse to resist saddling. Ill-fitting saddles are sometimes a result of the rider’s inconsideration but more often result from a lack of knowledge and attention to the welfare of the horse.
English saddle skeleton
The width of an English saddle tree/gullet should be a major consideration. It may be necessary to go to a “cut-back” head [(more common in gaited horse saddles)] to prevent damage to the withers. The cut-back can range from very slight to more than 4 inches. One major advantage of a cut-back head is that the saddle can fit a wide variety of horses.

The [width] of some hunt-jump saddles can spread a great deal without breaking, depending upon the material used to make the saddle gullet/tree. In considering a used saddle of this type, check width between the points of the head, especially if the saddle is to be used in shows. Little can be done to improve the fit of a wide-fronted hunt-jump saddle except to find a horse with appropriate anatomy.

A relatively new innovation in fitting English saddles of many types is interchangeable gullets/trees. In order for the horse to properly perform, the gullet/trees of the saddle must be securely locked in place. There are different advantages and disadvantages of such a system. So make sure to carefully and completely research a saddle with this feature before buying it.

If the horse is straight-shouldered or if the saddle tends to slip back because of poor riding habits, the gullet/trees place great pressure on the back edge of the shoulder blades. Even blankets can’t completely eliminate this concentration of pressure. For this condition, a breast collar is needed to keep the saddle well forward over the shoulder blades.  Simply tightening the girth will not produce desired results because it increases pressure at the withers. The backward and forward movement of the tightened girth then causes girth galls, particularly on fat horses.

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