girl and her horse

© Lorien

Few manufactured articles must fit two creatures simultaneously. E. Hartley Edwards, a noted English saddler, wrote:

I would regard my saddle both from the horse’s viewpoint and my own in much the same light as I would regard my shoes. The latter are a very personal part of my apparel and have taken on the shape of my feet; and in the same way my saddle has moulded itself to one horse's back. I would not, therefore, want my saddle or shoes to be used by any other horse or person.

I know that this is a perfectionist outlook, but it is the correct one if the saddle is to fit the horse perfectly. Where a saddle is used on a number of horses, it may initially, if the structure of the backs is roughly similar, fit all of them reasonably well, but it will ultimately never fit one of them really correctly and it may even cause trouble in some cases. Many modern saddles are termed “All Purpose” or “General Purpose.” This name applies to the variety of equestrian pursuits for which the makers claim the saddle is suitable; it does not mean that it fits all animals as some would-be purchasers think. No saddle yet made will fit every type or shape of equine back, just as no one pair of shoes will fit all human feet.

Saddlery, Modern Equipment for Horse and Stable.
New York: A. S. Barnes, 1963.

A saddle takes its shape from a part called the "tree," which is usually made of laminated wood, sometimes combined with fiberglass. At one time all trees were entirely rigid, but in "springtrees" the front and rear of the tree are connected by flat strips of spring steel. An important feature of the tree are the points, rigid projections which extend from the front of the tree down over the horse's withers.

Trees are made in a range of widths to accommodate the broadness of the horse's back; manufacturers sometimes identify these sizes by numbers and sometimes by bloodlines, for example “thoroughbred/cross” will be narrower than “warmblood”. Adjustable trees are also made: an Allen wrench inserted in an opening in the head of the saddle can make them broader or narrower.

drawing of saddle identifying head nail, pommel and cantle

To check tree sizing, put the saddle on the horse, placing it too far forward. Press down on the pommel and slide the saddle back until you feel it reach the natural resting point determined by the shape of the horse's back. Then check two things. First, the saddle should clear the horse's withers. Edwards suggests a mounted rider should be able to fit three fingers between the head of the saddle and the withers; others say two. Less clearance probably means the tree is too wide. Second, with the horse on level ground, the cantle should be an inch or more higher than the pommel (as much as 3 inches if the saddle has a deep seat). If it isn't, the tree is probably too narrow. If possible, fit should be checked by an experienced saddler with the rider present.

Beneath the tree are the two panels, a sort of cushion. Between the panels runs a channel which must be wide and deep enough to clear the horse's backbone. The adequacy of the channel should be checked periodically as the saddle ages. The remainder of the panel must contact the back. In many horses, the back under the front portion of the panels falls away from the top of the back in a noticeably concave curve. In such cases the bottom of a long panel will rest on the shoulder, holding the rest of the panel off the back. The solution is a shorter panel. In extreme cases, a ¾ panel may be required.

Although it is possible to adjust fit by adding or subtracting padding, this expedient should be approached cautiously. It is never a substitute for obtaining a saddle that actually fits. The object of the saddle is to distribute the rider's weight evenly over the back. Padding used to change the way a saddle sits will almost always result in excessive pressure under the pads.

Seat size, the most commonly given saddle measurement, is the distance in inches and half inches from a head nail to the center of the cantle. This dimension is fitted to the rider. In saddles with rigid trees it may be 14" to 18", sizes below 16" being for children. Springtree saddles are offered in fewer sizes, for example 15", 16½, 17½ inches. The saddle cannot, of course, be longer than the horse's back. Seat depth is a matter of personal preference. A rider may find the front-to-back contour of certain seats uncomfortable.

The flap length and position is also chosen to fit the rider. Short riders (under 5 feet 4 inches) may prefer short straight flaps; tall riders, or those with long thighs, long forward flaps.

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