Suppose you only had one hour to learn as much as you could about English saddle fitting and shopping.
What should you read first?
What videos give you the most knowledge with the least time investment?
Well, let’s start with what not to do–and that is Google the term English saddle fit. ZOMG folks, it’s a jungle out there. There are three million results for that search term. And trying to find the amazing resources within those results is like trying to find a horseshoe, at dusk, in a huge turnout area.
So in this blog post, I’m gonna save you from The Googles. If you were my good friend, and you texted me tomorrow asking what saddle-fitting resources you should look at first (“asking for a friend,” yeah of course you are)…this is the stuff I’d probably send to you.
Let’s assume, for purposes of this post, that you’ve already consumed everything here at The Saddle Geek, which is a really good first step. For example, perhaps you shouldn’t leave The Saddle Geek without nabbing a copy of the English Saddle Brands List.
But we’ll assume that you’re on a tear and you’re done with literally everything here at The Saddle Geek, including the online custom saddle fitting advice service. And you’re still chugging resources like sangria after a Friday-night ride.
Alright then. Pitcher #2 of saddle-fitting info, comin’ right up after the jump.
If you’re starting with ZERO knowledge of English saddles, start here:
Saddle Fitting Basics from SmartPak Equine is “the article I’d send to that overwhelmed first-time horse mom in your barn.” You know the one. She’s sweet, but she can barely tell a saddle from a bridle. She definitely can’t tell a jump saddle from a dressage saddle. This is for her.
But most people will quickly be ready to move onto…
Seriously, The One Saddle Fitting Video that Everyone Should Watch
If every rider in America watched this video, the overall level of saddle-fitting knowledge in this country would double overnight. It’s not a perfect video, and I don’t agree with every single word, but it’s a helluva crash course if you need one.
Event riders Dom and Jimmie Schramm of EventionTV made this awesome 10-minute interview with Keith Brooks, a fitter for Stubben North America. Yes, in some ways, it’s a glorified commercial for Stubben saddles. But there’s also a lot of solid, basic fitting advice that applies across lots of brands and saddle-fitting situations.
I recommend skipping to the 1-minute–50-second mark in this video, which is when Dom and Jimmie stop messing around and get serious.
And if you really want to cut to the chase, here’s some links to specific points in the video:
1:50 Evaluating seat size for the rider
3:18 How to measure your saddle’s seat size
3:45 Saddle width for the horse and why it matters
4:32 Saddle rocking is bad. Here’s what it looks like.
5:39 Saddle balance, aka “What happens when your saddle tips too far forward or back?”
6:32 Easy tests to see if your current saddle fits your horse
8:35 Using corrective padding to fix saddle rocking…sometimes
9:35 Buying a used saddle? Inspect this stuff before you buy.
For the Extreme Video Junkie: A 30-Minute Crash Course on English Saddle Fit
Okay, same disclaimer as the last resource: once you leave The Saddle Geek, you are back in the land of People Who Give You Saddle Advice Because They Want You to Buy an Expensive Saddle. That certainly applies to this series by Jochen Schleese, owner of Schleese Saddlery.
You can read all my disclaimers about this series below, but again, I think it has some value. Jochen demonstrates mostly with a dressage saddle, but much of the info is applicable to searches for jumping/all purpose/eventing/trail saddles too.
Quick links if you’re only interested in one issue:
- How to tell if your saddle hurts your horse
- Saddle balance
- Wither clearance
- Gullet channel width
- Full panel contact
- Billet alignment
- Saddle length
- Saddle straightness
- Saddle tree angle
If you really want to geek out on this stuff, there’s even a comprehensive web site to go along with the video series. Ooh, ahh, pretty.
Watch the whole 30-minute playlist here, or use the Playlist button in the top-left corner to skip around as you please:
Okay, let’s talk about where the Schleese marketing creeps into this video. Obviously, if a saddle brand pays to make a video series, they’re expecting a payoff. Ideally, that payoff is a) you buying their saddle, and b) you drinking their brand-specific Kool Aid about how saddle fitting is supposed to work. I’m not saying this in a critical way. I’m saying this in a “businesses gonna business” way.
So it’s hard to blame Schleese for mixing sound, generally great, widely accepted saddle-fitting advice with things that Schleese believes are truly wonderful innovations in saddle fitting that everyone should subscribe to. But as with everything in horses, most “innovations” here are actually “matters of opinion.”
Here’s an example of that fine line between good saddle advice and brand-specific innovations: In Schleese Video 4, Jochen Schleese starts talking about the gullet channel that runs between the under-panels of a saddle. And it’s a very “Schleese” thing to obsess about having enough room down the middle of the under-panels to drive a Mack Truck between the panels.
That said, nobody–including Jochen Schleese and I– want to see a saddle’s panels pressing into a horse’s spine. OUCH. We can dicker about exactly how wide the gullet chanel needs to be to avoid pinching a horse’s spine. But we can all agree that pinching a horse’s spine = bad.
So if you’re a noob to saddle fitting, that general “don’t mess with your horse’s spine” point makes Schleese Video 4: Gullet Channel Width-a-palooza worth the watch time. Everyone should be aware of how much gullet clearance they have down the center of their saddle.
But does it really take four gigantic Jochen Schleese man-fingers to create enough clearance for the horse’s spine? That’s a matter of debate. Especially since I don’t know the exchange rate between Jochen Schleese Man Fingers and actual inches or centimeters.
In my experience, it depends on the horse. Every horse needs some gullet channel clearance on either sideo of the spine. But on some horses, you could get away with 3 Schleese man-fingers instead of 4. Or even–get ready to gasp–possibly as few as 2. Other horses absolutely need a wide gullet channel, and the wider the better. Hard for me to say, without seeing the horse and knowing its fitness level, how tactful its rider is, whether it has a history of back problems like kissing spine, and so forth.
So if you’re thinking “Okay well better safe than sorry, I’ll just buy a ginormous gullet channel that you can drive a truck through”…that’s not a panacea either. I’ve met horses who were sored by having a too wide gullet channel. In short, the saddle panels were so wide and far apart that the saddle “fell off” the sides of their topline muscles and right onto their rib cages. If anyone’s ever given you a noogie in the rib cage, you know how this feels. OWWWWW.
But I’ve also met horses who were in terrible pain from too-narrow gullet channels, which pressed directly on their spine.
The point is, every fitting situation is different, and you can reach a point in your saddle fitting education where you know just enough to be dangerous. So look for the general takeaways in this video, like “your saddle should not hit your horse’s withers” and “your gullet channel should provide sufficient clearance for your horse’s spine.” That’s the value here. If you need advice about particulars, get a professional involved in your saddle fitting case, whether that’s local eyes on the ground. Or a distance fitter (<–and if you don’t know where to find one, scroll down, I have a whole section about that.)
Also, for the record, Jochen Schleese is not just some random dude who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s the youngest guy ever to achieve the rank of Master Saddler after seven years at Passier in Germany. Schleese is a well established and well respected Canadian saddle brand that has also built contract products for other reputable brands, like the Barnsby Special Crown dressage saddle. So needless to say, this Jochen Schleese opinions about saddle fit have value.
But asking Jochen Schleese “What makes a saddle fit?” is sort of like asking Henry Ford, “What makes a great car?” You would not be surprised if Henry Ford described a Model T Ford as a great car. So don’t be surprised when Jochen Schleese describes a Schleese dressage saddle as a great saddle.
The Topic You Ignore at Your Peril: Saddle Fit for the Rider
Us horsepeople love our ponies, so we tend to prioritize the horse’s needs when we’re shopping for a saddle. And I’m on board with that, about 95%. But if the saddle doesn’t fit the rider just as well as it fits the horse, then we’re not really helping the horse.
An ill-fitted saddle for the rider means imprecise aids and unbalanced weight distribution. That profoundly affects your horse and can even muck up/negate the excellent fit for your horse. I’ve seen saddles that fit the horse perfectly cause serious soreness. For example, maybe it’s too small for the rider, so the rider’s weight is coming down disproportionately on the cantle. That means the rear of the horse’s rib cage (or worse, the flank and kidneys) are supporting too much of the rider’s right.
So when you’re saddle shopping, spend at least a little time learning about how to evaluate a saddle for rider fit. Your horse will thank you.
Make Sure Your Jumping Saddle Fits You, Too by Jimmy Wofford for Practical Horseman –This article is designed for event riders, but it’s good readin’ for almost any saddle shopper. Wofford is witty, he’s an Olympian, he’s an eventing coach to the stars, and he knows his saddle fit. What else could you want?
“Saddle Fit for the Rider” from Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop – Not the most riveting document to read, but there’s lots of helpful pictures of rider’s butts in saddles. If you’re a visual learner, you’ll like this piece.
Articles about Fitting Saddles to Horses
9 Points of Saddle Fitting by Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore of Dressage Today magazine = In this article, the author reports on things she learned in a course with David Young, a crackerjack saddle fitter from the Carolinas that I consider to be among the best fitters in America today. Great advice and super clear.
Beval Saddle Fitting for the Horse – Not the most beautiful web site I’ve ever seen, but there’s some good, practical advice here in easy-to-understand language. To be clear, I’m recommending this link for the article only. I have little direct experience, good or bad, with the in-house Beval saddle fitters mentioned at the end of this piece.
Points of Saddle Fitting by the Master Saddlers Association – There’s a pretty reasonable checklist here of things to check when evaluating a saddle for fit. That said, I don’t want to oversell this link. A lot of people mix up the Master Saddlers Association, which wrote the page I just linked to, with the Society of Master Saddlers. The MSA is the name for “the in-house training course taken by brand representatives employed by County Saddlery.” It’s not the same as the British trade organization Society of Master Saddlers, a renowned independent trade organization whose saddle-fitting certification program is world famous. That said, MSA has put together a pretty nice little checklist here for general saddle-buyer use.
How to Take a Wither Tracing
Every horseperson should learn how to take a wither tracing. It’s easy to learn, it’s cheap to do, and you probably have the right equipment lying around your house.
Even if you’re not actively saddle shopping, it’s a good idea to have a wither tracing on file each 6 months to a year. That way, you can see how your horse’s back is growing and changing over time. I often do wither tracings in the spring and fall, on the same days that I do fecal tests or vaccines. That way, I can see my horse’s back condition coming out of our winter slump and after a productive summer of riding and showing. It also means I don’t forget to do it, or put it on my to-do-list which is really a to-do-never list.
The person in the YouTube video below, by the way, is Kitt Hazelton of Panther Run Saddlery. She does a lot of distance fitting, and she worked for years at the distance-saddle-fitting juggernaut Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop. So nobody’s explained wither tracing as many times online, or explained it as clearly, as Kitt has.
Custom Online Advice about Saddle Fitting
Suppose you live in an area with few local saddle fitters. Or suppose your budget or needs aren’t a great match for your local saddle fitters. You can still get help with your saddle search by hiring a saddle fitter to consult on your case online.
In the interest of full disclosure, before this gets weird…I do online video fitting consultations myself. But I’m all about giving you the maximum number of resources for your saddle search, so here are some other outfits that give online saddle fitting advice.
No saddle fitter has a flawless batting average, but these are all highly reputable organizations that have been in business for a long time and get generally good reviews.
If you’re not sure which one to choose, try browsing the saddle inventory at each vendor’s site. The inventory tells you a lot about where the organization’s expertise lies. If you see the sorts of saddles that you’re interested in buying, in price ranges that match your budget, then you’re probably barking up the right tree.
Equestrian Imports in Florida specializes in wool-flocked British saddles and wool-flocked Italian saddles, including Prestige, Amerigo, Albion, Loxley, and other brands. You send their fitting team a set of digital photos + a wither tracing. A saddle fitter on staff, usually the owner Ann Forrest herself, will call you back to discuss your case. At the time that I published this article, the price for this service was $125.
Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop in Vermont has been a major player in digital fitting for English saddles for over a decade. They specialize in British wool-flocked saddles by brands like Black Country, Kent and Masters, Frank Baines, Thorowgood, and others. But they do carry some occasional non-British trump cards, like some of the more popular dressage saddles by Passier (a German brand). As far as I know, they don’t have a consultation fee, but their advice tilts toward the saddles that they keep in stock (no surprise there.)
Fine Used Saddles in Texas is a real class act. If you can find a brand being used by top-level riders in hunter/jumper, eventing, or dressage, Fine Used Saddles probably carries it. I never hesitate to recommend clients to Patricia, the owner. She gives thoughtful saddle fitting advice within the scope of her own inventory–she knows her specialties and she sticks to them–and she keeps her business small enough that she can give white-glove service. Patricia also does an industry-best packing and shipping job: your trial saddle arrives with this classy little envelope of how-to literature + cut-off white socks to slide over your stirrup leathers for the test ride. (PS, don’t confuse Fine Used Saddles with a now-defunct operation called Danforth Fine Used Saddles. Danforth was a hot mess, and it’s now out of business. Patricia of Fine Used Saddles was never, at any point, affiliated with the train wreck of Danforth Fine Used Saddles.)
High End Used Saddles by CoriMcGraw focuses almost exclusively on the high-end brands that are popular with American hunter/jumper riders. Think French brands like Devoucoux, Antares, and Voltaire or Italian brands like Amerigo, Equipe, and Prestige. But Cori does sell some British inventory that’s highly relevant to the hunter ring, such as the County Sensation or County Innovation. At the time that I published this blog post, Cori was giving free consultations on whether or not saddles from her current inventory will fit your horse. And if you want to ask Cori more general or wide-ranging questions about the saddle world, you can ask her up to 5 questions via email for $65. More about that service on her web site.
Panther Run Saddlery is run by Kitt Hazelton, an independent saddle fitter with tons of distance-fitting experience. She worked for many years as a staff fitter at Trumbull Mountain Tack Shop before cutting out on her own. She’s now repping saddles for the British brands Albion, Bliss of London, Loxley by Bliss, and Duett. (True at the time of publication, anyway.)
Duett Saddles – If you’re shopping for a saddle for a wide horse and you’ve got less than $2000 to spend, Duett is a popular option. Nancy Temple, the brand’s national distributor, gives very thoughtful advice about fitting wide horses. She knows wide brands, including her competitors’ brands, like the back of her own hand.
Smith Worthington – President George Washington rode in a Smith Worthington saddle, and the company is still around today. Their saddles aren’t always sexy to look at, but the quality is high relative to the price, and the fitting advice they give by phone is great. As with the other options on this list, their advice will be largely confined to the brands they carry–but they have a very diverse lineup and they know that lineup backward and forward. Smith Worthington also does tons of saddle repairs and have extremely reasonable repair rates. Also, fun fact: Smith Worthington allows employees to bring their dogs to work. I always smile when I call them because aww, doggies in the office.
And, of course, The Saddle Geek Web Site!
The Saddle Geek is all about providing resources and value to the world’s saddle shoppers. And we’re publishing awesome new resources here at The Saddle Geek all the time. So if you dug this post, make sure you don’t miss ANY of our cool resources by joining our mailing list. That way, you’ll be the first to know when we make cool stuff like our English Saddle Brands List of 165+ brands, which is totally free for folks who join our mailing list.