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Diagnosing Saddle Fit Problems

When diagnosing a veterinary condition, there is a process to follow that gives the most complete information in structured fashion.  You take a history. You observe and do a physical exam. Then you can do other tests to evaluate things you haven't figured out yet. The same structure can be followed when your customer comes to you with a saddle fit problem, providing, of course, that you understand the Reasons for Saddle Fit Issues.


Taking a history is asking good questions. The questions are designed to elicit specific information without necessarily asking for it directly. You never want to ask leading questions which influence the answers. As said earlier, problems can be with the rider, the horse, the saddle, the tree, extra tack, or even how the horse is used, and you need to distinguish between all these options. Here are some questions to ask to give you some of the information you need: 

“When did you first notice the problem?”  You are trying to find out if it has been the same from the time he first started using this saddle or if something has changed to cause the problem. Some things like white hairs take a long time to show up, so the issue could have happened long before they recognized a problem.

If the problem has not existed from the first use of the saddle - “What might have changed between when the saddle was doing OK and when it didn’t seem to fit?”  This could be anything from damage to the tree to changing the rigging to different pads or breast collars. It could also be due to different activities (roping versus pleasure riding), different duration of rides (a couple hours on the weekend to a week long pack trip) or even a change in the primary rider.  Or maybe someone else has influenced their thinking. "Last week my friend said..." It doesn't always have to be a wreck.

“What signs are you seeing that tell you that the saddle doesn’t fit?”  Let the rider tell you what he notices. What he thinks is a problem (i.e. saddle seeming to be too far back) may not actually be a problem. Usually, his concerns will fall within the list of problems discussed previously. This question also gives you some indication of the level of knowledge of the rider.

“Does it affect one side or both sides?  If one side, which one?”  If it is consistently a one sided problem, it means something is asymmetric.  It could still be in the rider (not uncommon), the horse, the tree, the saddle or the other tack, but it won’t be just a tree/horse interaction issue.

“Where are the trouble (dry, sore, white haired) spots?”
  This tells you what possible problem areas you need to examine more closely.  Most commonly they occur in the "wither pockets", but they can be over the loin or in the center of the bars as well.  A sore spot in an unusual location is a signal to check for a protrusion from the bottom of the saddle in that location.

“What size and shape are the spots?  Are they the same side to side?”
  Large dry spots are of less concern since the pressure is spread over a larger area.  Small spots show concentrated areas of pressure and are more likely to cause problems.  Different sizes side to side show unevenness, but again, it could be in any component we have discussed.

“How much white hair is there?  Does it stay when the horse sheds out?” 
 A solid patch of white hair means a lot of damage occurred a while ago.  A few hairs that turn white, especially if they go away when the horse sheds, is not uncommon in a horse that is used for long hours, or in hot conditions, even when the horse is never sore.

“Is it the same when different people ride this saddle?”  If a number of riders are OK with the saddle and there is a problem with one person, then that person needs to be evaluated carefully.  If it is the same with all riders, then the rider is ruled out as being a cause of the problem. If it is OK with some riders but not others, you may want to check out things like the weight of the riders and surface area of the bars or the style of riding being used when problems occur. Some makers ask other riders to use the saddle over time to see if they can replicate the issue.

“Is it the same when you use the saddle on different horses?”  The same problem occurring on all horses rules out the horse as being the cause of the problem. If the saddle works well on some horses, but not on others, then the saddle and tree probably don't have faults in them. The issue would likely be more a horse/saddle interaction issue or a rider issue.

If it works for some horses and not others,- “Describe the horses it works well on and the ones it doesn’t.”  Are they riding too wide a spectrum of sizes for one saddle to fit well, or is the saddle size just on the edge of their range of horses? The types of horses they describe will also give you indications of what you want to check carefully when you do get to examining the saddle on the horse.

If they say their horse is sore - What tells you that your horse is sore? This is a better question that "Why do you think your horse is sore?" which can be seen as adversarial. If it is a performance or movement change, ask them to describe the changes or what the horse does to show he is sore. If it is a physical soreness they find as they feel their horse's back, ask them where he is sore.

“How often does the horse get sore?" 
 If not every time, "What type of riding causes the soreness?"  You want to know if it is all the time, only after long rides, only when they rope, etc.  Do they use different equipment (pads, breast collars, etc.) at these times?

“When can I come see you ride your horse?”  To really get to the bottom of a lot of fit problems, you can’t just look at the saddle.  You need to see the horse, the other tack being used, how the owner saddles up, how they mount, how they sit and ride, etc.  It is especially valuable to go to their home where you will find out things you could never know otherwise.


When you get to their place, you want to watch and see without influencing the rider as much as possible. Ask to see the horse and again have the owner explain where the problem spots are. Evaluate the horse, looking for areas that may causing the problem. Check especially for asymmetry, which is far more common than is regularly recognized. Evaluate the saddle, checking for a broken tree or areas that show excessive wear - top and bottom, as the rider can also wear a saddle asymmetrically. Evaluate the padding - for cleanliness, thickness and wear patterns.

Then ask the rider to saddle up normally. Don't say anything to influence where or how they place the saddle. This gives you the chance to check their normal positioning which, as we have said numerous times, is the #1 cause of "saddle fit" problems. If how they are positioning or saddling the horse is an issue, great tact is needed to help them understand what the problem is. Often, this might be the only issue, but don't stop here. Continue to evaluate the saddle completely so you don't miss something, as many saddle fit issues are a combination of a number of things.

Examination of the Saddle on the Horse

You want to check the saddle bare on the horse first, feeling under it to check where it contacts and how even the contact is. While padding affects the fit, especially clearance, you can feel how well the angles match better without padding. Since padding doesn't affect angles, having the angles at least close to matching is important. If you find high pressure areas, you need to figure out why they have high pressure and if this is causing problems.

After checking without padding, you need to check with padding, again running your hand along the horse's back under the saddle and padding, checking to see if the high pressure areas you found without padding are still there, or if the padding has created new high pressure areas.

How to check is better demonstrated than written about. Here is a link to our free Western Saddle Fit: the Essentials video that give you a very quick demonstration. To learn more, you can watch our Western Saddle Fit: the Basics (which should have been called "More than Just Basics but we aren't great marketers) for a small cost. This is also available in DVD.

Further testing

Watching the rider actually ride the horse will give you further information. Poor riding position and technique contribute to high pressures under the saddle, and may cause a reasonable saddle to have problems. As for saddling and position, tact is necessary when discussing these things with the rider, and the more you know about the discipline they ride in, the more credibility you will have in discussing riding technique.

If you can't figure out what the problem is, or if the rider is resistant to your suggestions, have another rider use the saddle on their horses in a similar manner to the owner if possible. If the issue is the same with the other rider and horses, then it will be something about the saddle or tree that you just haven't discovered yet. But if everything is OK with the second rider, then the saddle is OK and the issue is with the original rider or horses.

If you feel there are issues with the saddle or tree, then testing the saddle up down and sideways for symmetry, and even taking off the skirts to check the tree may be indicated. Hopefully you will figure out the problem before you have to go this far, but in some cases it is necessary.

Further Information

To learn more, check out our six hour Well Beyond the Basics video series which discusses everything we talked about in this series, plus much, much more.