I am often asked how regularly the fit of a saddle should be checked. As a saddle fitter one of the things I try to get across to horse owners is that your horse can change shape at any time. Changes in shape can relate to the time of year and the work load, changing yards or trainers, or to a different feed routine etc. You expect to progress in your flatwork or jumping, even if the workload doesn’t differ, and that progress you make usually means a change in the shape of your horse. This means that general time guidelines, such as 6 monthly saddle checks, are not always adequate.
If your horse has changed shape then the saddle will need adjusting, which is why it is something to learn to recognise. If an owner can correctly identify the signs they can help ensure optimum health and performance of their horse. Horses with ill-fitting saddles can experience pain, discomfort and over time develop muscle wastage, poor performance and behavioural problems. These problems can improve once a comfortable saddle is fitted, but the owner needs to be prepared to maintain this good fit by having the saddle adjusted during any future changes in the horse’s shape. In the first year of riding a horse can often change shape several times with each change needing to be checked and adjustments made. In order to recognise when a horse has changed shape you can monitor the clearance under the pommel, which should be 2 to
4 fingers (see picture on right). The best time to do this check is when you get off and the girth is still snug. You can also watch for movement in the saddle when you are riding and look for ruffled coat hairs under the saddle when it is removed. Other clues are finding that you are struggling to ride effectively, or that you are not able to keep your legs underneath you, or even noticing you are beginning to get mild lower back pain when you ride. If you think the horse has changed shape you can also take a wither template and get this crosschecked for size. It is important to know when your horse has changed shape as a 6 monthly saddle check may not catch the change early enough to stop it causing issues.The following video also provides some help and guidance on checking if your saddle fits:
In terms of my experience regarding the frequency with which horses can alter, I have some customers whose horses need adjustments really regularly (three to four times a year and even more in remedial cases) while others need 6 monthly saddle checks. I even have some customers whose horses have not changed shape for several years! On the other hand I have also seen examples where horses have changed as much as 3 width fittings over a 4 month period, in these latter types of cases it has often been where the horse is being prepared for the show ring (or where it has had a dramatic change in discipline).
To keep the cost of adjustments down if your horse does change shape a lot it is good to talk to your fitter about how best to accommodate these regular changes, for example your fitter may be able to supply you with a good shim pad to help you adjust for seasonal related changes in your horse’s shape. Nevertheless, there will still be times when the saddle itself needs adjusting, so be prepared that you will need at least the occasional visit from your fitter to support these changes and accommodate your horse’s fitting needs.
As a saddle fitter I’m also asked about how much things have changed over the last couple of decades, and why it seems like years ago you bought one saddle for life and never needed to bother having it adjusted. In my experience saddle fitting and horse care have changed significantly in recent times. We now understand far better when a horse has a back issue and a saddle needs adjusting. Years ago there were quite simply few diagnostics and often anything that was injured was put out to rest for several months, and in some cases ‘put to sleep’ as they couldn’t work. We also no longer class teenage horses as old and write them off, as with the increased expertise in the industry we now keep horses happily going into much older age. In addition, nowadays with remedial horses there is better awareness that they could have fixable issues and may simply need an equine nutritionist, or dentist, or a saddle fitter, chiro/physical therapist or vet, or a combination of several of these things depending on the issue. With remedial fits a horse is even more likely to change shape as the horse repairs and the saddle will need regular checks during the mending process. Some of these horses will change in a matter of weeks whereas others can take considerably longer. Although not all horses do repair, and not all can be repaired, with patience and a holistic approach I have personally found many that can. Years ago I would get given remedial horses with major behavioural issues that people thought should be written off, I never found one that I was not able to fix with a holistic approach using appropriate specialists and correct saddle fitting.