As a saddle fitter, one of the things I come across a lot in my job is where customers have searched the country high and low and purchased themselves a wonderful riding horse. They might have looked at the horse’s overall build and may have made an educated decision about whether the horse can carry their weight, but many really don’t know enough to make that call. However, even beyond that decision, can the horse carry the size of saddle that can carry you, the rider?
In the last 20 years, there has been a huge rise in the popularity of native ponies, cobs and native crosses– they have the bone to carry adult riders in so many cases, but people also believe that short backs can be much stronger. Coincidently horse breeders and showing judges have found short backed horses and ponies more pleasing to the eye, so horses have been bred to be even more compact. We all know that the population is getting heavier and taller, but we are also far heavier relative to our height than in the past.
This brings me to a significant saddle fitting dilemma, seen across the board with riding horses, native ponies and cobs. In some cases, the horse just can’t take a big enough saddle, period. As an example, traditional cobs have become incredibly popular, but their origins are as small draft horses, i.e. pulling carts. They are so often croup high and very short backed so even though they can be significant weight carriers they can only take small saddles. In recent months our fitters have come across: a 14.1 overgrown Section C which can only take a 14” saddle, a 15hh Irish cob who can only JUST take a 16.5” GP saddle and even a 16.2 Thoroughbred which could only take a 16.5” dressage saddle.
At AH Saddles we believe that there should be a standard checklist for people looking to buy a horse and a key thing should be: does my new horse’s conformation match my own to make us both comfy riding companions?
The first question is whether the horse can carry your weight, but it's just as important to determine how long the horse or pony’s ribcage is. If there isn’t space for the saddle you need, between the back edge of the horse or pony’s shoulder blade (never ON it!) and its last rib, then there is no magic solution.
Even saddles with longer seats and shorter panels aren’t a fix-all despite the impression that some companies give that seat size and panel length are simply interchangeable – there is always a trade-off. Either you have pressure issues under a smaller saddle (and especially on the back edge of the panel, hence shorter panels not always being a good idea), or you fit beyond the back rib. If you get it wrong, this can potentially impact both parties’ health over the years and therefore how long your horse will stay sound and be able to be ridden.
As an example, a traditional cob, xxw/6 fit, with a round barrel and croup high; the rider is 5’2” with short legs and weighs 13 stone. Not only might we struggle with the length of the ribcage, but short legs on very wide cobs can also mean the rider's knees are very far apart, which can cause hip and lower back pain. Wide twist saddles and short riders aren’t always a comfy combination.
We will cover how to measure your horses back for saddle length in the next article.