Saddle Fitting for the Event Horse

EN guest writer David Ziegler, who won individual medals in both eventing and dressage at NAJYRC last year and is long listed on this year's Canadian national eventing team, is on a mission to spread the word about proper saddle saddle fit for event horses. Be sure to follow his Facebook page for much more from David.

David Ziegler and Peninsula Top Man at Dressage at Devon 2014. Photo courtesy of Lone Oak Equine Photography. David Ziegler and Peninsula Top Man at Dressage at Devon 2014. Photo courtesy of Lone Oak Equine Photography.

Producing a top event horse is no easy task; there are many factors to a complete program. Like a pair of shoes to a marathon runner, a horse’s saddle is the most important piece of equipment.

I asked Gary Severson, better known as The Saddle Doctor, to help me with this article. He represents no saddle companies and has more than 20 years of experience as an independent saddle fitter. He has consulted the U.S. eventing team for 12 years and the Canadian eventing and dressage teams for five of those years.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I dreaded saddle buying.  The rhetoric from saddle reps can make it nearly impossible to know who to trust when, at the end of the day, the sale is more important.

Many companies have their saddle reps in programs anywhere from four days to three months — how does this qualify them to fit saddles? Vet techs are expected to go to school for two years before they can give IV injections. I believe a similar standard should be expected of saddle fitters.

One of the first decisions one has to make when buying a new saddle is whether to choose wool or foam flocked. There is no one right or wrong answer — the question is whether the saddle fits or not, and both have their benefits and drawbacks.

Wool saddles can offer an advantage to eventers, as our horses’ backs are ever changing as they develop and go through their fitness peaks and lows. With wool, we are able to stuff wool in and pull wool out as needed, but the saddle requires maintenance fittings more frequently to ensure the best fit.

When making adjustments to foam saddles, panels need to be removed, reconfigured and then reattached to properly fit. Foam saddles have found their niche in the hunter/jumper world, where fitness levels stay fairly consistent, and a well-fitting foam saddle will last these riders for several years.

One of the most common fit issues Gary said he has noticed has been overflocking on the left side, the mounting side. Horses are then at a disadvantage and are unable to develop equal muscle tone from side to side.

It’s important to remember that proper saddle fit is not just for the elite-level horses. If a saddle “rocks,” it usually pinches in the area of the back between the stirrup bars of the saddle.

County Saddlery did a test some years ago and determined that, on average, a rider landed on the other side of a fence in the stirrups with a force of approximately 150 pounds for every foot of fence jumped.

In other words, a 4-foot fence would equal about 650 pounds. If the saddle is rocking and pinching, a high jump is very painful to the horse. A green horse will soon learn it best not to jump the fence if he can get away with it!

A saddle that pinches will cause a horse to move forward with a high head, short-strided in front, hollowed back and strung out at the hindquarters — not a recipe for a top level trip around a course.

Now, this doesn’t mean every horse on earth needs a custom saddle. One can deftly use a type of corrective pad to properly fit a previously ill-fitting saddle.

Properly shimmed, the horse would be protected, but, as Gary has explained to me, he does not believe an Advanced level eventer or a Grand Prix jumper should use this type of padding for safety reasons.

Thick pads can cause saddles to slip over high jumps, particularly when serious turns need to be made upon landing. The saddle also needs to be fit well so that the horse can adequately use its back as nature intended while moving forward — without the saddle getting in the way.

It seems like the saddles sold are the ones with the best marketing campaigns. Let’s change the focus from which saddle just came out with all the bells and whistles and start talking about the fit of the saddle on our horses.