Choosing the Correct Dressage Saddle for You and Your Horse

Though we mightn’t all be Olympic hopefuls, we all strive to ride to the best of our abilities. For some of us, this may mean pursuing western riding, jumping, general riding, hacking or dressage. Either way, there is a type of saddle for each of those chosen disciplines and it is crucial to have the correct saddle. Here we will discuss the correct Dressage saddle: the importance of a correct fit, different shapes and types of Dressage saddles for different shaped riders.

The Importance of a Correctly Fitting Saddle

A saddle is your horse’s most important piece of tack, connecting horse and rider. Without a correctly fitting saddle, our horse is unable to find their utmost comfort, creating tension, soreness, sourness and even naughtiness. An incorrectly fitting saddle can have drastic long-term effects on a horse’s back, including causing muscle deformity in extreme cases. Just as you would want the correct fitting shoes, your horse needs a saddle that allows freedom of movement without sliding and causing rubbing or soreness. It is a fine line that requires a good eye.

Different Shaped Dressage Saddles for Different Shaped Horses

Every horse has a different shaped back, just as we do! So, it is essential that when searching for a saddle, we take into consideration the shape of the saddle compared to the shape of the horse. Dressage saddles tend to have a high cantle, a deep seat and knee rolls that keep a bend in the knee with the ankle in line with hip. Beneath this general shape is the saddle’s panelling. This can come in many different curves and shapes to fit various shapes of horses. Is your horse’s back curved or flat? Higher at the front or back? Do they have an unusual dip in the front, middle or back?

Some saddles are not designed to sit on certain horses. Mainly, this occurs in the panel area of the saddle, underneath the rider’s seat. If the saddle’s panelling is curvaceous, this may work well on a horse with a curved back or that is ‘bum high’, ensuring the saddle isn’t digging into any parts of the horse’s back. A straighter panelled saddle would be more suitable to a horse with a flatter back, to ensure even pressure from the panelling the whole way down the back. Having a curved saddle on a straight-backed horse can cause rocking, meaning the saddle isn’t stable on the horse’s back.

How Do You Know If Your Saddle Fits?

There are eight things to consider when checking if your Dressage saddle is fitting correctly:

  1. Tree Angle. This refers to the angle of the tree nearest to the shoulder blades. The tree angle should run smoothly behind the shoulder blade when a hand is run down the panelling.
  2. Tree Width. This is the wideness at the front of the saddle, between the panels. The tree should be wide enough to sit on either side of the wither, without being so wide that it sits down.
  3. Wither Clearance. You must have two fingers clearance surrounding the wither, above and on the sides.
  4. Channel Width. The gullet must be wide enough not to interfere with the horse’s spine. Ensure you have a wide channelled saddle, 3-5 fingers in width.
  5. Panel Contact. There must be even panel contact with the horse’s back the whole way down. There should be no rocking or parts of the saddle that curl away from the horse’s back. Saddle up with the girth done up and run your hand from front to back underneath both panels. There should be even pressure the whole way along.
  6. Panel Length. It is vital that the rear of the panels should not extend past the last rib of the horse when the saddle is sitting correctly. The loins must never carry weight as they are the weakest part of the horse’s back.
  7. Saddle Straightness. It is rare for a horse to be completely symmetrical. Usually, one shoulder is bigger than the other. The saddle must have sufficient padding or flocking on the less bulky side to prevent slipping.
  8. Girth Point Alignment. The girth points on a saddle should hang perpendicular to the ground when the saddle is sitting correctly. Otherwise, the saddle could end up moving forwards or backwards due to the girth trying to find the correct girth groove.

How Can an Ill-Fitting Saddle Affect Performance?

A horse’s performance relies on comfort and the freedom of the body to move. When a saddle does not fit the horse properly, it compromises the horse’s ability to move evenly and loosely. A severely incorrectly fitting saddle can cause major pain throughout your horse, resulting in abnormal and dangerous behaviour, such as bucking, rearing, bolting or napping. Even if the saddle is only mildly ill-fitting, it can still greatly affect your horse’s body and its performance. Spinal pressure, shoulder restriction, balance issues, uneven musculature and nerve damage are all possible side effects of an incorrectly fitting saddle. Some of these side effects can lead to long term damage and many of them will result in an irregularly gated, stiff and uncooperative horse.

Who to Speak To

The most knowledge people when it comes to saddles are saddle fitters, making them the best group of people to contact. Unfortunately, it is difficult these days to find a trustworthy saddle fitter, so it is important to ask people you know and trust, such as your coach or horsey friends, for their recommendations on the best saddles or saddle fitters. Once you have received the recommendations, it is then in your best interest to complete some research on the recommendation you have been given, to gauge the suitability for your purposes. A good saddle fitter will be able to provide the best analysis on the brand of saddle that is most appropriate for yourself and your horse, as well as fitting it correctly to your horse’s body.

The Importance of a Dressage Saddle That Suits A Rider’s Shape

Just like horses, we are all built in different shapes and sizes. Dressage saddles are designed to place a rider in the general riding position: ear, shoulder, hip and heel all in line. This optimises the rider’s ability to influence the horse, while maintaining the best posture in their own body. One type of saddle may revolutionize one person’s comfort and stunt another’s performance. Hence, why it is so crucial to understand what sort of saddle your body shape requires. Some of the factors that may affect a Dressage saddle’s suitability for a rider include:

  • Rider’s Length of Leg. This may affect the seat length, the type of knee roll and the length of the knee roll. A rider with longer legs will require a longer seat, regardless of how slim or large they are, to allow the angles of their legs to comfortably fit into the saddle. Riders with longer legs may also require a shorter knee roll with a more open angle, to allow the hip flexors to relax into the saddle.
  • Seat Bone Width. This will affect how you sit into the saddle and what parts of you actually sit on the saddle. In the saddle, you should have a “three-plug” position, like an electrical plug connecting into a power point. Both your seat bones and your crotch must have even, comfortable contact with the saddle. Your seat bones must be able to support you up off the saddle, to prevent any of the “important bits”, as they say, becoming squashed. On average, men’s seat bones are usually between six and sixteen centimetres wide, meaning that they may not need a wide seat. Women, on the other hand, tend to have wide hips and therefore, their seat bones are wider apart, between nine and seventeen centimetres apart. The wider the seat bones, the wider the seat required.
  • Thigh Length. A rider with longer thighs may need a more forgiving saddle length and knee roll, no matter the size of their seat. As they have long thighs, they may require more space to accommodate the severer angles. While a rider with short thighs may require a more contained seat length and knee rolls that are straighter, to ensure they are providing the most support.

Features of the Dressage Saddle to Assess

Some of the things to consider when choosing a Dressage saddle for yourself include:

  • Seat Twist and Width. The twist is the point where the saddle is narrowest. When choosing your saddle, you need to take into consideration the width of your hips.
  • Saddle Balance. Is the lowest point on your saddle the centre of the seat? If not, your saddle will constantly be causing you to fall too far forward or too far back, compromising the correct rider position.
  • Knee Rolls. This part of the saddle plays a massive part in rider comfort and position. A knee roll that is too straight for someone with long thighs, will cause hip flexor pain as there is no room for the length of the thigh. A knee roll that is too long or angled for someone with a short thigh will allow too much space, causing the rider to constantly be searching for purchase. You must choose a knee roll that allows room for your leg to sit comfortably but is close enough to give support.

Overall, you must listen to your horse! Your horse’s body language and behaviour will give you a good indication of whether they are comfortable in a saddle. Sudden naughty behaviour can indicate an ill-fitting saddle and an improvement in performance can indicate that you have found the correct saddle for your horse.

Written by Tanisha Ryan


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