Principles of Saddle Fit – Saddle Length

In this part, we explore why saddle length is an important part of saddle fit.

You may have wondered if your saddle fits correctly, either because you have not yet had a chance to involve a saddle fitter or lack trust in the fitter’s assessment. Unfortunately – some, who bill themselves as “saddle fit professionals” – have misled their customers through incorrect fitting. Saddle Fitting in the US is an industry where there are no certification or licensing requirements. Education can therefore be sketchy or based on a particular brand’s philosophy or even a marketing message.

Armed with some basic saddle fit education, you can better understand your horse’s saddle fit and make more informed choices.

There are five basic principles of saddle fit that we explore in this series:

  1. Balance
  2. Length
  3. Pommel clearance
  4. Panel contact
  5. Gullet clearance

Saddle Length – The ‘Quick & Dirty’

  1. A saddle cannot be too short for a horse, but it can be too short for a rider.
  2. The weight-bearing area of the horse’s back ends at T18 – the last thoracic vertebra.
  3. We must never choose a saddle that places weight beyond T18, even if the rider would require a longer seat.

Saddle Length – Why it matters!

We sit on the horse’s back and our saddle is the ‘interface’ between our body and the horse’s body. To keep our communication with the horse through seat and weight aids clear and friendly, our saddle must be comfortable for the horse and rider and put the rider in a position that most closely aligns with the (somewhat fluid) center of gravity of the horse.

a white thoroughbred horse with an illustration of saddle fit

How does length affect comfort?

From the horse’s perspective, a saddle cannot be too short, only too long. The seat, however, can be too short for a rider. When determining the correct saddle length (and panel shape!) for a new saddle, we ALWAYS consider the horse first.

Example: The horse in our example can accommodate a saddle of no more than 17” seat length (depending on saddle brand, panel shape, etc.). The rider needs a 19” seat.
Conclusion: In this extreme example, the horse cannot accommodate a rider of that size and the horse/rider combination is a mismatch! (An inconvenient and often painful truth to digest…).

If – in this extreme example – the fitter would now choose a saddle that is larger than the horse can accommodate, the horse will have the rider’s weight too far on its back and will be forced to carry the weight with the lumbar region – the weakest part of the horse’s back. Unsoundness, performance, and often behavior issues are the result.

The rider would also sit far behind the horse’s center of gravity and be ‘behind the movement’, making it hard for the rider to balance herself on the horse and therefore causing additional discomfort.

How long is too long?

The ‘weight-bearing area’ of the horse’s back ends at the last thoracic vertebra. This is T18 – the last vertebra that has a rib attached to it. In combination with the rib cage, the thoracic vertebrae provide a relatively stable and strong horizontal structure for us to sit on.

Side note: The horse’s organs that are held up by the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae weigh about 500 pounds in an adult Warmblood! You can imagine that adding another substantial weight to the horse’s back requires careful consideration!

The extension of the thoracic vertebrae are the lumbar vertebrae (just like in us humans). In the horse’s horizontal spine, this is the weakest area of the horse’s back. This is also where a lot of movement happens as it relates to bending and stepping under.

In short: The weight-bearing area of the horse’s back ends with T18. This is NOT NEGOTIABLE!

One of the universally accepted principles of saddle fit, dictated by the horse’s anatomy!

How does panel shape play into saddle length?

There are various types of panels on the market and different manufacturers have different philosophies and preferences. In principle, we can distinguish between two types of saddle panels:

  1. The upswept panel
  2. The extended panel

To simplify this quite complicated topic of panel shape, we can say: An upswept panel will make it easier to fit a ‘short-backed’ horse or to make the most of the horse’s weight-bearing area for a larger rider. It is least likely to interfere with the horse’s movement or place weight on the weaker lumbar. (Note: Some manufacturers will argue with this assessment, however, physics speaks for itself!)

The illustration below shows the weight bearing contact area of a saddle with upswept panels. This example assumes a correctly fitted and flocked saddle at the maximum allowable saddle length for this horse.

Are there saddles that can help a larger rider fit on a short-backed horse?

Yes and No.

NO: In our extreme example, the rider will not find a way to accommodate the horse’s needs. There are ‘marketing messages’ out there, selling saddles on ‘pony length’ trees with large seats to larger riders. This is misleading. While it may look like this works, the weight distribution is much too far behind and concentrated on a small contact area on the horse’s back.

Imagine 100 pounds of body weight bearing down on a block heel of a boot. Now step onto soft, hot asphalt on a summer day. You will not sink in a lot as the weight is distributed.

Now imagine the same scenario with a skinny, pointy penny heel like those found on dress pumps. You will sink in a lot since the weight is concentrated on a small area.

The same physical principle applies to the panel on a saddle and the weight distribution per inch.

YES: If you are looking for moderate accommodation, there are saddles that will optimize the weight-bearing area of a shorter back. Any saddle with an upswept panel is a better choice in this scenario. Special features – like the Queen Special feature by Passier® – can make the saddle more comfortable near the pommel, where many riders feel discomfort if the saddle is slightly shorter than they are used to. You will also want to ensure that the panel has enough surface to distribute the weight as much as possible.

Do you have questions about saddle fit or would like to schedule a saddle fitting session? Please use the contact form on the left.

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