4 Simple Questions To Use To Find A Good Saddle Fitter (And how to avoid the many bad saddle fitters out there).

By , May 11, 2015 2:26 pm

This weekend the German horse trainer Isabell Brenner flew into Ireland from Germany for a 3 day clinic. We had six horses and riders and over the course of the weekend in Tipperary we learned lots, from improving feel, timing and balance, to groundwork, balanced circles, lateral work, yields, rollbacks, ridden work, bridling and hackamore fitting and dressage. As a teacher, Isi was really easy to understand, really sympathetic and supportive and lovely to learn from.

By the end of day one, Isi had seen a worrying problem in most horse and rider pairs. Most of the saddles didn’t fit correctly.

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On day two, Isi did a saddle fit session with a volunteer horse, and found a lot of issues with the saddle fit. Then we all got a bit worried and asked Isi to look at our saddles too. The last thing anyone wanted was a saddle that was causing our horse any pain. She found lots of problems! Here are some examples.

My horse: I had an expensive dressage saddle. I bought this myself and got a saddle fitter out to check it. The saddle fitter said it was fine. In reality, the saddle was a little too narrow, and was pinching Ozzie around his withers / upper shoulders. Even though I’d only used it 3 times in the last 6 weeks, Oz was now sore at his withers area, uneasy standing at the mounting block and he knew when I mounted it would be sore, had two really tight shoulders as a result and had started to rest a front leg (not good) and was getting worried when I dismounted. To say I was angry was an understatement. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt my horse with saddles I thought were ok. So now I have no saddle, the physio came up to fix Oz, and he’s on a few days rest and should be ok.

Isi also looked at my previous dressage saddle. A different saddle fitter sold it to me and told me it was fine. It was actually more narrow and worse!

Horse #2: Saddle approved by a third Irish saddle fitter. The saddle didn’t fit the horse. The lowest part of the seat of the saddle was too far back. So the rider was sitting too far back because of this (like in a chair position), putting their weight on an area of the horses back that wasn’t as strong. So the horse’s back was sore, even though the horse was tolerating the pain and not showing any unwanted behavior.

Horse #3: Saddle was incredibly wide, and much too wide for the horse it was put on. It didn’t protect the horses back at all and it was just lucky the rider was light and didn’t do a lot of riding each week, or the horse would have definitely got to the stage of bucking her off.

Horse #4: Saddle was completely the wrong shape and was sliding around on the young horse. If much riding had been done on this horse, the saddle would have slipped to one side and potentially lead to a very dangerous riding situation.

Horse #5: Lowest part of saddle seat not where it should be, but the saddle can probably be adjusted a bit to make it fit ok, so this was the best one of the lot in terms of fitting ok.

Horse #6: This young horse was wearing a GP saddle that had been used on other horses. It wasn’t checked by a saddle fitter. The saddle design made the rider sit very far back on the horse, putting their weight on the wrong part of the horses back, which was now quite sore. Rider had noticed in recent past horse wasn’t quite as relaxed standing at mounting black as she had been in the past. Horse had to get a physio session. This saddle will not be good on any horse as it’ll always seat the rider too far back.

What a total disaster!!!

From this list of badly fitting saddles, and feedback one other lady in our group, I now had a list of saddle fitters in Ireland who I personally would never let near my horse, because I’ve just seen the damage thats occurred.

Friends in the UK & Germany have also told me that that this is a BIG issue in those countries as well. There are a good few saddle fitters. But trying to find a saddle fitter who could do their job correctly was turning out to be a very difficult task.

But there was no way on earth I will be putting a saddle which doesn’t fit on my horse again, so my next task was to find a GOOD saddle fitter who can do what they should be able to do.

But how do you know who is actually a good saddle fitter?

STAGE 1:Watch these 9 short videos about saddle fit. They are really interesting and easy to understand.

STAGE 2: Email / contact your horse friends and ask them if they have ever had saddle fit issues, as confirmed by pain / unwanted horse behaviour / vet / physio, and who was the saddler involved. Then cross those people off your potential list. So that was 4 saddle fit people I couldn’t use, based on the horses I’d just seen.

STAGE 3: Don’t ask your friends / facebook for advice for good fitters. Your friend may have got a lovely friendly saddle fitter to fit a really comfortable saddle for their horse. And it’s a beautiful looking saddle. And the saddle fitter told them their horse was really pretty. But that does not mean the saddle fits their horse. And it’s likely your friend does not know if they have a saddle fit issue yet. A lot of people are unaware of this problem, unless it becomes something major and changes their horses behaviour in a significant way.

STAGE 4: Interview a minimum of 5 saddle fitters on the phone. Phone is much better than email as you can get more indepth and accurate answers, good or bad, in my experience and will make it easier for you to make an informed decision. At the start, if they talk more about having the saddle fit you, rather than your horse, say thank you & politely end the conversation. They’re not right for you & your horse. Otherwise ask them 4 specific questions:

1) Where on the horse’s back should the riders weight should be placed, and what would be the reason for this?
2) What is the best length for the saddle, and whats the reason for this proposed length?
3) How do you check if a saddle is too narrow?
4) What saddle fit qualifications do you have?

If they don’t know the answers, it’s not a problem. Just thank them for their time & then move onto teh next saddle fitter on your list.

Saddle fitter #5 was nice but couldn’t answer my questions on the phone to the detail that I was looking for so she was off the list.

Then I rang the 6th saddle fitter on my list. Things changed a little.

Here are the answers I got which corresponded very closely to what we had learned from Isi this weekend.

1) Where on the horse’s back should the riders weight should be placed, and what would be the reason for this?

The weight should be in the middle in between the withers and the end of the ribs. (Isi said at the 13th vertabrae). When I pushed him on a vertabrae number, it said it really depends on the horses back shape… eg. If you horse was sway backed it’d influence it a little. He also said that a lot of saddles have this low point a little too far back. Sometimes saddles like the Albion have a good knee roll and then this pushes the saddle back a little. So while its built to make the rider feel very secure (so people like them and buy them), it’s actually isn’t always great for the horse.

2) What is the best length for the saddle, and whats the reason for this proposed length?

There should be no weight on your horses back after the last rib. Any weight after this can’t be supported and is definitely going to hurt your horse. So you do not want a saddle to be too long for you horse! This saddle fitter gave me the same answer, no weight to be put after the last rib as it will cause soreness. Some horses have saddles that are too long.

3) How do you check if a saddle is too narrow?

So the fitter said you check this both at halt and at walk. I pushed him to explain exactly how you would check this at walk (as this was my horses problem). He said that while the rider is riding at walk, the saddle fitter should walk beside and be able to slide his hand in between horse & saddle, below the withers where the saddle starts going down the horses shoulder. This matched exactly with what Isi said should be done. Neither of my two saddle fitters did this when they checked my 2 saddles!

4) What saddle fit qualifications do you have?

So the fitters answer was none. But then he explained that to be a part of the society of master saddlers (co.uk) all you have to do is a 3 day course, which doesn’t cover reflocking, and just a three day course is not going to get you to be able to fit a saddle properly. Certainly I’d want someone with more proof than a 3 day course.

I chatted to him for over an hour, pretty much grilled him on everything I could think of, and he was the first person to inspire hope in me that he might actually be able to fit a saddle correctly.

STAGE 5: I am going to keep his name a secret for now, and get him to visit my horse in about a week and see how that goes. He has said he has a few (but not many) dressage saddles in stock, he can see if my saddle is in any way fixable, and he also makes saddles of all sorts from scratch.

I will keep you posted and if all works out ok, I will share his name and details here in a few weeks.

The moral of the story:

  • There’s about a 95% chance your saddle does not fit your horse. Even if people have told you it does.
  • Finding a good saddle fitter is very difficult. Being well known, having a big tack shop, having a small tack shop, or not being very well known at all – none of these attributes can be assumed to validate the expertise of a potential saddle fitter for your horse. In my experience they have no relevance concerning the quality of the saddle fitters work.
  • There are saddle fitters out there who get stuff wrong and can lead you into trouble and are a waste of your time and money
  • I’d advise you to get a physio out to check your horse for pain immediately. You should get one out once a year anyway.
  • I suspect this is not only an Irish problem. Test out your own saddle fitter by asking them these questions. If you can’t get specific answers, consider getting a new saddle fitter. If you do get these answers, when they visit your horse ask them to show you where the ribs end, how do you feel this, where on horses back is strongest and how they figured it out… keep asking why!
  • Bad saddle fit is very painful for your horse

    Saddle fitter #7: Got a short email reply from another saddle fitter. Its a no. So now the stats are 1 saddle fitter who could answer my queries / hasn’t caused a horse pain, out of 7 saddle fitters on my list! And I’ve covered the 4 provinces of Ireland now! Note – I should have phoned them to get a better insight.

    Saddle fitter #8: Got a good thoughtful email back which was appreciated, but I just didn’t get the detailed info I was looking for. So its a no. Note – I should have phoned them to get a better insight.

    Saddle fitter #9: Puts more thought into saddle fitting the rider, rather than the horse. So its also a no unfortunately.

    Saddle fitter #10: No reply.

    Saddle fitter #11: Doesn’t visit Ireland.

    Thank you to everyone who has contacted me with your saddle fit stories – It looks like sadly a lot of us have the same issues. Lack of accurate & correct saddle fit knowledge seems to be a major problem in Ireland right now.

    Isi is coming back in Sep 2015, so hopefully we’ll all have different saddles by then that fit!

    You can read the full clinic report here.


    After all the drama, saddle fitter #6 visited me & Oz on Saturday and we spent 3 hours looking at various saddles.

    First we went through my 2 saddles that had caused Oz pain and we found even more things wrong with them. We ended up going through 4 saddles, and looking at good points and bad points in each of them, and then comparing the saddles to each other.

    My two existing saddles were very narrow. They didn’t at match my horses shoulder shape AT ALL!

    Saddle Fitter #6 had brought along 2 dressage saddles, so we looked at those too. One was a very expensive brand and it was too narrow.

    The second saddle was much wider. We went through about 15 points on this, and it got mainly a thumbs up. The things which were not quite 100% were:

    1) Length – still a little too long for my liking
    2) Saddle flaps – a little too long for my short legs
    3) Girth straps – not the configuration Ozzie needs, but if everything else was ok these can be adjusted.

    Saddle Fitter #6 said then that he would give me the saddle for a LOAN FOR A WEEK to try out. He said there’s no point buying a saddle, without trying it out doing what you normally do – whether its hunting, dressage, jumping, whatever. That sounded great to me as I didn’t want to get this decision wrong again.

    So I took it for a week. What happened is that my horse is SO MUCH HAPPIER!!

    – I used to get bracing and an upset horse when I asked for trot or canter.
    – In the past Ozzie used to try and bite my feet / girth
    – In the past Ozzie’s stride was ok, but it wasn’t long
    – This week my horse was happy and comfortable!! He is offering to trot by himself!! Without me even asking!
    – No biting, head shaking or bracing, it all seems to have gone!
    – I am getting this amazing ground covering walk and lovey trot, now that Ozzie can move his shoulders again in this new wider saddle!!

    For now what I can say is that saddle fitter #6 is MILES ahead of any other saddle fitters I have tried in terms of knowledge. This saddle is definitely 90% there and its sooo much better on my horse. I’m going to keep looking as I need one that is 100% but I am so happy I seem to have found a saddle fitter who knows his job, cares about getting the fit right and isn’t just trying to sell me the most expensive, inappropiate saddle in his shop.

    I can advise you that most saddle fitters (9 or 10 at this stage) I would not let with 5 miles of my horse again. And I have tried them from many counties in Ireland, many with names that you would recognise. This one saddle fitter, is the only one who I would try out as an option. His name is Phil Richardson from Cork. He repairs, sells and makes saddles.

    If you are stuck and would like Phils contact info email me chocolatelabhelp AT gmail DOT com. But remember – this is not a 100% endorsement from me, you must do you homework as well, starting with watching those 9 short videos.

    If you live miles away he’ll travel if you get a few people together. Maybe a good event for your local riding club to organise?

    A saddle that fits will LITERALLY CHANGE your riding and your horses comfort and happiness. And right now, based on what I’ve seen, 90-95% of saddles do not fit.

    I dropped back the trial saddle to Phil a few days ago so he will keep an eye out if he sees another saddle that might work for my horse. We spent about hour or two looking at all his saddles & talking about more things to watch out for in saddle construction, in terms of finish & symmetry.

    One friend of mine ended up riding without a saddle for 2 years because she couldn’t find one that fits.

    In the meantime I’ve happily riding in a lovely Grandeur bareback pad which my horse seems to also love.

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