I don’t know about the rest of you, but saddle fit did not really come upon my radar until the last five years or so. I had an old English saddle that one of my friends in college gave me out of the trunk of her car 30 years ago, a western saddle that was comfortable for me, but disposable enough for starting horses, a Dressage saddle I traded some work for, and a nicer western saddle I used to compete Versatility Ranch Horse in. When Andrew bought me that last one as a surprise, we just assumed it would fit the average Quarter Horse, and it seemed to as far as we knew.

However, as I started riding my horse several times a week and asking her to use her body in higher levels of Dressage and jumping, I was suddenly thrust into learning a lot more about saddle fit when she started showing some back soreness.

“With each saddle, she narrowed down what my horse liked.”

A few years before this, I had a professional saddle fitter, who worked for one respected saddle brand, find us a jumping and a Dressage saddle, with 6- to12-month saddle fit followups. I believed we were going in a good direction for my horse and felt that I could say I had done all I could to get the saddle fit right.

When the back soreness came up, I didn’t think it could be the saddles because that question was addressed, so I moved on to other possible causes. After a while, I was led back to the saddle fit question when she presented sore over her withers and along her back to her tail.

I was ready for a second opinion on my saddles. A friend of mine had just found a saddle for a hard to fit horse with the help of her friend and mountain area resident, Tammy Donaldson, of Evolved Equine Consulting. Tammy McCormick Donaldson, M.S., Ph.D., CAAB, CHBC, received her BS in psychology at Iowa State University, and then went on to pursue graduate degrees in animal behavior at Washington State University, also training in clinical animal behavior at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital Behavior Clinic. She has been a certified applied animal behaviorist since 2003. Tammy has also received additional certification from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants as a horse behavior consultant. For the last three years, Tammy has been intensively studying and researching saddle fit in horses and its impact on behavior. She recently completed the courses required for certification in fit and construction at The Society of Master Saddlers in Walsall, England, and studied saddle construction and design at Ryder Saddlery, also in Walsall, in addition to saddle repair at The North American Saddlery School.

I found the behavioral approach an appealing angle and I also was pleased to know that Tammy does not represent any certain saddle brand, but looks for the best fit for the horse, whether you ride in a western or English saddle.

Tammy (right) helping a horse and its person.

Tammy started with an examination of my horse’s conformation, saddle area, and then took measurements from the withers to the croup and all down the sides to the girth area. She made a template of my horse’s withers to determine tree size. It is important to mention that a horse’s back can change throughout the year with exercise and growth, especially for younger horses. She evaluated the saddles I currently had and easily pointed out why they were not a good fit. In a nutshell, my Dressage saddle had too narrow of a tree (sore withers) and the angle of the bars, the part that rests on her back below the rider, was at a different angle than her back—resulting in one small side of the bar itself making contact with her back. My jumping saddle was also too narrow, and the bars were of a shape that did not support her back. Basically, I could see why neither of them had ever truly fit, but they were perhaps just the best choice of fit out of the single brand selection the initial saddle fitter had from her company.

Once Tammy knew the shape and conformation of my horse’s back, she used her broad knowledge of different saddle types, trees and brands to find several saddles to try. With each saddle, she narrowed down what my horse liked. In English saddles, the points are at the front of the saddle and extend along each side of the wither. Saddles have long or short points. My horse unequivocally preferred the long points. You would set a saddle on her back with short points, and she would immediately pin her ears. Set a long point saddle on her back and she just stood quietly. It is a fascinating process to pay attention to the horse and how much information they really give you. This is where Tammy’s expertise in horse behavior really pairs incredibly well with saddle fit! If a saddle looked to have good potential, I rode in it in a collected and loose rein in both directions with Tammy watching behavior and gait differences. We then put a pressure mat under the saddle that seemed to be the best fit to evaluate how the saddle was sitting on her back, not to mention the seat of the rider (who was a little heavier on the left!).

When Tammy did her initial exam, my horse reacted negatively to both sides at her midline where the girth would sit. This turned out to be the result of the girth that I had, which was ergonomically shaped and had an elastic area (not touching her, but behind a leather panel) to supposedly be more comfortable for her. I had fallen victim to advertising that the popular girth brand was better for my horse, where it was literally pinching her! Tammy had seen studies where ergonomically shaped girths apply straight pressure from one side of the billets to the other, resulting in twisting and in a smaller contact surface area at the midline where the girth is curved.

Once we narrowed our selection and did some short trials with saddles, I took one on a longer trail ride. After the trail ride, my horse was a touch sore to palpation on the right side behind the wither, and you could see another spot on the right that had a small rub area under the saddle pad. The next saddle we tried was a success and has continued to be a great fit. It was a demo saddle Tammy found from a saddle maker and was reasonably priced.

Because of the girth pinching and prolonged use of an ill-fitting saddle, my horse had developed conditioned responses to saddles and girths. With her extensive training background, Tammy taught me some reward-based training techniques to work her out of those conditioned responses. If she was truly still experiencing pain, the training would not get rid of the response.

My observations and retelling of my experience are certainly an oversimplification of the method and thoroughness of Tammy’s process. Tammy’s true passion is to help horses be more comfortable as well as help their owners make informed choices. Whether you are an occasional trail rider or a high level competitor, her fees are well worth the investment and are customized to your needs. 

Does your horse exhibit behaviors around saddling? Are they cinchy? Girthy? Do you have an unknown block in your riding, training or progression? It could be the saddle! The more I have learned through this process, the more crucial I have realized that saddle fit really is. To contact Tammy for saddle fitting or behavioral training, go to evolvedequineconsulting.com

Heather McWilliams © 2023