Saddles                                                             Copyright Unicorn Leather Saddlery 2012 ©



A bit about having a new one fitted and the procedures that are involved if you are not sure what to expect?

This article is a general guide and please remember Saddlers and Saddle fitters vary in their methods but the method used below has been tried and tested over nearly 30 years I have been in the trade, it is my own style BUT it works.

This article refers to treed saddles with or without interchangable gullet plates and with flocked panels but can be used and adapted as a guide for Cair, Flair and Foam panels too.

Some of the information in this article can be applied to secondhand saddles too but more and more modern Saddle Fitters now adjust secondhand saddles to fit the width of the horse's wither profile using a machine to force it into the desired width/shape. It is mostly but not always performed on site and it goes completely against the grain of what I was taught 30 years ago that a fixed beechwood tree is simply that, FIXED. Plastic trees can be manipulated into a different width as in when you put a different gullet plate in an interchangable saddle tree but I certainly wouldn't put any saddle in a press as done too many times it can and does weaken the tree.It's certainly something I would never get involved in so you will never find me advising any of you to have it done, choice is yours. Here is a link to an indepth  ARTICLE about adjusting the tree and it is something to consider before you have your saddle adjusted.

Regarding adjusting saddles in this way and the use of thick correction pads etc I feel like as with all saddlery today it's a quick fix and saves people having to spend out on new saddles when their current one doesn't fit any more. Sadly the truth is, we have come so far away from traditional saddlery or traditional everything in life really, that we have lost sight of what it's all about and now it's cheap, quick and make as much profit at any costs (often at the expense of safety).


Before you book your Saddler or Fitter ask them if they template the horse before they fit the new saddle and that you will want a copy, if they don’t or won’t do this take my advice and go elsewhere. Without going in to details, you may be pleased you did.



A little background on sizes and styles of saddle trees.


The sizes narrow, narrow/medium, medium, medium/wide etc covers a multitude of sins and it seems the saddle tree manufacturers are just trying to confuse everyone!

In my day (when I first trained in 1987-88) we had narrow, medium or wide and just 3 main tree makers in Walsall and that was it, get on with it and NO synthetics or treeless what so ever!

Also, each tree maker today has their own idea of width and styles, so what fits in one make as a wide sloping head will be medium/wide cut back head in another make!!!!

It’s enough to make your hair drop out.

The shape/style of the head of the tree has as much an influence on whether the saddle fits or not as its width.

There’s no such thing as a saddle that’s fits all in my opinion despite what the makers and retailers claim. 

Another point I must make about measuring saddles is measuring dee ring (fall down staples) to dee ring really has no bearing on the width and I don't know why people do it. The shape and style of the tree's head and the gullet plate as well as the style of panel, amount of wear, the depth and amount of flocking in the panel can be so different from saddle to saddle and what might measure at 10 inches in one style and be classed as wide might be totally different in another style. Each saddler also has different ideas of where the staples or dees should be. So even 2 saddles of the same make and model can be different if made by different people. Even saddles made to templates (tree template for marking where the dee rings go)  may vary slightly when the flock is in the saddle and you won't know which saddles are hand made or bench/massed produced template made so avoid using this method of measuring a saddle or you may be disappointed when it doesn't fit.

It is more a matter of experience and judgement of eye to determine the width IF it isn't marked on the saddle anywhere.


Flocking or adjusting on site is the best method 


It was (was but not now it seems!) customary to fit and flock on site a new saddle at the time of sale AND offer the next flock up free of charge (apart from fuel payment to get there) if sold by the person who is fitting the saddle.

I have fitted and flocked up saddles on site like this since 1988 (now retired from saddle fitting unless badgered by friends to do it), many a time I have had to go back after 3 years or more to give a free flock up as I had promised it. There should be no time limit but usually a saddle will need checking once every 6 months and flocked up once every 12 months depending on usage of course.


Bit about young horses and their first saddle and some of this applies to older unfit horses


Golden rule to remember is you cannot very easily fit a saddle to a “soft” horse, that is any horse of ANY age not in work. But you need a saddle to get the youngster/unfit older horse going and into work don't you?

Catch 22 isn't it!

The skin on unworked horse’s backs will be soft and even the best fitting saddle in the world will gall a horse that’s in a soft condition. Imagine going out to dig your garden over with soft hands, you soon get sore and blistered no matter how fit you are, harden your hands up and you’ll dig till the cows come home with no sore hands!

It’s not rocket science, just apply common sense.




You can use astringent gels rubbed in to their backs to harden the skin up if needs be and use the saddle very little and build up SLOWLY. The old horsemen and grooms of yesteryear used to use hessian sacks full of damp/wet straw and rub/pat the horse’s backs to harden it up (strapping).


Also to take into consideration is if the horse is young the chances are the horse will muscle up and change shape remarkably in the next 6 months  and the saddle won’t fit after a few months. (This rule also applies to older horses that are unfit and out of work).

Taking this into account when buying brand new saddles for youngsters, allow at least until 6 years of age (more for some natives, up to 8 years old) for the horse to sort itself out and balance up. If you need a new or first saddle for your youngster or older unfit horse consider a well fitting secondhand saddle that can bring them into work, you may have to have it flocked up every couple of months or so and even sell on for another after 3-4 months when your horse has grown out of it. Some adjustable gulleted saddles work but not always, remember that they don’t fit ALL types only some.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend the owners to buy a new expensive saddle for a youngster, they will be having to sell it later for another new one!

Like growing children with clothes, ask any Mum, they grow out of them time and time again!


Conformation of young horses 


I find as a rule the youngster will over develop around the trapezius muscle (end of shoulder blade-scapula) often due to being on the forehand or croup high or both. They are stuck in front wheel drive so to speak when you need 4x4!

This plays havoc with the fitting on the front arch. I usually fit a wider saddle than the width of their withers requires and flock up as much as I can retaining the softness in the panel, it doesn’t need to be too firm and even use a soft wither pad to gain the extra height up off the horse. This allows freedom of movement around the trapezius and helps the rhomboids develop unimpeded. If you have a saddle the "correct" width at this stage on a horse with over developed trapezius muscles it will impede the shoulder blade and cause possible pinching in that area, resulting in possible muscle wastage, sores or bald spots as the blood flow is decreased through pressure.


With the correctly fitted saddle the horse will eventually, through correct schooling, bring it’s hocks up under itself to balance it up. This brings the topline up, the trapezius drops down back to a normal acceptable  size and everyone’s happy, especially your horse and your pocket as you don't have to spend a small fortune on pads, physios,vets  and therapy for your nerves!

With this seemingly miracle transformation in shape which can take several months or even a few years, you can now start to think about that brand new expensive saddle that you shouldn't have to keep selling on  (unless you have a  horse  that drops/gains weight easily). 


The fitting


Hopefully the saddler/fitter will be armed with as much information about your horse and you as possible before they come to see you to narrow things down a little, this allows them to bring what they think “might” fit rather than go in blind. On arrival at your yard, the saddler or fitter should take a template of your horse’s profile for reference, that includes the width and length/height of the withers.

They should date it, mark nearside and offside and sign it, I make 2 copies and leave one with the customer in case of any discrepancies later down the line. It is good practice, shows you are sincere as a professional and protects the saddler and customer from litigation in the event of any doubts on the fit. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A COPY and SIGNED by the fitter/saddler, this is VERY important!

Once the template is out of the way if they haven’t already got the information required from you they will need to ask lots of questions to build up a picture of the type of saddle and size that may suit you and your horse.

They will need the age, sex, breed or type of horse, it’s current level of work and what sort of work is the horse going to be used for now and in the future. Any injuries, habits or traits, past or present that may affect the movement of the horse and the fitting of the saddle.

They will need to know about you, your weight, age, height, abilities as a rider (which they can determine when they see you ride), your femur length is good to have too to see what length saddle seat and style of flaps would suit your build.



The person fitting the saddle will determine amongst other things if the head is the correct shape for the horses wither profile, whether the head is the correct width at the gullet for the withers and whether the length corresponds to the length of ribcage available.

Your new saddle should be under flocked so it will sit lower on the horse than normal, when it is flocked up to fit, it will be higher off the horse. This is normal.

The person should fit the saddle to your horse without any remedial pad (that's how I was trained to do it), saddlecloth or numnah, this is so they can get a accurate picture of how the saddle fits once offered up to the horse’s back.

First they may try the saddle with no girth, just briefly, then lightly girthed up to hold the saddle in place securely in case the horse moves unexpectedly and displaces the saddle. No Saddler or owner wants to see a £1500 saddle laying on the ground getting stood on, that’s enough to make grown men cry!

Once they are happy with the fit,  the saddle needs to be girthed up properly, I usually get the usual rider to do this as we all girth up differently and I won’t be the one riding, it’s a good time to advise the rider if their technique puts the saddle or the girth in the wrong place.

The Saddler or fitter will need to take a measurement without any rider on board and then another measurement with the rider on board to compare the readings and with the horse standing as square as possible on level ground. It helps determine how much they need to flock the saddle up and if they have the depth of panel required to do so. Once they have flocked up the saddle it will need to be tried out properly,as I mentioned earlier all new saddles whether cheap and cheerful or top of the range expensive SHOULD come under flocked. This is to allow not only the ease of lacing in the panel at time of manufacture but to enable the saddler to flock that saddle to the exact profile of the horse’s back, most horses in work muscle up more on one side than the other (usually more on the nearside especially around the trapezius muscle) and saddlers will flock up the saddle with this in mind, to balance the saddle correctly. A saddle merely slapped on a horse, then sold as seen and not flocked up or tried out properly is asking for trouble!

I won’t go into precise details of how to fit a saddle as this is an experienced Saddler’s or Saddle Fitter’s job and you have enough info here to allow you to understand what’s going on but whoever fits your saddle will need to see the rider on the saddle at various paces after it’s been flocked to the horse’s profile and the flock adjusted as necessary if needs be.


Bit about Saddler's and Saddle Fitters

Regarding saddle fitters we recommend they should be suitably trained to be able to offer a flocking on site service as they can keep offering the saddle up to the horse to get the exact fit, which is far more accurate. Traditionally trained Saddler’s will know how to flock on site as they are trained to manufacture, repair, design and fit all Saddlery and Lorinery, that includes all bridlework, traditional treed saddles, rugs, bits, spurs, numnahs, horse boots etc and have an in-depth knowledge of Saddlery manufacture including materials sciences, something saddle fitters don’t always have.

It is up to the customer to employ the services of a suitably experienced saddler or saddle fitter just because someone has a certificate or a qualification doesn’t mean they have the experience to fit saddles or saddlery correctly!



All the information within this article is the copyright of Unicorn Leather Saddlery and is my own opinion and method of work, it is not necessarily how others work.