Not every saddle, bridle or bit fits every horse or rider.
A professional fitter can help you choose the right gear. By knowing a few things about it yourself, you can have a functional conversation with a professional about what options you have. It also helps you understand what makes a good saddle- or bitfitter.
- A normal saddle fitting session
- Some things that should be considered when choosing a bit
- What should you consider when fitting a bridle?
- Videos about recognizing lameness and pain under saddle
Saddles must be fitted not only to the rider, but to the horse as well. Ill fitted saddles are associated with pressure sores, muscle aches, poor performance, back issues and lameness. When having a saddle fitted, it is important to find a person with solid knowledge and experience, and enough saddle options to cater to your horses’ needs without cutting corners. It pays to find someone who doesn’t depend on a certain brand, to increase the likelyhood of them being more objective in their advice.
- Discussing the use of the horse (dressage, jumping, recreational, endurance, western, etc), the stage of training, the age, etc.
- Assessment of the horses’ back for shape, symmetry, muscle consistency (and issues with either) and mobility
- Assessment of the rider’s required seat size and posture (and postural issues)
- Selecting a variety of saddles to be fitted based upon the rider’s wishes and the horse's back
- Assessment of the saddle itself:
- Is the type correct for the purpose? (western, dressage, allround, close-contact, show-jumping, endurance, etc)
- Is the padding too hard, too soft or uneven?
- Is the saddle symmetrical?
- Evaluate its design (shape, materials, etc.)
- Assessment of the saddle on the horses’ back, with the horse standing square:
- Does the shape of the tree at the front of the saddle (area of the shoulder, perpendicular to the spine) align with the shape of the shoulder and thorax shape?
- Does the tree give enough room for shoulder movement? When the front leg moves forward, the top of the shoulder blade moves back. The saddle should allow room for this. (Stand in front of the horse, pick up its leg and pull it forward. Let someone feel how far back the shoulderblade goes. When the horse is standing square, usually approx. 3 fingers should fit between where the shoulder blade ends and the tree starts.)
- Does the shape of the tree over the length of the saddle align with the shape of the back? Saddle fitters should use a measuring tool for this (Fig.3, fig.4).
- Does the saddle give enough room to the dorsal processes of the spine over the entire length of the saddle? (width and hight, also check with rider’s weight)
- The saddle should not go further than where the last rib (T18) originates.
Is the saddle balanced (the seat should be balanced horizontal so that it doesn’t tilt your hip the wrong way)
- How should the girth be attached so that the saddle stays in the right place? A girth is usually attached to the middle/front straps, should be directed straight down not at an angle, and goes around the smallest circumference of the horse, which is just behind the elbow. Issues such as a saddle that comes up at the back at the back or that moves off its intended spot are sometimes compensated by adjusting the girth position. However, one should be aware that this may only mask a poorly fitted saddle. There are different types of girths. Different materials, different shapes, different lengths, etc. The girth can make a significant difference in the horses’ comfort and movement.
- Assessment of the saddle during use:
- How does the saddle influence the rider’s seat?
- Does it stay in place on the horse during movement? (it shouldn’t flap, come up at the back, rub, slide, move from its intended spot, etc.)
- How does the horse react to the saddle? How are its shoulder, back and hind movements?
- Final check after riding
- How do the back muscles feel?
- During a saddle fitting session horses are usually not exercised until they sweat, but in the first period after purchse, the pattern of sweat after exercise is worth checking. Lack of sweat in a specific spot can either indicate lack of contact between the saddle and back, or a pressure point. This will also depend on whether the horse is able to use its back properly, which depends on the rider’s skills and whether the horse has any musculoskeletal issues
- The size of the bit should be chosen so that it fits the mouth of the horse. Some horses have a very “fleshy” mouth, meaning that the soft palate hangs low, the tongue occupies a lot of space, etc. so that there’s not a lot of room for a bit. Other horses have more space in their mouth to accommodate a bigger bit. The diameter of the bit should not be too big for the horses’ mouth, because it should not press into the soft tissues. It should be free and easy to move around.
- The rider’s hands and seat should also be considered when choosing the diameter of the bit. A rider should have an independent seat so that the hands can work independently and not pull the reins with every step. A rider may have very “soft” hands (the effect of the hands on the reins, bit and mouth is soft) or “hard” (pulling hard or abrupt pressure). A thin bit is only suitable for a rider that has an independent seat and soft hands. A thick bit spreads the pressure over a bigger surface area, so that it’s more tolerated. If a rider’s seat is not independent yet, training the rider on a lunge-line without rains should be the first step. If a rider has hard hands, the effect in the mouth may be reduced by using a rubber bit.
- The length of the bit should be chosen so that the bit doesn’t stick out the sides too far. Up to half a centimetre should be enough on either side.
- The mouthpiece can be made out of one, two or several pieces (single or double jointed mouthpiece). The joints of the mouthpiece can have different designs which all affect the way that the bit moves inside the mouth and how much it presses into the soft tissues. In double jointed mouthpieces, special attention should be made to finding the right size for the middle piece to prevent the joints from damaging the bars (= the toothless area in the horses’ mouth).
- A bit may have a roller or other moveable parts that stimulates a horse to play with the bit. It can however also make some horses unsettled, just like some horses may feel too unstable on a bit that has several hinges. Some horses like a lot of movement in their mouth, while others don’t.
- The rings on the side of the bit make a big difference as well. A round “O-ring” that slides through the mouthpiece gives the horse more freedom. When the rein is picked up the rings can slide through the bit. A “D-ring” is fixed to the bit and therefore doesn’t slide through the bit when the rein is picked up and is therefore more persuasive. A loose O-ring is thought to give a horse an early signal that something is going to be asked of him when the rein is being picked up and the ring slides through the bit. This in theory gives the horse more time to respond. With a D-ring, when the rein is moved, it moves the mouthpiece, giving the horse less reaction time. A D-ring can also have certain fixed spots for rein attachment. The rein can therefore be attached low on the ring, which means that when the rein is picked up it rotates the bit and encourages the horse to tuck its nose in. A bit may have a shank, which is an extension of the bit rings, which reins attach to. This gives the bit a levering effect, which means that the pressure that’s applied to the mouth is higher than with a non-levering bit. This means that such a bit can damage more easily than a non-levering bit. The rider’s riding capabilities are of paramount importance. When such a bit is used, the rider should always have very soft and independently working hands that never apply too much pressure. A levering bit should not be used to try to compensate for a horse that’s not responsive enough to other bits. A horses’ response to the bit depends on the rider’s hands and ability to train the horse. Such an issue should be resolved without the use of “harsher” bits.
- If a horse tends to pull the bit sideways through its mouth, rubber bit rings may help to prevent this. These rings are placed on either side of the mouthpiece and prevent the bit rings from being pulled into the mouth.
- There are also various bitless bridles available. Some examples: the sidepull bridle, the Hackamore bridle, the cross-under bridle, Rambo Micklem Multi bridle, Bosal, etc.
- When a bit is poorly fitted it may suppress tongue movement. The tongue is a muscle that’s connected to the tongue bones. These are connected to other muscles that run to the neck and the sternum. When this chain of muscles tightens, it can influence the horses’ posture and movement.
- First, a bridle should be the right size.
- There are different kinds of nose bands. A “drop” or “Hanoverian” noseband sits below the bit. A “cavesson” noseband sits above the bit, a few centimetres below the cheekbone. A “flash” noseband has a cavesson noseband with a second piece attached to it that goes below the bit. A “crank” noseband looks like a flash noseband, only the strap that goes under the jaw is threaded through the sides and back again so that it sits doubled over and may be closed snuggly. These bridles can easily be abused and come with a risk of pulling the noseband too tight. Always ensure that 2 fingers can fitbetween the noseband and the front of the nose. Read more about crank nosebands and tightness in one of the articles below. In a “figure eight” or “grackle” noseband, the noseband starts above the cheekbone, runs down to cross the nose bridge on a diagonal, extend down below the bit and fastens under the chin. A bitless bridle may have different noseband designs, which the reins attach to. Some examples as mentioned before: the sidepull bridle, the Hackamore bridle, the cross-under bridle, Rambo Micklem Multi bridle, Bosal, etc.
- A noseband should be wide enough, and the material should be supple enough so that it’s comfortable for the horse.
- A noseband should always be adjusted so that it still allows the horse to chew and swallow. A tightly fitted noseband presses the cheeks onto the teeth, which can cause damage. The NZVA also has rules on use of nosebands.
- In an interview with The Horse, researchers explain their results of a study on damage due to nosebands. They explain that “Tight upper nosebands were associated with more lesions at the corners of the lips than looser nosebands. The results support the likely detrimental effects of tight cavesson nosebands and suggest that noseband tightness is related to the presence of lesions and blood at the corners of the lips.” To read the article: https://thehorse.com/158723/bit-noseband-spur-and-whip-lesions-in-competition-horses-studied/
- In an interview with The Horse, researchers explain the results of their study on noseband tightness and stress in ridden horses. They found that as noseband tightness increased, so did horses’ heart rate and eye temperature—two recognized physiological signs of stress. Meanwhile, heart rate variability (HRV) dropped, another known indicator of equine stress. To read the article: https://thehorse.com/17668/study-nosebands-can-cause-horses-stress/
- In an interview with The Horse, researchers present their conclusions on noseband tightness. They explain: Tight nosebands could mask problem behaviour, bad training, and/or pain caused by the bit. Without nosebands, some horses might display undesired behaviour in the show ring such as opening, gaping, and crossing the jaw, resulting in penalties under current dressage rules. The practice of over-tightening nosebands to avoid penalties in competition is covering up poor training at the expense of horse welfare. Dressage rules are designed to "promote excellent training and the demonstration of qualities such as freedom, harmony, lightness, and acceptance of the bit without tension”. Thus, nosebands may hinder effective judging. To read the article: https://thehorse.com/120772/ises-releases-statement-on-noseband-tightness/
You can also watch these interesting videos on Youtube about recognising issues under saddle, explained by one of Britain’s most eminent equine orthopaedic specialists, Dr Sue Dyson. These videos are a valuable learning tool to help riders, owners, trainers and vets to recognise musculoskeletal pain and subtle lameness sooner, to improve the welfare and performance of the ridden horse.
- Recognizing Subtle Lameness - Part One of a Four Part Series
- Diagnosing Subtle Lameness: Part Two of a Four Part Series
- Recognizing Facial Expressions of a Horse in Pain: Part three of a four part series
- Facial Expressions Research - is your horse trying to tell you he's in pain?
- Is your horse in pain? His facial expressions will tell you.