WithersIdeally, the withers of the horse are level with, or a little above, the highest point of the rump (or croup). Withers that are higher or lower than this would need special consideration when choosing a saddle.
To check the clearance at the withers, place your hand on edge and slide your fingers between the withers and the gullet (with no saddle pad). You should be able to place between 2 and 4 stacked fingers into this space. (Guide's note: this clearance should be checked while mounted as well.)
ShouldersLarge shouldered horses can be constricted by a saddle with a bar width and angle that is too narrow with the saddle forcing the shoulders against the saddle tree bars. On a thin-shouldered horse, a saddle that's too wide can ride forward onto the shoulder blades causing discomfort and restricting movement.
To check the shoulder clearance, slide your hand between the fleece lining of the saddle and the horse's shoulder (with a saddle pad). Your hand should be able to slide in easily. Ideally, you should also be able to do this with a rider in the saddle.
Spine/BackA horse that has an overly narrow, or conversely, an overly flat back, can find certain saddles to be uncomfortable. A horse whose back is "downhill," with his rump higher than his withers, can end up with the saddle slipping forward causing soreness.
Saddles are designed with a gullet channel (the open space between the bars) that is intended to bridge the spine. A saddle that's too wide for a horse can result in weight being placed directly on the spine. Sweat marks are a good way to tell if your saddle is placing weight on your horse's spine. When you take your saddle off, the entire spine should be dry.
Point of Hip/LoinsHorses with shorter than average backs can find the saddle's skirts digging into their loins. The skirt should follow the contour of the horse's back and not extend past the horse's loins. With short-backed horses, a round skirt will be the best choice.
When assessing saddle fit, start by evaluating how the saddle relates to each of these four critical points of the horse's anatomy.
Beth Stefani is the publisher of the Western-Saddle-Guide.com. Whether you're just starting out with horses or a seasoned horseman, the Western Saddle Guide provides all the information you need to understand, choose, and care for the saddle that's right for you.