The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

13.10.2022 The influence of saddle fit for the rider

A Guest Blog By Dr Sue Dyson

Sue Dyson

Having recently returned from a fantastic riding safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya, when we were riding for up to 7 hours per day, I thought it was relevant to consider the fit of saddles for riders and the potential importance for rider comfort and their ability to ride in harmony with the horse. My saddle fitted the horse adequately and for once the width of the seat was appropriate for me so my stocks of Compede (blister plasters) were not needed. However, the seat of the saddle tipped backwards. This meant that in trot I had to adapt my upper body posture in a forward direction in order to stay in balance and synchrony with the horse. Fortunately, I have a strong leg position so I could achieve this. Canter was not a problem because I was always in a ‘two-point’ position. I noticed two other riders whose saddles had a similar problem; these riders lacked core strength and they also could not stabilise the position of their legs, so they finished up in a ‘chair seat’ posture, with their legs being too far forwards. They were unable to maintain a two-point position in canter and they complained of early fatigue and generalised muscle ache (maybe they were not fit enough either!).

During my first ride I was aware that my right stirrup leather was longer than my left, but by less than a hole. As a result, I couldn’t sit completely symmetrically particularly in trot and canter, which influenced my ability to stabilise my position, particularly that of my right leg. Before the next day’s much longer ride, I was sure to have an extra hole punched in the tight stirrup leather, which made a huge improvement to my stability. Attention to such details can make an enormous difference to rider comfort and is likely to be of benefit for the horse as well. A rider needs to develop awareness of both their position and ability to move in synchrony with the horse.

Another tall rider, with long leg length relative to her upper body length, complained of developing sore knees. This was not a surprise to me because the size of the seat of the saddle, the position of the bars of the saddle and the shape and length of the saddle flaps were not appropriate for her. As a result, her knees extended beyond the front of the saddle flaps and her weight was concentrated on the back one-third of the saddle. By lengthening her stirrup leathers the rider’s leg position improved to some extent, and as a consequence so did her knee soreness, but in essence the saddle was too small for the rider.

We are all different in our body morphology and size and one size does not fit all when it comes to riders and saddles. Over the years I have ridden many horses in other people’s saddles and realise that the fit of the saddle to the rider can have a huge influence on both rider comfort and effectiveness. I find it very uncomfortable to ride in a so-called deep-seated saddle with a high pommel which results in repeated self-trauma in rising trot. A saddle that fits a rider appropriately should put them in an optimal position to ride comfortably and in balance and harmony with the horse.

I was fortunate enough many years ago to win a Pony Club scholarship for a week’s training with the late Molly Sivewright at Talland School of Equitation. The seat of the saddle which I was assigned was too wide for me, so the seams resulted in the development of severe blisters just below my buttocks. I well remember asking if it was at all possible to use a seat saver, to then be asked how many pairs of knickers I was wearing, to which I replied, rather surprised by the question, only one. I was duly informed that I should be wearing at least two if not three pairs! Despite my continued discomfort I still learnt a lot. However, the experience certainly reinforced to me the importance of a saddle fitting both the horse and a rider. I also now wear knickers that are designed for riders!

There has become a trend for dressage saddles in particular to have large knee and thigh rolls, effectively wedging the rider into a fixed position. This may give the rider a sense of security, but I believe that a rider needs to be able to adapt their position to the circumstances to which they are exposed and some movement of the rider in the saddle is important to allow synchrony of movement with the horse.

I do not believe that a rider can properly assess the suitability of the design, shape and size of a saddle for their intended use without riding in that saddle. Just to sit on the saddle on a saddle horse or on a stationary horse is not sufficient. So, when considering the purchase of a new saddle (genuinely new or second-hand) I think it is of vital importance that the horse is ridden through its normal range of types of work to ensure that both the horse and the rider are comfortable.

There has become an increasing trend for saddles to be purchased online. If you think about the volume of clothes that are purchased online and then returned because they do not fit, how can you possibly think that you can buy a saddle online that is likely to fit both you and your horse?

Finally, we have to bear in mind that if a rider is not comfortable in the saddle and not optimally balanced this is likely to have deleterious consequence for the horse. Optimal saddle fit for both a rider and their horse has to give the horse the greatest opportunity to perform to the best of their ability.

Keep an eye out for my next book, ‘Recognising Pain in Ridden Horses: Performance, Partnership and Potential’, co-authored with Dr Sue Dyson, published by J A Allen, due 2023. Sign up at to be kept up to date with new information as it comes available. Watch a FREE 30 minute documentary on recognising pain in ridden horses here.

Here’s a FREE 30-minute presentation by Sue Palmer on how to recognise pain in your horse.

Other books by Sue Palmer MSc MCSP:

‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’

‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2022

October 13, 2022
Sue Palmer