Think Jello. Fitting a saddle is like those Jello molds from the 70’s. The back is the mold and the paneling on the underside of your saddle is the Jello. A well fitting saddle should evenly contact all parts of the back while the top of the Jello stays level (or to put it more technically, there will be a straight horizontal line from the pommel to the cantle). So if your horse has a low area your saddle should have a ‘high’ or thicker area of paneling and vice versa.
Our first participant is Em, an 8 year old 16.0 hh warmblood gelding. Em is a great example of an ‘average back’. He is a balanced horse with level withers and hip, a moderate wither, and a slightly concave area right behind the shoulder blades. His topline is well muscled, with a nice (possibly too much) covering of fat, appropriate for his job as a hunter and equitation horse. A saddle with ‘standard’ or pro panels (or a slight variation) will fit this horse nicely. If I was buying a Voltaire I would look for the notation PRO on the stamp. A CWD, the numbers 705 205 305.
Let’s look our second example. Nippy is an older 16.1 hh warmblood gelding who now does a lower level equitation job. He lacks the muscle and quality topline of our first horse and realistically with his age and job, this is probably not going to change much. Most importantly for saddle fit, he has a prominent, long sloping wither with more concave depressions behind the wide shoulders than our first horse. Finally, note that his wither is higher than his croup and his back tends to be flat, versus that gentle upward slope on our first horse, Em. To fit this horse, I am going to look for a saddle that has thicker front, or built up paneling underneath the tree points, so the Jello fills in the depression behind his shoulder. Otherwise the saddle will be too wide and the gullet will press down on his spine and wither. He will also possibly need thicker paneling in the rear in order to make the saddle level, since his back is so flat. If I wanted to ride this horse in my saddle with pro panels, I would use a Mattes sheepskin quarter pad with possibly some combination of felt shims to ‘add Jello’ to his back.
Our third example is Jerry, a 14 hh, 5 year old Quarter horse gelding. Jerry has topline that is well muscled, and nicely shaped, with a lower wither. When you take a closer look, you notice however that his hip is higher than his wither, and, in comparison with Em, he has a rounder barrel and less of a dip behind his wither. With this horse, it will be important to make sure the saddle has no extra thickness in paneling in the middle and back of the saddle or the rider will feel like they are falling out the front of the saddle. Jerry will probably need a minimum of pro panels, or slimmer panels in front and no build up of panelling under the tree points at all. For this horse, less Jello is better.
To get the right Jello for your horse’s mold, take a couple of photos similar to the ones here. A good used saddle seller should be able to make some recommendations across multiple brands on paneling that will fit. If not, move on!! (Of course you will already have figured out what size flap and seat you need as a rider, right?)
Special thanks to our real life horses who had their afternoon paddock naps rudely interrupted for photos, and to the Hillside girls who graciously allowed me to photograph their horses without any prior brushing or bathing.
For a more technical description of how to check the fit of your used saddle to your horse, please check out our saddle fitting guide on our website at: https://olddominionsaddlery.com/pages/fitting-the-horse