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Side-Saddle Riding

by Lindsay Smith

The Condition and Fitting of Side-saddles 2


You have a saddle - either borrowed, leased, or you instructor has one which you are using to establish you really do have the ‘bug’. How do you know if it ‘fits’ as well as is possible, and is not causing any discomfort.
First your horse, as the most important member of the partnership, as he or she cannot tell you ‘ouch, that is uncomfortable’ (like you know new shoes are not right), and, depending upon their pain threshold, will suddenly explode, swish tails, drop shoulder or back, buck, nap or perform any other unnerving move.

Saddle too long
This saddle is too long and will cause discomfort

Good fit
A good fit

Most horses are a different shape from those from the early to mid-1900’s - nowadays, horses carry more condition. This makes the fitting of side-saddles over the withers much more difficult, and, unless care is taken, pinching, especially on the off-side wither. Fit should be snug but not tight.

The saddle must be level from front to back (north to south) - sloping towards the loins will mean the rider is dropping back onto her (or his) seat rather than placing the weight over their right knee. When the weight is over the hips, the rider is behind the movement, and overloading the horse’s loins = discomfort.

The saddle which drops down to the withers, being higher at the back, will overload the horse’s shoulders, causing strain onto the forelegs and encouraging the horse to be on the forehand - it feels very uncomfortable as there is a lot of concussion through the horse up to the rider, not good for either.

Goof fit

Too narrow

Too wide - will rub on withers and likely slip

The position of the saddle from side-to-side - or east to west - without the rider, the seat should be higher on the off side, if a near-side side-saddle is used. This will support the right hip. There must support under the left hip - the old chestnut of ‘feel there is a tin tack under your left hip’ is very outdated, and causes tilting hips and crookedness in the spine. Modern saddles are more level in the fit of the panels, with an angled seat, giving all round contact for the rider’s hips.

Good level fit flat seat saddle

Good level fit dipped seat saddle

Seat built up on near side to push rider's weight to right seat. It seems to lean right but is sitting evenly.

Poor fit - leans to near side

The Points of tree:

The near-side - hidden under the safe, is longer and can be overlooked. Check the contact is even from top - by the withers - down the shoulder. Check that the inner material of the point conforms to the shape of your horse’s shoulder, flocking may have shifted or condensed to cause gaps - this needs to be adjusted by an experienced side-saddle saddler who understands the importance of correct balancing for these saddles, and will take into consideration you, your horse and the experience of you both. You should be able to run the width of your index and second finger between the point and the shoulder, from top to bottom.

The off side - check the position at the wither - is the saddle pressing into the wither?, it should be snug, not tight. The saddle should be balanced when on the horse without being held in place, if it tilts over if not held or girthed up, it will not improve with a rider up, but exacerbated the problem.

The position and widths of the heads are important for the rider. Careful measurement of your leg line, from the back of the knee to the hip will give the correct size of the side-saddle wanted. Hopefully the horse will accommodate the necessary length. Some riders prefer wide, triangular heads, others find the narrow ones more comfortable.

Stirrup fitting - this must correspond with the make of the saddle. Beware saddles which are not sold ’complete’. Mayhew and Champion and Wilton are fairly easy to make up with new stirrup fittings. Owen is more difficult as saddles were hand made with individual stirrup fittings, so each is a partnership rather than interchangeable. However, careful adjustments can be made with machine modern Owen fittings to ensure a good, safe fit and release. A good saddler will ensure correct adjustments.

Position of the girth-straps - three are important, with a point-strap for the balance strap attachment on the near side. Some saddles have a point strap on the off-side as will. This can be useful.

A word about girths - a flat girth is important - leather three-fold is best, with keepers to take the over-girth and balance strap, thus preventing them slipping off the girth and pinching the horse, or becoming bucking straps.

For the rider - as well as the length of the saddle and the width of the horns, bear in mind the width of the seat. Nothing is more uncomfortable than riding on a side-saddle whose seat is a different shape from one’s own, so one ‘overflows’ either side. Interesting bruises can result. - as when jumping and punching one’s chest with the right knee. Try explaining that one away!!!

A certain amount can be adjusted with judicious use of flocking, positioning of the point-strap for the balance-girth, and if the girth is fixed to the first two or last two girth straps on the saddle.

What type is best? - the type that fits your horse and you feel comfortable with. A good rider can rebalance a poor saddle - judges have to do so often when riding exhibits in shows. It can be uncomfortable, but worse is when the saddle starts to fall to pieces under you - the stirrup falls off, the girth snaps, the leaping head - or fixed head in one case - cracks and becomes limp.

I can go into this in much more detail if required, but for the present, I decided to keep to the KISS motto - Keep It Simple and Straightforward - the other definition is best not repeated. I look forward to hearing any comments or requests for further details or problems.

Next - disabled riders.

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