I have ridden English my whole life, but wanted to switch Western as I find I feel more secure when I ride my green horse. I recently bought a new western saddle, but I’m unsure how it fits my horse. My horse is extremely short backed, high withers, and big barreled. The saddle is a Circle Y 16” w/ 28” skirt and full QH bars. The saddle pad I have on is a cutout built up saddle pad which I’m not sure if it fits well. If anyone could give me some advice and let me know if it’s fitting my horse, I would be very grateful!
Put the saddle on your horse without any pad first. Position it so the front of the saddle sits just behind the horse’s scapula. Do not cinch it up.
Step back and look at the overall balance. Does the saddle seem to sit pitched downward towards the horse’s withers or does it appear level? Based on where it is sitting, where is the lowest point of the saddle seat (that’s where YOU end up sitting, so it’s important)? The saddle should seamlessly blend with the curvature of the horse’s topline - if it “looks off”, it probably is. (Also, keep in mind since you mentioned this - a horse with a very short back is unlikely to be able to wear the majority of commercial brand western saddles - they just aren’t designed for that market and tend to place the rider’s seat too far back on the horse’s lumbar spine and the skirt can often catch the horse’s hip when they bring the hind leg forward during movement. Look very closely at how long the saddle is compared to the length of your horse’s back…if the saddle has you sitting well behind the lowest point of your horse’s back, it’s too long.)
Then step up to the horse and look at the gullet area. How much space is between the highest point of the horse’s wither and the saddle? 1-2 fingers width is usually ideal, but remember that when you sit down in the saddle, some of that space will disappear. If there’s not much space to begin with, it will likely touch when the horse is cinched up and mounted.
Also assess how and where the gullet makes contact with the hollow on either side of the horse’s withers. Does it follow the contour nicely, or does it give a pinched appearance? Run your hand under there from top to bottom, palm up, and feel if how snug it is. Use the Goldilocks rule: it shouldn’t be a workout to run your hand down, but you shouldn’t be feeling air space either.
Now run your hand, palm up, along the underside of the saddle where the bars make contact with the horse’s back. The reason for palm up is so you can feel along the saddle fleecing to check for any nails that might be loose or any spots that might dig into the horse. Again, Goldilocks rule for judging how easily your hand glides down the horses back.
Then look at the rear of the saddle. Does it appear popped up or does it sit smoothly on the horse’s back? If you place one hand on the horn and the other on the cantle and rock back and forth, does the saddle rock or stay fairly stable?
After you’ve done all this, go ahead and cinch up. Tightening the cinch can change how the saddle sits depending on where the rigging is placed on the saddle and where the horse’s natural girth groove is. Go through your checklist again with the saddle cinched up slightly.
If the saddle has a decently good fit, a good pad can make all the difference in getting that fit from decent to good. This is especially true if the saddle is a touch wide but the horse is not terribly fit and will be gaining muscle mass and topline over future weeks and months. A proper fitting pad can help fill in those gaps until the horse’s body catches up. A saddle that is too narrow is highly unlikely to work in the long run.
I would not use a built-up pad unless the horse needs it. You need to assess the fit of the saddle with the pad on once you’ve assessed it without the pad as it could improve or worsen the saddle fit depending on the pad’s function.
Lastly, ride your horse. Let them tell you how it feels. Monitor their back closely over several rides and watch them for responses that tell you they aren’t loving the saddle.