Strange symptoms of needing a saddle fitting

A client recently asked me what the strangest symptom was that I’d seen in a horse to indicate it needed its saddle fitted. I did have a couple of stories to relate, but they were from my own horses. At saddle fitting appointments I only see horses for a short time so I don’t usually see the weird things they do, I usually only see what happens in the barn and arena such as after the saddle is fitted the horse is less girthy, the transitions get easier, the horse becomes straighter, lighter off the aids, etc., the “normal” saddle fit indicators.

Have you had a horse with a weird symptom related to saddle fit?

Here’s mine:
When I first got my current tall dark and handsome mount, he was underweight and very lacking in fitness so he went through several saddles. At one point I noticed he needed an upgrade, the saddle was no longer conforming to his body as well as it had, but it was early summer when my business is at its busiest, and he seemed to be moving fine, his work in the arena was coming along well, so I decided it would be OK for him to wait a little while. The only issue we were having was on the trails behind the barn, with one particular bridge.
He hated that bridge all of a sudden. It used to be fine, but then he got a little sticky crossing it, and then he got a lot sticky. If I dismounted and led him across then we could have a perfectly lovely trail ride on the other side, and it was no problem to cross it on the way home. Over 2 or 3 weeks he started balking farther from the bridge. I started carrying a whip, he started threatening to rear. I racked my mind and couldn’t figure out what his issue was.
Then we sorted out his saddle, and we never had a problem with that bridge again. From the very first ride out post-fitting he marched right up to and over that bridge as if it wasn’t even there, and we never had a problem with it again.


There are a lot of symptoms of poor fit people overlook or chalk up to behavioral. I’d put “not wanting to perform a trying task” like going over a bridge right up there with the rest of them, though the general consensus is that poor performance and/or a decrease in performance is often related to a physical cause. When something hurts, they lose confidence.

Decades ago I had a nice young TB who I brought along with the help of a few professionals. Around his sixth year he began to have difficulty in canter depart, including BIG bucks and scoots if you sat too hard down in the saddle during the transition. The BNTs were convinced it was behavioral. His saddle fit his back to textbook perfection - there was no disputing it - and it had been seen several times by a MSF and a few other pros in the area. Issues kept getting worse, we kept looking under all the other “physical rocks” out there. Didn’t think to go back to square 1 and ask “Yes, we know this saddle fits perfectly on paper… But does he like how it feels?” Took him to a lameness specialist in the area who watched him lunge, go undersaddle, and said “your saddle may fit, but he doesn’t think it fits.” We were all shocked, it really was a beautiful fit on paper. Our MSF tried something out of the box, a wider gullet than tracings said he needed, and the saddle bridged during stationary examination. Didn’t fit on paper but he loved it and went back to prior level of work and then some.

Interestingly, this gelding had an established dislike of drops undersaddle that went away once the saddle was changed. He would always go over the drops, but it was awkward and he would jump them versus drop down - no amount of schooling would change his mind that a drop was a launch off point. That went away too with a different saddle.

Another odd quirk I saw from a client horse was he had trouble going downhill undersaddle; in his case, the saddle was bridging and the tree shape (straight points) were digging into his shoulders. The reluctance to go downhill stopped with a change in saddle.

There’s tons of symptoms out there that people just don’t tune into too. Seeing a horse breathe faster as they see the saddle (rising respiratory rate). Seeing them move away as you bring the saddle to them. Seeing them dislike being mounted, or scooting off the moment weight is on their back. Increased fussiness or girthiness. Explosiveness under saddle, chronic bucks after fences. Some of these overlap with other conditions, but are not to be ignored in the pursuit of ensuring horse comfort.


My younger horse will bite at my hands as I position him beside the mounting block if he’s anticipating discomfort. He’ll do it if he needs the chiropractor as well, so not unique to saddle fit, but rather discomfort carrying a rider for some reason.

Bite at, not actually bite to connect.

I test rode a looked-like-custom-made for my
older horse saddle when looking for a jumping saddle. My horse would not take anything resembling a slightly long spot to a jump. If it wasn’t an absolutely perfect distance he would chip. Swapped to the looked-like-a-reasonable-fit saddle and he promptly took a flyer at the first jump.

Same horse told me he wanted the dressage saddle wider by not giving me the trot lengthen I knew he was capable of doing. The fitter very reluctantly made it wider - because I wasn’t about to buy it otherwise. Rode out, asked for lengthened trot, and the fitter said “oh! Now I see what you mean.”


I had a mare that would squeal if even her well fitting saddle wasn’t in the right place. My current mare flips her upper lip when saddling, and root on the bridle during halts, if her saddle bugs her.

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There are a lot of symptoms of poor fit people overlook or chalk up to behavioral.

Absolutely this ^
So I expected that most people’s idea of “odd symptoms” might fall under what I’d refer to as “normal indicators” of saddle discomfort, such as reluctance to go downhill. But I also thought I might get some interesting stories. Horses are all so unique! I hope we’ll get some more.
I wonder, too, how many people realize that back pain in the saddle area is NOT a common indicator of saddle fit problems. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but generally the saddle has to be really awful. Way before you get to back pain you’ll have lack of shoulder freedom, hind leg lameness, sore SI, resistance to the bridle, and lots of different behavioral issues.
I’ll add another of my own. After my old guy came off months of stall rest due to injury, his back had changed significantly, even after several months of slow and steady ground work his old saddle was never going to fit again. In the process of figuring out what we needed I tried a couple of saddles on him at different times that weren’t quite the right fit for him; saddles that might have been a size off, but I wanted to see how the flap suited my leg before committing to having one made in the right size for him. Just a quick sit, maybe a lap around the arena, very short ride. That was too much for him and actually provoked seizures. No kidding. He’d had EPM several years before and I never realized that he had residual damage until twice he had seizures after being tacked up in a less-than-optimal saddle. I do still ride him occasionally, and have never had another problem, but I no longer care about fit for me with him. He will never again wear a saddle that is less than a perfect fit for him, not even for a second.


I had a gelding once that was difficult to fit. If he did not like a saddle, he simply would not go forward. He didn’t pitch a fit or act aggressive, he just refused to move. You could see the cartoon bubble above his head: “Nope.” One of the best-minded horses I’ve ever ridden, even as a youngster.


Mine would buck if his saddle didn’t fit right, but only in a group at the canter. Would ride fine if I was riding by myself.

I had one weird boy. He had multiple saddles fit for him, two even custom made. He hated them all… eventually the independent fitter basically brought her store to the farm and said we aren’t measuring him… just tack him up and he will let us know… can’t remember how many I tried but pick them he did!

So what he did when he didn’t like them was gallop XC with his head between his knees or I needed to bit him up like Murphy Himself… literally the same gag and noseband as Murphy… to try to balance him before the jumps. He pulled like a freaking freight train and was beyond tough to balance before jumps. But he was one of the bravest XC horses I ever rode.

What he ended up liking was a sommer flexa tree that the cantle bounced on his back. His jump saddle was an inch off his back at the cantle and rolled left to right when he walked… but in those (badly “fitting”) saddles he went XC in a snaffle… so go figure!

He clearly didn’t read a saddle fitting guide and sometimes we just have to throw out the rule book and let the horse pick! So now when I have one that isn’t happy with a “fitted” saddle I just stop looking and start riding… they do “tell” you if you listen, but damn sometimes it is painful to look at it!


My gelding tells me plenty (about saddle fit and other things), and I’m so glad I’ve finally learned to listen and understand him.

Per saddle fit: He would go around like a docile school horse in saddles that clearly didn’t fit and required riser pads and such to balance them out. But I got a new “fancier” (for me) dressage saddle and had it professionally fitted and…horse became an increasingly anxious mess. His back was eventually so sore I couldn’t brush him, and I made the decision to try what I had a feeling he’d like…a Wintec Isabell. Voila. Happy horse. It fit him very well (no need for extra padding) but it was much lighter weight and the panels were wider and flatter and distributed the weight more evenly for him.

He could still spook at things and get a little on his toes in certain circumstances, but he was much happier in general. No more gawking at something a quarter mile away and trying to spin and run for his life.

Now he has a western saddle. I don’t think it fits him great, but he loves it. He’s been smiley (ears up) while saddling ever since we switched to the western saddle.

He does pin his ears when I don’t get the saddle (any of them) quite in the right place when I first put it on. I have to wiggle and shove it around some, and I know it’s in the right spot when his ears pop forward and he licks his lips.

They do talk to us. We just have to learn to listen.


I have had 2 instances where saddle fit was an issue.

Mare-- biting when being girthed and especially biting at my feet when asked to trot. That disappeared immediately when I got the right fit.

Gelding-- Had a few more symptoms that escalated very quickly as his weight increased suddenly after a few weeks of rain on brown/ drought ridden pasture.

Biting when girthed, then moving at the mounting block, then biting at me when I put my foot in the stirrup, biting at my feet once mounted and finally resistant to move when mounted. He really left no doubt in my mind it was saddle fit.

The crazy thing was he was perfect in that saddle all Spring- late Summer until suddenly he wasn’t.

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