Question: I’m planning on buying a new English saddle, but I’m confused by saddle sizes such as 16 or 17. Do these figures represent the length of the seat? How do you measure that?
Answer: Figuring out the seat size on a saddle is not as easy as it would seem. For one thing, the measurements usually used by saddle shops are not necessarily the same as what the saddle makers use. With an English saddle, the saddle makers measure from the center of the cantle to a line that goes across the front of the tree (remember there is a little roll of leather that adds to the distance, so subtract 1/4 inch or so). See photo 1.The rider measures the same seat size from the cantle to the buttons on the side of the pommel. The buttons often are uneven, so a measurement can be different depending on which side you measure.
For a Western saddle, the saddle maker measures from the top of the cantle to the back of the gullet as in photo 2. The rider measures from the back of the cantle to the top of the gullet as in photo 3. The design or angle of the fork can change the seat measurement when the actual seat size is the same as a saddle with a different design. These photos are from my new Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book.
We all get stuck on having as small a seat size as possible. Remember the size of the blue jeans you fit into during college? Well, that same size of jeans now fits much larger, so maybe you can still squeeze into a new pair with the same number. But if you get out those old college jeans, there is no way they still fit. With saddles, the numbers really have not changed since we cannot make a looser fit saddle seat. So it is best to toss out the numbers and see how the saddle fits you.
Measuring the seat is only a small part of the equation, however. The shape of the seat and the placement of the center point greatly affect how you will feel. The deeper the seat is, the larger a measurement you will need. As the seat gets deeper, the pommel and cantle get higher, so to fit inside the space you need more length or you will be pushed up against the front of the saddle, which in many English saddles can be fairly painful.
If the shape of the seat places the center point toward the cantle, you may feel out of balance and the saddle may feel too large, even if it is not. Or, as in many Western saddles, if the seat dumps you toward the back and has a high rise in the ground seat in front of where you sit, you may feel the seat is too small.
So what should you do? Sit in the saddle and measure in front and behind of where you are sitting. For an English saddle you should have about the same distance in front as behind, about 2-4 inches of space. For a western saddle, you should have about a hand’s breadth (4 inches) in front of you and about a hand’s width (1-1.5 inches) behind you to the cantle. The seat should not feel constricting nor should there be lumps poking into your thigh.
For an English saddle, your thigh length is very important. Your knee should go approximately to the center of the knee roll, depending on the style of the saddle. The seat should allow you to sit in the center, and your thigh should not push you to the back of the saddle. There needs to be room for your buttocks, but often the seat size will be determined by the length of your thigh. For a more detailed description of fitting the rider see my English book.
If you take the time to fit yourself into the saddle, your ride will be much easier, and your horse will be much happier. Many riders and trainers notice that correctly fitting a saddle to the rider improves the riding lessons by as much as two years in a single lesson. This is because you are not fighting against a saddle that does not fit you. Many rider problems are actually from being out of balance in a saddle that does not work for the rider. So your “problem” may not be your fault at all, it may be your saddle fit.