In many ways, fitting a side saddle to the horse is similar to fitting an astride saddle, although proper fit is more critical for the side saddle to prevent it from rolling. If the side saddle does not fit the horse correctly, the horse and the rider will not have a good ride.
Taking a Back Tracing:
Using a flexible wire such as a fench curve or Romex wiring (like the coated wiring used in your home), carefully mold the wire over the horse's back just behind his shoulders. Be sure to extend the wire at least 12 inches down on each side so we can tell if the long point will fit! Carefully lift the wire and trace the inside of the curve (the side against the horse's back) onto a large piece of paperboard or cardboard. Mark the left and right sides, and also the horse's name, your name, and the date. When the pattern is cut out, it can be used to fit into the gullet of the saddle for a preliminary check of the saddle's fit. This is an extremely useful tool when you must saddle shop without the horse present or shopping "long distance". If you are shopping with The Side Saddlery, be sure to put your name, saddle you are looking for and your contact information on the tracing! Tracings can be mailed to:
The Side Saddlery
554 Morley Court
Bedford, NJ 07718
Fitting the Side Saddle to the Horse:
The side saddle must fit well on the horse, ideally in the same position as an astride saddle - just behind the horse's shoulder. The rear of the saddle will sit a little farther back overall since side saddles are longer than astride saddles. The end of the weight bearing surface of the panels or bars should end where the horse's last rib begins. A saddle that is longer than this is too long for the horse.
The saddle's panels or bars should have even contact from the front to the rear without bridging. If there is bridging in an English side saddle with flocked panels, flocking or shims may be able to correct this. Significant bridging in a Western saddle cannot be corrected and is grounds to keep looking for another saddle. The gullet should leave the horse's spine free for the entire length of the saddle, even when the rider is mounted. While an English saddle may have flocking added or removed, the shape of Western bars really cannot be changed.
Fit the Saddle to the Horse
The points of an English side saddle should match the curve of the horse's sides. The pressure should be even down the entire point on each side. Different saddle makers and different saddles within a maker's line had differently shaped points. Older saddles may have had two long points rather than the shorter and longer point of more modern English side saddles. Two long points offer a very stable saddle, IF they fit your horse. However, a good fit is more difficult to attain with two long points. Remember that these side saddles were custom made for the horse "back when".
The saddle should be level from front to back and from side to side. The left rear panel on an English side saddle may look slightly overstuffed and thus slightly higher to support the additional weight that will be carried on that side of the saddle. The English panel will settle to a level ride with the weight of the rider. Western saddles should have this added support built into the tree.
Some older saddles do not have a cut back gullet, requiring a rise in front to accommodate the horse's withers. The overall line of the saddle should still be level and an even fit on the horse's back.
Place a ruler across the saddle to check for levelness. Some levelness can be achieved by re-stuffing an English side saddle. This should only be done by a saddler familiar with side saddles. They are NOT stuffed symetricaly like an astride saddle. Western side saddles may have shims inserted between the layers of a folded wool saddle blanket.
If you find the saddle's tree is twisted, no amount of stuffing or shimming will fix it. Start shopping for a different saddle.
A side saddle rider should look the same from the rear as an astride rider. Hips and shoulders should be square with the horse. Slipping saddles are usually those that do not fit the horse well and can cause the rider to feel like she's falling off. Constant weight shifting to re-center a saddle will make the horse sore. You can only ride as well as your saddle fits you and the horse! Saddle fit is CRITICAL!
Level Saddle and Riding Position.
If you feel the saddle forces you into a poor position, either it doesn't fit you or your horse - possibly both. At best, you will have an unpleasant ride. At worst, you will injure your horse or yourself.