How to select the appropriate saddle for you and your horse

“SADDLE SAVVY”…An ongoing series of articles geared to help you understand how to select the appropriate saddle for you and your horse.

The following is a case study with pictures, analysis, and suggestions of possible treed and treeless saddles  with accessories that are the best choices for both horse rider.


Kappi is a 12 yo Icelandic gelding who is 13h/approx.840lbs with no prior injury history or behavioral issues…just saddle fit challenges.

His person, Karen, is 58 yo/ 5″7″ & weighs about 190-200lbs with an average leg/thigh length for her height & no particular structural issues or needs.

Karen has a strong dressage background & is an experienced rider who studied to be a TTEAM practitioner.  She includes TTEAM & Connect Riding ground work riding principles with Kappi.

She likes to ride with a longer, straighter leg , prefering english saddles with an open flat seat & a firmer feel to the seat.

Kappi and Karen live in Alaska & ride for pleasure during their riding season for 1-2 hours a few times a week.  They enjoy trail riding during their mild riding season climate on gravelly terrain with a few hills balanced with arena work.

Their current saddle is a Stubben Harmony Comfort II with a 31 cm tree fork.  Karen uses a Dixie Midnight pad topped with an older nylon cover Skito inter  pad(half pad) with 3/4″ foam.  They have also used a Wintec Dressage with exchangeable gullet plates, but Karen does not like this saddle for either she or Kappi.

Karen likes this saddle, but noticed that even though Kappi seems to by ok with it, there was a merked “pressure spot” where the cantle area is after she takes the saddle off even in shorter rides.  Since some Icelandics can be quite stoic, they sometimes show little or no reaction to an uncomfy saddle.



Kappi is a strongly built Icelandic with a fairly level back, very low to no whithers & a slightly forward girth groove.  Like many Icelandics, he has a shorter back which can limit saddling choices, especially if the rider needs a larger seat size.  His traced shape where the tree fork would sit is close to a wide inverted “C” shape.  See my first article for “Quick & Easy Assessment of Tree Fork” for directions on how to do this.



Kappi has a broad rounded from side to side back that appears to be well muscled even after an Alaskan winter with not much time under saddle.


This picutre was taken on slightly uphill ground, but even without the Dixie Midnight liner & 3/4″ Skito Interpad Karen uses, the cantle sits a bit lower than ideal placing much of Karen’s weight at the cantle of the saddle.  Since I know that the tree forks in this model of Stubben is a “A” shape with the “arms” of the tree fork widened to whatever cm they state, this would not be an ideal match for Kappi’s very wide inverted”C” shape.   This too small & not appropriately shaped tree fork would perch the saddle up in front making it ride cantle low.  Adding the 2″ plus of padding would narrow this tree fork almost two sizes making this a really not good choice for Kappi.  In addition this saddle has an extended cantle making the saddle longer, which Kappi does not need.  If Kappi could handle the length, an 18 1/2″ seat would be better for Karen in my opinion to center her weight instead of putting so much at the cantle area.


ASSETS:  Well muscled back/ strong build/ broad rounded back with low to no whithers/has good natural self carriage & carries the rider well.

CHALLENGES:  Shorter back/slightly forward girth groove placing the girth closer to his elbows/more rounded back which can create lateral instability issues if he has a lateral movement to his back in the gaits.( This can be a factor with all the gaited breeds) /rider on the higher end of the weight to horse size ratio.


ASSETS: Balanced, aware, experienced rider who rides moderate times & frequency in a  milder riding season climate.  She rides just enough to keep Kappi conditioned to carry her weight which is very important./uses TTEAM & Connected Riding tools/Kappi has good natural self carriage, so carries the rider well.


1) Hoop tree fork in any brand of treed saddles in the correct width ALLOWING FOR PADDING USED.

2)As short of an overall saddle length as possible in Karen’s ideal seat size with panels bevelled at the rear edge by a saddler to leave his back a bit sooner for Kappi’s comfort.

3) Leather panels with snythetic wool flocking to better hold their shape under Karen’s weight.

4) Billets on a running “Y” or matched to Kappi’s more forward girth groove.

5) VSD or Dressage flap both for Karen’s & Kappi’s comfort.

6) Padding suited to tree size, but preferring a standard Prolite 1/2″ pad  over 100% thin wool contoured pad or 1/2″ FIRM Skito  Insert Pad  with 100% wool underside to help with shock absorption & to accomodate muscle expansion that occurs during work.  If there is a lateral instabily issue as time goes on then use the Dixie Midnight under the padding, but make sure the tree doesn’t get too snug.

7) A softer edged self centering, central elastic girth that isn’t too wide to rub Kappi’s elbows, but broad enough over the sternum to distribute the girth pressure.  A Sensation girth with black felt or neoprene liner  would be ideal because of the width & self centering feature for Kappi’s more forward girth groove, but a Prolite neoprene lined girth with double ended elastic & roller buckles could  work too.  Both have velcro on liners so can interchange neoprene with felt as needed.  Of course neoprene will give better grip, but some horses don’t like the pull on their hair.


Balance International Saddles using an english hunt style breast plate for enhanced lateral stability and their wonderful Balance-prolite padding system

Albion Hoop Tree

Black Country Saddles “Freedom tree”

Maybe a Reactor Panel Saddle if the panels are not too long for Kappi in Karen’s seat size.

Maybe a Duette new hoop tree with all standard flocking removed & re-stuffed by a master saddler as I find their standard flocking too hard for my tastes.

All of the above in Dressage or VSD models


Kappi’s back is ideally suited to many brands of treeless saddles, the limiting factor being Karen’s size vs Kappi’s shorter back.


Sensation saddles would be the best choice IMHO because of the shorter overall length of the saddle base & the softness at the front & rear edges for horses comfort.

The G3 Dressage Trail model with an English Trail pommel & cantle substituted for the standard would suit Karen’s comfort level & give a bit more room in the 18″ seat without changing the base length for Kappi.  I would recommend the Poron foam in the interchangeable seat both for Karen’s preference of a firmer seat, but also because it is not temperature sensitive if she chose to ride in the colder temps. of Alaska.  Also the cantle should be ordered with 100% stuffed rather than formed with stuffing so Karen can take out stuffing as needed if she rides with thicker cloths in the colder times.    This could give her an additional 1/2″ & is re-placeable in minutes by owner.

I would recommend riding with the standard hard use stirrups or endurance leathers for maximum rider weight distribution and saddle stability.

I would recommend a Skito Dryback /100% wool bottom insert pad with 3/4″ standard foam in the KJ Sensation design .  This design has an anatomical contour built into the entire topline not just over the whither area has a velcro opening in the rear to prevent any stiffening over the whither area and is a uni pattern for all Sensation english models giving ample edge for tying stuff on.  Even though Icelandics don’t have a whither as such , they do have a wad of mane at the whither area that can get rubbed by pads that don’t have enough of a contour.  The combination of Dryback with the 3/4″ foam will not only give better lateral stability, but will give Karen the firmer feel she likes while distributing her weight better.  If the saddle is not as stable as Karen would like, then she has the Dixie Midnight liner to put under the Skito pad.

Use of an English Hunt Style breast plate for Kappi’s back shape & the Sensation treeless would be my suggestion for best lateral stability & safety concerns.  Sensation again makes my favorite padded removeable liner breast plate.

For the girth, a Sensation central elastic/self centering girth would be my first choice  with either the standard black felt or neoprene liner.

Finally I recommend that all my clients demo saddles for 10-14 days before they purchase any saddle.  Also helpful is to have an equine chiropractor or body worker do a session both before & at the end of the trial period to help with input.

Happy Trails,


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