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Whether it’s a dressage saddle, jumping saddle, all-purpose or Western, tree length is one feature you can’t really adjust. So it’s super important to understand how long your horse’s saddle should be and why. The good news is it’s easy to measure your own horse! Here are three steps to find the length of your horse’s saddle support area:

1. Mark the shoulder blade. You can feel your horse’s shoulder blade. Sometimes you can see it. If not, ask someone to stretch your horse’s foreleg out in front, and you will see the scapula slide back. That will help you locate it. Then make sure your horse is standing square again and draw a chalk line along the curve of the shoulder blade. This is the front border of the measurement.

2. Mark the last thoracic vertebra. Look at your horse from the side, and you should be able to see the outline of his ribcage. You can feel the last rib—the 18th rib—with your hand. It’s also called the last thoracic rib, but you get the idea. Follow that rib with your hand as it curves up along the barrel toward his spine. You will notice the rib seems to disappear as it goes under that longissimus muscle before it reaches the backbone. Just keep the same curved angle with your hand anyway, all the way up to the spine. That is where the rib attaches to the 18th vertebra.  Make a small chalk mark right there on the back.

The green line is your saddle support length.  

Another great way to find this vertebra is to look at the way the hair on your horse’s flank comes together from opposite directions. If you follow this swirl line straight up (between the “V”s in the photo) you will also find yourself at the 18th vertebra.

Behind the 18th vertebra, the shape of the vertebrae changes drastically, so you don’t want any weight past this point. These are the lumbar vertebrae, and they have processes that are thin and fragile and stick straight out, sometimes even higher than the ribs. They are not designed to bear weight.  If your saddle tree sits behind this point, your horse will want to get it OFF. He will have trouble cantering—possibly  he will have a four-beat canter—as he cannot round his back enough to canter properly. He may even buck to get the weight off this sensitive area. This is the area near the kidneys and also where a mare will be most sensitive during her cycle. (A pad or saddle skirt slightly beyond this point may be okay, as long as it bears no weight.)

3. Measure from the shoulder blade to the 18th vertebra.

Now run a tape measure from the scapula to the last thoracic vertebra, laying it flat on your horse’s back a few inches down from the spine (the green line in the photo). There you have it—this is the length of your saddle support area, your horse’s usable back. It’s surprising sometimes to find out your horse may have a much shorter support area than you thought, or he may have a nice big piece of real estate up there!

Of course your saddle should be checked regularly, as horses change for many reasons. It may need to be adjusted for width and shoulder angle, or it could pinch or slide forward, either of which can cause permanent damage. A good saddle fitter will check these areas as well as everything from billet alignment to how the saddle fits YOU. But correct saddle length is something every rider can easily  determine. These three simple steps will help you make sure your saddle is never too long!

3 Easy Steps to Measure Your Horse’s Saddle Support Length

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer, Art2Ride Saddlery