Saddle Fitting Science for Thoroughbreds

In 2012, Harry Dabbs Saddlemakers was approached by the TRC (Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre) to develop a saddle that would enable their horses to fulfill their potential. To complete the research between the TRC and Dabbs, the ACPAT Horse Physiotherapists and Society of Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitters were brought in. The research was led by Janet Blackburn of Just Saddles. Dabbs are the only manufacturer that has specifically researched saddle fit on Thoroughbreds in such detail and continues to work with the TRC and also Equine Management and Training (EM&T) – consultants to the ROR.

The conformation of most Thoroughbreds prevented a perfect fit from almost all saddles available on the market; yes – including our own. Stereotypically Thoroughbreds have a long high wither, hollows either side of the withers immediately behind the shoulders, and have a rising top line (croup high). Ex-racehorses can have additional back problems such as scoliosis or a kyphosis (spinal alignment issues) which require wider clearance of the spine. It would be normal practice for initial re-training to be purely ground work prior to even contemplating a saddle fit, so that all issues can be minimized.


Saddle fitters are taught to look at the true drop from front to back, and so decide on gusset depth at the back of the saddle. Historically a high headed, narrow tree with a deep rear gusset would be used on an ex-racehorse. However the Thoroughbred throws us an optical illusion making the deep rear gussets an error. The top of the wither at T3/T4 is very high; however the points of the saddle are going to sit around T6/T7 depending upon their conformation. Consequently the true drop to T18 is less than it appears as the important area does not include T3/T4 where the saddle makes no contact. Achieving a good fit may result in not having the commonly recognised full 3 to 4 fingers of space above the wither but if no contact is made and there is no interference then we can accept this ‘break from the norm’. By accepting that the saddle is fitted at T6/7, the need to include a deep rear gusset is avoided. On a rising top line (croup high) horse a deep rear gusset would drive the saddle into the muscles behind the shoulder. The ‘driving in’ action is exacerbated when a horse in movement belly lifts and its back rises. The best saddle fitters take into account the horses back shape in movement rather than simply concentrating on fitting the stationary horse. The Dabbs Performance Panel eases this because it comes away from the back of the horse a fraction sooner than traditional panels, benefiting croup high and short backed horses, and/or larger riders. Traditional panels are already in contact further back so as the horse engages this lifts the saddle and creates pressure whereas with the Dabbs panel the belly lift brings the horses back only into contact with the saddle. As the back lifts the top line flattens reducing the exaggerated high wither increasing the space at the head of the saddle once the horse is in motion.


When fitting an ex-racehorse, it is critical that we keep the lumbar region free, support the saddle behind the shoulder, keep the trapezius free and avoid driving the saddle forward with a deep gusset. EM&T regularly see saddles that are too narrow. We work with many horses that have been diagnosed with kissing spine to varying degrees from very mild through to surgery being recommended. Gullet width is very important as is a girthing system which does not cause a downward pressure on the affected vertebrae.

A wide gullet keeps the spine free, which is particularly important for ex-racehorses that have been subjected to traditional racing saddles that sit on the spine; whilst a deeper panel supports the saddle lower down and further back, enabling us to leave the points set a little wider. The deeper panel sits on the latissimus dorsi which is connected directly to the humerus in the front leg; this enables weight to be transferred directly to the leg without going via the spine and so is more efficient. Higher up in the panel and along its length the saddle rests on the longissimus dorsi muscle, transferring forces to the spine and the pelvis and so down through the legs. The girthing has been customised to further relieve any downward pressure into the muscles behind the shoulder. Increasingly we approach saddle design and development as a science.

Kath Pinington – yard manager at The TRC said; “Harry Dabbs saddles provide the ultimate solution to the varying shapes of the Thoroughbred backs. The combination of trees and panel system give the horse the space to perform to the best of its ability”.

In our opinion Walsall saddle makers are the best in the world. Saddles are manufactured bespoke to individual horses, individual riders and price giving exceptionally good value. Do we have the panache of French or Italian sounding names – Non ; but we give our customers so much more.

(We may serve Italian or French wine – because that is what they do best.) For information on your local stockist or further information please email

Article written by Peter Wilkes, Harry Dabbs Saddlemakers, November 2013