From a saddle maker’s perspective there are three distinct stages of a horse’s life. Young age, middle age and old age. We always advise against building a saddle for any horse until they are at least three years old.
At three years old we have a pretty good idea of how the horse is going to look when he is fully mature. Skeletal maturity is reached somewhere between 5.5 and 8 years depending on the breed and the individual animal.
If you fit a saddle to a horse under three years old there is a good chance that saddle will not be useable on that horse just a few years later. Sometimes as a horse grows he gets narrower behind the shoulder blades. Sometimes they hardly change at all. Sometimes they get wider. It just depends on the individual animal.
Generally speaking if we fit a horse around three, we will have to adjust that saddle at least once by the time the horse is fully grown. But at three years old only 1-2 horses out of 50 will change so much that the horse will need a saddle built on a totally different tree.
Once a horse’s skeleton if finished growing at 5.5 to 8 years old, his back doesn’t show a lot of change until somewhere around 16 to 22 years old. In this middle section of his rideable life if his weight and exercise is kept consistent there is very little change. However if you go from riding a couple of hours a week to 15 to 20 hours the back will definitely show some change.
Even though the skeleton is fully grown we may have to make an adjustment during this stage to accommodate the changing muscles that lay over the rib cage. If a horse really bulks up he may need more room at the front of the gullet under the pommel. If a horse trades a lot of fat for lean muscle he may need the gullet filled in a bit to achieve maximum contact again.
This is a hotly debated topic. Just when is a horse considered old? Some people feel a horse is old at fifteen. Some say not until their twenties. At the 60th anniversary or the Tevis Cup 100 mile endurance race in 2015, fifteen of the two hundred horses entered were 18 years or older. The oldest horse was 24 and finished in 14th place! What we have noticed at this stage is if you keep the exercise level consistent you can greatly extend the rideable life of the horse.
It is common with horses at this stage of life to need an adjustment. That saddle that fit so well for ten years or so is usually going to start to bridge as the horse’s back starts to hollow out. Quite a few horses in this stage also tend to get narrower right behind the shoulder blades.
This should give you an idea of what to expect as your horse gets older. Just like us if you don’t use it, you lose it. A consistent exercise and feeding program will definitely extend your time with your horse.