Evaluating Saddle Fit

Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, in discussing saddle fit, said, "Back problems are a significant cause of altered gait, poor performance, and misbehavior in the horse, particularly in English disciplines. The complexity of the back, its vertebrae, ligaments, and muscles can make diagnosing, imaging, and treating back problems very challenging. Musculoskeletal issues of other regions, particularly the hind limbs, can create secondary back issues; thus, a primary lameness must first be ruled out. Then the veterinarian should scrutinize the fit of the saddle as part of the diagnostic work. This basic diagnostic assessment is imperative before proceeding with more advanced diagnostics."

Historical observations that indicate saddle and/or back problems might include resistance to saddling such as tail switching, girthiness, and/or ear pinning, Turner noted. "If the horse resists, that's an abnormality," he stated. Other possible behavioral indicators of saddle pain are resistance to mounting, unresponsiveness to the rider's aids, and bucking.

The initial saddle fit examination begins with evaluation of the horse's back, including a fingertip exploration of the entire area under the saddle to identify any bumps caused by friction or areas of localized pain or swelling, he said. Also, the horse should extend and flex his back willingly, and his vertebrae should be palpated.

Once this is done, saddle fit is subjectively evaluated. "The rider should be allowed to position the saddle and pad as he/she normally does," Turner said. "Many place the saddle too far forward, where it can interfere with the scapula (shoulder blade), hurting that and the withers and tipping the saddle up so the rider sits too far back. Check the position of the saddle with the horse standing square. After the saddle is positioned, the examiner should grab the pommel and give a sharp tug down and back. If the saddle moves and 'locks in,' it wasn't positioned correctly. If it doesn't move, then it was OK."

After this evaluation, place the saddle on the horse without pads to check its balance, wither clearance, panel evenness, and width of the gullet. "Identify the lowest part of saddle (you can find this point by setting a pencil on the seat crossways and letting it roll down to the lowest point)," he directed. "It should be centered between the cantle and pommel. Otherwise, it affects the rider's balance, pushing them toward the low side."

The next step is checking withers clearance (there should be 2 1/2-3 fingers' width there) and the position of the saddle points (the projections at the front and side of the saddle tree), he said. These points shouldn't interfere with the scapula's range of motion, and their angle should conform to the withers' shape. One can visualize this fit by measuring the horse's back and the saddle, or molding a malleable ruler to the horse's back and seeing how well the saddle matches it, he explained. He added that many horses are asymmetrical and a malleable ruler is best for visualizing this. Re-assess all parameters with the girth fastened and tightened.

Next, Turner instructed, press lightly on the seat center with one hand and run your other hand along the angles of the points and under the panels front to back, looking for any rocking, pressure points, or bridging (gaps in saddle contact). Standing back and above the horse (perhaps on a mounting block), make sure the saddle fits between the withers and the last rib, or it's too long. Also look at gullet clearance; the gullet should clear the spine and its ligaments regardless of pressure on the seat.

"Not all saddles fit all horses," he warned. "When one rider uses the same saddle on many horses, you can get big problems."

High-Tech Saddle Fitting

Your senses of vision and touch aren't the only options for saddle fit analysis. Turner described evaluation of saddle pressure using pressure-sensitive saddle pads and thermography. "The subjective elements of saddle fit are easy to perform and are certainly useful in detecting gross problems," he explained. "However, the identification of more subtle fit problems may go undetected with these methods.

"With pressure-sensitive pads, you can see contact pressure points that interface between that saddle and the pad (with or without a rider)," he said. "They're very accurate and give you great information. Thermography gives you a new dynamic interaction between the saddle and the horse's back, so you can see the heat generated by friction on the saddle (the saddle's physiologic effects on the back)."

For thermographic evaluation, Turner said the horse is saddled with a simple cotton pad and lunged for 20 minutes at normal gaits in both directions, then the saddle and pad are removed and a thermograph is taken of the horse's back and the saddle's panels. Repeat this process with a rider.

"Thermography has been shown to be one of the best methods of identifying back problems in the horse," he stated. "Abnormal pressure and/or friction will create a "hot spot" that the thermal imaging camera can detect with at least 10 times more sensitivity to temperature than the human hand.

"A well-fit saddle shows symmetrical heat patterns, without localized hot spots (showing more pressure and friction) or cold spots (which might indicate intense muscle spasms or severe pressure damage and swelling)," he explained.

He also described his analysis of the CAIR interchangeable tree saddles on a few horses using thermography. "The CAIR panel system worked better for some horses (with fewer pressure points) than their custom fit saddles," he reported. Other observations following riding sessions were that heavier riders tend to use the cantle more than lighter ones. "We can even see rider problems, such as when a rider sits heavier on one side or pins more with a knee (seen as hotter saddle panels in those areas)," he said.

As far as saddle pads go, Turner made the following comments: "I think they make a lot of difference. Some put a lot of pressure especially on the withers, and some riders put on far too much padding. That just creates different kinds of pressure points."

What about treeless saddles? "We have some thermography data," Turner said. "The ones I've seen created more pressure on the center line, in my opinion. There may be more pressure and friction (with these saddles) than [riders] think."

One attendee asked about dry spots on a sweaty back; "I think wet and dry spots tend to be related to peripheral nerve injury produced by the saddle," Turner answered.

"In conclusion, saddle fit is an important aspect of evaluation for poor performance," he stated.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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