Proper saddle fit can maximize your horse’s comfort and performance.

A saddle can either encourage comfortable movement and clear communication between rider and horse, or it can result in discomfort and behavioral problems. Evaluating a saddle's fit requires an understanding of saddle construction, the anatomy and dynamic movement of a horse, and the literal impact of the rider. If you haven't evaluated your saddle's fit recently, it could be time to do so.

If Only They Could Say 'Ouch'

Saddle fit has often been likened to the fit of a shoe. While we humans can't fully comprehend what wearing an ill-fitting saddle feels like, it's possible we've worn a shoe that rubbed us the wrong way. We were probably irritable and changed our gait and weight bearing to accommodate the sensitive foot; horses do the same when a saddle pinches or applies uneven pressure.

Some physical signs can indicate ill saddle fit, including the prototypical "saddle sore." Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, says to think of a saddle sore as a "rub sore."

"In my experience, saddle sores are usually due to motion combined with pressure over an area that abrades the epidermis, or outer layer of skin, and exposes the underlying tissues," he says. "Certainly, there is a saddle fit or padding issue that contributes to a saddle sore's development."

Other indicators of saddle fit issues include suddenly appearing white hairs, scars, or hard spots in the saddle area, atrophied wither muscles, temporary back swelling following saddle removal, and other "wear and tear" signs on the hair and skin underneath the saddle.

Acute or Chronic?

As director of the sport horse division at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., Peters sees more than his fair share of equine athletes with veterinary problems. Still, he says that overt lameness directly linked to poor saddle fit is uncommon.

"The issues we see related to saddle fit are primarily behavioral, where the horse is irritable in their training or with a rider on top of them. We'll see actions such as tail swishing or ear pinning," says Peters. "While some horses can work through some discomfort once they get past the initial uneasiness of poor saddle fit, other horses can be more sensitive and will continue to show decreased performance as well as have difficulties in carrying out some aspects of their work."

Even if there's no lasting physical damage from an ill-fitting saddle, in a competitive environment those behavioral nuances can mean the difference between winning and losing. And if the situation persists without correction, Peters points out that chronic saddle discomfort can lead to additional issues over time.

"For example, from the chiropractic viewpoint and terminology, certainly structural shifts can occur because the horse is trying to carry himself so he's comfortable," he says. "In some cases chiropractic manipulation or acupuncture techniques may help to alleviate some symptoms, but if the same problems keep resurfacing, it becomes important to dig deeper and look for other causes."

Considering The Saddle

Saddle design and construction have similarities and differences but a shared goal: to have a comfortable horse and rider that are able to move and perform in balance and harmony with each other. To that end, both expertise and effort go into the design and fit of saddles:

English Saddles In his role as president at Custom Saddlery, in Aiken, S.C., Cary Wallace has discovered that many people don't fully understand all the variables that go into designing a saddle that's fitted to both rider and horse. "English saddles are pretty simple pieces of equipment, but fitting them is both an art and a craft," he says. Most English saddles start with the tree as a frame, with a wide variety of tree shapes and materials affecting the final saddle design and fit. "The tree is important in positioning the rider properly on the horse's back, with some being more supportive and others being flatter or having more sweep to them," says Wallace. "Many of the good English trees today are also adjustable for the horse, with a U-shaped steel bar or plate in the front."

English saddles need to be periodically reflocked, or restuffed, to take into account changes in a horse's back due to weight loss or gain, musculature changes due to greater or lesser work, or even saddle reassignment to a different horse; the flocking is the natural or synthetic wool stuffing in the padded pockets underneath the saddle. You should consider girths and saddle pads also, but evaluating the horse and rider visually is one of the most important factors in getting the fit just right.

"Ideally, we want to watch the saddled horse in motion, both with and without the rider and at all gaits and in both directions, and get feedback from both the rider and, if possible, the trainer involved, when we're reflocking a saddle," reports Wallace, who says that identifying problems related to fit can be complicated. "Sometimes it's hard to chase down what's bothering a horse. Recently I was at a client's house, and instead of the saddle fit being a problem, it's possible her horse had developed ulcers."

Wallace says riders should keep an open mind when it comes to selecting and using tack. "Never underestimate the difference that small changes in tack and equipment can bring about. Trying something new will either reinforce you're doing the right thing, or you might find something more suitable."

Western Saddles Jeff Habighorst is a leather craftsman at Blue Ribbon Tack in Phoenix, Ariz. A halter competitor who took home a reserve grand championship at the 2010 All American Quarter Horse Congress, Habighorst designs saddles at the company owned by his parents.

"We do everything from the ground up, and for years we've used a computer-sensor pad to generate data about where weight and pressure are on a horse's back when we're designing a new saddle," says Habighorst. They make about 400 saddles each year, and he reports they've had few fit problems because of all the groundwork they build in with a new design.

The Western saddle process also starts with the tree. "In a Western tree, you've got a bar on each side of the horse's spine; you've got to have the right 'rock' or angle in the bars so it corresponds to the sway of the back, but it also has to fit more than one horse," he says. If the tree is too tight the saddle could pinch the withers; if it's too flat in the back it can hit the horse in the hipbone. And, a Western saddle should generally fit between a horse's withers and his last rib.

Design changes to fit the rider could require another look underneath the saddle. "Depending on the size and weight of the rider, we might be moving the cantle (the hind part of the saddle that slopes upward) forward or back. Every time you change something in the saddle's swell (the front of the saddle tree that holds the two parallel bars together) or cantle or rigging, you have to consider the effect on the horse's back."

Habighorst says that everyday riding equipment is just as important if not more so than show tack, and that problems can arise from alternating between the two.

"A lot of the veterinarians and chiropractors I talk to see problems arise when there's a new saddle," he reports. "For example, maybe there's a problem with the horse's everyday saddle, but he's gotten used to it over time. Then, the show saddle might be a better fit, but because it's different, the horse is unable to work through it, and you have behavioral problems that affect the horse's performance during competition."

A Need For Awareness

Poorly positioned or unbalanced riders can exacerbate any slight saddle fit issue, as can the wrong kind of, or too many, saddle pads. And some riders are simply unaware of what constitutes good saddle fit, despite the best of intentions.

"The rider is a huge factor; they need to look at how their riding is affecting the horse. I ride, so I understand from both perspectives (rider and treating veterinarian) the rider's impact," says Peters. "And, while many riders think nothing of throwing on an extra pad, some studies have shown that more padding can actually make things worse."

Several new tools can help riders understand and improve their riding techniques. One tool that debuted at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games can be placed on a horse's back and transmits wireless signals that are interpreted for the rider and trainer by a certified instructor. The system measures the rider's actual movement, aids, and balance, and instructor feedback on this data can help improve overall harmony between horse and rider and correct detrimental rider habits.

As for saddle pads, the Movement Science Group Vienna, at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, conducted several studies in 2009 in which they looked at the effects of a variety of pads (gel, leather, foam, and reindeer fur) underneath both well-fitted and too-wide dressage saddles. Study conclusions indicated that well-chosen pads can help reduce force and pressure distribution on a horse's back, and that selection of pads is also highly individual to each horse. Researchers also advised owners not to rely on pads alone to fix poor saddle fit.

In 2009 the New Mexico State University's National Agri-Marketing Club also conducted a saddle fit study, this time on roping and barrel racing saddles. What started as a look into the marketplace for rodeo saddles eventually turned up some surprising data about saddle fit.

"We found that many roping saddles had more pressure on the left side, correlating with greater left-side mass of the horse due to uneven exercise in a primarily counter-clockwise direction," reports Skyla Cockerham, club president at the time of the study. The results also indicated that each additional inch of pad thickness increased the probability of bad fit by 23.3%. Above all, they found that many riders were unaware their saddles were causing a problem. "The riders knew when their horses had saddle sores, but they thought it was just something that was to be expected in a demanding sport," reports Cockerham.

Medical and Management Options

From the sports medicine perspective, there are many tools and techniques available to help the veterinarian assess whether a horse is experiencing a saddle fit issue, a primary back injury, or some type of low-grade soreness, say in a hock or an ankle, that is masquerading as back pain.

"Diagnostic modalities such as radiographs, ultrasound, and nuclear scintigraphy can help sort out the nature of the discomfort; therapeutic modalities can encompass acupuncture and chiropractic as well as electromagnetic blankets, (extracorporeal) shock wave therapy, and physical massage," says Peters.

He adds that periods of soreness can be treated with systemic anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, local injections, or mesotherapy (a pain-dampening technique that stimulates the middle layer of the skin), but that changes to a horse's exercise routine might also help. "With many back issues, we can incorporate longer warm-up and cool-down periods, shorter periods of intense collection work, and more cantering."

And finally, some back soreness can be related not just to saddle fit, but to more advanced movements or exercise, as well.

"It's not uncommon for a horse that's going into more advanced training, say from second to third level in dressage, to experience temporary soreness," advises Peters. "You're asking the horse to use different muscles, and they're paying the price until they build the capability to carry themselves in the new activities." It's not unlike when we go to the gym for a big workout; there's going to be a period where things simply hurt until we build our capacity-- something to keep in mind when we're asking our horses for greater effort.

Take-Home Message

Saddle fit isn't the only factor to look at when a horse demonstrates back pain or exhibits resistance behaviors; oftentimes significant detective work is required on the part of owners, riders, trainers, saddle fitters, and veterinarians to determine what is bothering that horse. As Peters points out, "It would be so much easier if (horses) could talk to us." But since they can't speak verbally, we need to listen to their body language and explore our options to find the right equation for the right saddle fit.

About the Author

Lisa Kemp

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