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Saddle Fitting to Encourage the Horse

Correct saddle fitting can make all the difference to both horse and rider when it comes to comfort and safety. It’s the all-important link between horse and rider. Proper saddle fit can maximize your horse’s comfort and performance. A saddle can either encourage 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.

Some of the typical issues that can arise from an ill-fitting saddle are, but not limited to, lumbar pain, mincing downhill (A horse that is hampered in the shoulder may take small, mincing steps when traveling downhill), hoof balance issues (saddle fit issues can cause horses to move unevenly or cause the front and rear legs to move at different speeds), girthiness, stumbling (caused by too narrow of a saddle), systematic soreness, wither soreness, and atrophied back muscles.

If the saddle is too long for the saddle support area, the most commonly affected vertebrae are the last two thoracic and the first two lumbar (T17-T18-L1-L2). Additional issues arise when the panels twist or fall to the side and shove the vertebral spinous processes to the left or the right because of greater muscling at one shoulder. The resulting pain also causes the horse to protectively tighten the back muscle (longissimus dorsi), which further pulls the vertebrae out of alignment. Therefore, either direct trauma or secondary muscle traction are to blame for a resulting occurrence of lameness. If correctly fitted and centered, the channel of the saddle protects the dorsal spinous processes. However, when the rider sits too far back or the panels of the saddle are too long, the horse may experience tremendous pain over the lumbar transverse processes, which are not designed to carry the weight of a rider and saddle. The horse then hollows its back, hyperextends, and the result is sacroiliac, hock, and stifle problems. Although there could be health-related issues not caused by saddle fit, it is worth considering the saddle as instigator before investigating other potential causes. What is muscle atrophy and what role does it play in lameness? If a saddle puts too much pressure on a muscle because of being out of balance, the horse wants to avoid and lessen this pressure – resulting in a protective postural change which affects his gaits and causes muscle contraction. These muscles then begin to atrophy, as they will experience circulatory inhibition and receive less necessary nutritional supplements. When the problem is fixed, the picture can change for the better. The Sacroiliac regions may be sore secondary to other problems such as hock arthritic, stifle pain, or an ill-fitting saddle and imbalanced riding that causes the horse to hollow its back. It’s very important to have a thorough physical and lameness examination performed by your veterinarian to determine whether or not the SI areas are primary or secondary problems. As you can see, the effects of poor saddle fit can be far reaching throughout the entire horse and not always obviously related. The horses back is hugely dynamic and in constant motion, designed to move in many directions. The saddle is in its essence a static object placed on this feat of natural engineering and therein lies the problem. It is very important to ensure that any saddle you look at needs to be fitted to the moving horse, not just a static horse. The horses back and muscles will also change throughout the year and throughout his life. If you change your horses routine, work load, he has time off or the type of work changes even just you having lessons and sitting differently will very likely affect the fit of a previously fitted saddle very quickly.

The following symptoms provide direct evidence that a saddle has caused or is causing problems for your horse:
White hairs in the saddle area appear as a result of inappropriate pressure from a saddle, and sometime may be the only visual sign that a problem exists.
Heat bumps: Temporary swellings that appear immediately after a saddle is removed.
A sore under the saddle: Sores can be caused by a broken tree, or perhaps a nail or staple that has worked its way loose and is digging into the horse’s back. Also, check your pad for wrinkles, or foreign objects
Scars or hard spots can occur on the skin surface or deep in the muscles on either side of the withers. The skin and sweat glands at these scars are often so damaged that even when the saddle fit is corrected, they may be areas that cannot sweat.
Muscle atrophy: deep pockets or depressions on either side of the withers, or poor muscling over the entire back can indicate muscle atrophy. The pockets bordering the withers are frequently caused by saddles that are too narrow or by unnecessarily thick saddle pads that compress the withers.
Is your horse experiencing any of these common issues?
Lameness is another result of an ill-fitting saddle. Frequently, obscure rear leg lameness or stiffness originates in the back. Such lameness occurs because the hind legs cannot engage or come underneath the body with normal, strong movement. Instead, the hind legs tend to trail behind the horse. This causes excessive stress and concussion on the hind leg joints. Reluctance to use the back and hindquarters properly is caused by too much pressure from the back third of the saddle. A horse that travels in a hollow-backed position from a back dysfunction hits the ground harder than a horse traveling with a free and loose back. Consequently, a hollow back can lead to heel pain, commonly assumed to be navicular. Conditions such as front leg lameness, and frequent stumbling or tripping can be the result of shoulder movement inhibited by the weight on the saddle and rider on the shoulder blades. Dr. Kerry Ridgeway, veterinarian, saddle fitter and equine chiropractor, had the following to say on the affects of saddle fit: After spending many years specializing in equine performance issues, I, unfortunately found that saddle fit is often the root of problems that can lead to not only performance and behavioral deficits, but also back pain and even unsoundness. My obsession with saddle fitting is that saddles affect muscles. I refer to muscles as the forgotten system in veterinary medicine Veterinarians involved in performance problems and lameness tend to think in terms of tendons, ligaments and joints. After all, those are what show up as injuries and requires treatment. However, the tendons and ligaments respond according to one anatomical structure – the muscles – those in action or those failing to be appropriately in action. We all recognize that a very badly fitting saddle can be a torture device for the poor horse. But, what many do not recognize is that, what seem to be relatively minor saddle issues gradually affect muscles and their ability to function properly. An insult to one muscle works progressively to spread that insult to another and yet another muscle in a chain reaction That chain reaction will affect way of going, performance and foot conformation. Carried to its logical conclusion, it will cause firstly, performance deficits and progress subsequently to sub-clinical lameness. Eventually, the problem will lead to outright lameness. … Lameness that can be attributed to having started with saddle fit include suspensory issues, tendon strains and bows, carpal fractures, degenerative disease of knees (carpal joints), hocks and stifles. Extreme saddle fit issues that have been ongoing will result in very obvious and developed symptoms. The symptoms listed above are only a handful of the possible results of an ill-fitted saddle. Ideally, you want to be picking up the subtle clues at a much earlier stage, long before such extensive damage is done. Examples of such cases could include back problems, spinal and pelvic misalignment, soreness in back muscles, wasted wither muscles, kissing spines, lameness in the limbs, Navicular disease, distal limb degenerative disorders, etc. Common saddling faults that we find are in the areas of damage, tree size, tree shape build quality, stirrup bars, girth straps, paneling design and alignment, flocking, symmetry and girth design. Saddles that bounce slip or twist in use are often poorly-fitted (or there may be a definable back problem that needs chiropractic manipulation) Such problems should not be left unattended since either will cause pain and discomfort. To quote Dr. Kerry Ridgway once more : “Pressure close to the bone is magnified by 3-5 times as much” Pressure from an ill-fitting saddle, unbalanced rider or even a wrinkle in the saddle pad, can cause so much damage over a little time. We owe it to our horses to make our rides as comfortable as possible.