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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.