Does Your Saddle Fit Your Horse?
Does your gaited horse spook a lot? Do you have a problem with rushing, or is the horse herd bound or barn sour? Perhaps you hate that uncomfortable pace, but can’t seem to train him to the smoother gait you expected? Your problems may all be a result of your horse responding to a saddle that is causing pain. When I first started working with a wide variety of gaited horses, it became increasingly apparent that many common problems originated with discomfort experienced as the result of improper saddle fit, and dynamics. These are two separate, but related, issues.
Saddle fit – especially for Western style saddles – can be a problem because many gaited horses have an ‘A,’ or ‘rafter’ shaped topline, as opposed to the more common barrel shapes of stock horses. The spines of such horses are situated above the level of the barrel, and the ribs spring out at a lower point. (This is often true of Thoroughbred horses, as well.) Fitting ‘A’ shaped horses with saddles built for ‘O’ shaped stock horses creates pressure soreness along a thin strip on the lower outside edges of the saddle tree bars. This can be a challenge to identify, as it is common practice to check for soreness just behind the withers, at the rearward part of the back, and directly on each side of the spine. Soreness resulting from a tree with incorrect angles for an A-shaped barrel will be 3-4 inches below the spine. It also will not be evident unless the horse is evaluated with a rider mounted, as the muscles are not compromised at a superficial level, but deeper within the tissues, at the depth where the rider’s weight comes to rest.
If you’ve ever had very deep soreness, or knots, develop in your back and neck, you know that another person may give you a light ‘pat and rub’ massage, and it does nothing to elicit an ‘ouch’ response. Neither does it alleviate the underlying soreness. Think of saddle soreness akin to this in nature, and it’s easy to understand why it is necessary to place the pressure of the rider on the horse to help determine if there is pressure soreness under the rider’s weight. It is difficult or impossible to duplicate that amount of pressure by merely pressing along the likely pressure points of the horse with your bare hands.
Aside from the matter of saddle fit, we need to consider saddle dynamics. A saddle is the interface between two flexible bodies – the rider’s, and the horse’s. It’s a fairly easy matter to create saddles that are comfortable for the rider as that’s long been the primary consideration when designing them. Until relatively recently, the horse’s comfort received less attention. This has changed over the past decade, and especially so for gaited horses. Many people taking up gaited riding are mature, just getting into – or back into – horses, and are hungry for information. They possess great empathy for their animals, are not deeply steeped in traditional dogma, and are determined to do things right. All this bodes well for the horse!
Unlike a trotting horse, the back muscles (longissimus dorsi) of a gaited horse have a rolling, hind-to-fore, wavelike action when the horse is moving in gait. To further complicate matters, the muscles on each side work independently so that when the muscle on one side is contracting, the one on the opposite side is expanding. This is easy to understand when we consider that every fast saddle gait is identical, or similar, to the walk. If you watch a horse walking across a field, this hind-to-fore action is very obvious, and is ultimately expressed as a head bob or nod in front. This action becomes less evident when our view is restricted by a saddle, and is totally lacking when a horse is ridden with a high head and hollow back – too often the norm for gaited horses.
Because of this unique action along the topline, even if a saddle appears to fit the horse when it is standing still – and though you might obtain a nice even sweat pattern after a ride – it is very possible that the saddle is seriously hindering this rolling, rear-to-fore action, and causing pressure sensitivity or soreness to develop under the back edge of the tree bars. A horse in pain often develops behavioral issues. They see bug-a-boos behind every waving leaf, and develop a dependency on their buddies to protect them. They may become ‘cinchy’ when being saddled, may be reluctant to leave the barn, and anxious to return.
Also, a horse is an animal of prey. Humans are natural predators. A predator on the back of a prey animal normally causes the animal to instinctively revert to ‘fight or flight’ mode. Given these circumstances, it is little short of a miracle that man has succeeded at training horses to be ridden at all! However, when a domesticated horse experiences pain in the back under the weight of a natural predator, it is normal for it to revert back to strong instinctual behavior. Depending on the individual horse’s innate pre-disposition, it may develop the habit of rushing and charging (flight), or else try to rear, buck, whirl, or scrape the frightening offender off its back (fight).
All too frequently, rather than systematically analyzing the situation to see what the horse’s behavior is trying to communicate, the rider assumes – or is advised by an ‘old time’ horseman – that these issues constitute misbehavior. So, instead of discovering the root of the problem and resolving it, they discipline – punish – the horse in various ways. If the problem then escalates, and the rider is hurt (all too common), then the fear factor enters into the equation. It can become a fast downhill slide from there.
Some kinds of horses simply tune out the pain, and becomes stoic. These animals have learned that any effort to communicate their discomfort to their rider results in discipline, so they somehow train themselves to ignore and work through the discomfort. There have been times when I’ve evaluated an animal for saddle fit, and the horse has flinched hard the first time I pressed on a spot that appeared to be compromised. Subsequently, it would literally ‘blank out’ its expression, and appear to look to some point in the far distance. Typically, the next time I press on that point – or perhaps the one on the opposite side – there is no longer any discernible pain reaction. Though I’m amazed at such animals’ ability to cope with pain, I’m also aware that at some point there will be potentially serious consequences if a problem isn’t pinpointed and dealt with in an appropriate manner. Figuratively closing our eyes to this kind of problem certainly does not make it go away!
To determine if the saddle you currently use is comfortable for your horse when he is being ridden, saddle up as usual. While mounted, have someone from the ground slip the flat of their hand under the front edge of your saddle, just over or in front of the wither. If the gullet of the saddle is too narrow, your helper will be unable to get their hand inserted here. If they can place their hand under the gullet, it may feel tight while the horse is standing still. This is because the horse’s shoulder rotates slightly outward at the top when at rest. For this reason, ask the horse to move forward a few steps, so your assistant can judge how tight the saddle is at the front edge of the saddle bars. If their hand is being pinched, then you have a too-narrow gullet that is creating pressure sensitivity and restricting motion.
Next, have your assistant place the flat of their hand rearward under the tree bars at the area where the majority of your weight rests, and press firmly. Observe the horse to see if it flinches, swings its head, steps away quickly, or pins its ears. Any of these reactions can be an indication of pressure. (You won’t usually get the same reaction when unmounted, as the bruising from saddle soreness can be deep within the tissues.) If there is a negative reaction, but it is mild, have your assistant step away, and casually ride away, and back. Now repeat the procedure. (If the test is repeated immediately, the horse may become stoic and unreactive.)
You probably won’t have had to even ridden your saddle for awhile to do this evaluation. If a horse is accustomed to flinching away from pressure over a sore spot, even if he is not currently sore, he will often still flinch out of habit when pressure is applied to that spot. I’ve had clients who were stumped because they hadn’t ridden in weeks or months, but their horses still demonstrated extremely strong reactions when this evaluation was done.
Another useful technique is to stand to the horse’s side, before the hip. Make sure you’re out of kicking range, because this test may create a lot of pain, and some horses will instinctively kick out. Take your hand, and press firmly in a circular motion all around the horse’s point of hip. Some soreness may have transferred to this area. If that is the case, your horse will definitely demonstrate pain with this test.
Next, have your assistant place their hand under the middle of the saddle to make sure there is no gap, or bridging. If there is a section where the tree bars don’t contact the horse’s back, you’ll need to use a bridge pad to help distribute your weight more evenly along the topline.
Even if your horse shows no evidence of soreness with the preceding tests, you need to get the horse moving to make absolutely certain the saddle isn’t restricting movement. Ask the horse to walk with good impulsion from the hind quarters. Then ask him to increase his speed gradually, while maintaining a soft, relaxed frame and gently increasing contact on the bit. Do not allow the horse to increase speed suddenly, or to ‘jump up into’ a faster gait. The speed gain must be gradual, and accompanied by willingness from the horse to maintain contact with the rider’s hand and soft flexion at the poll. If the horse persistently jumps from a slow walk right up to a stiff, high headed gait, he is likely avoiding contact with the saddle tree by hollowing through the back.
If the horse has no ‘second gear,’ but consistently raises its head, hollows its back, and goes immediately to a very fast gait, it is a good indication that he is unable to round up through the back because of restriction from the saddle. As the motion of the gait rolls up through the loins to the back edge of the saddle tree (or English panels), it runs into an uncomfortable obstacle – the rider’s weight settled over a concentrated area at the weakest point of the horse’s back (just before the Sacro-Lumbar area). If this is the case, the horse naturally stiffens up to avoid the contact between the saddle and his back. This is the primary reason people are unsuccessful at retraining a horse that is too lateral – stiff horses are often pacey horses.
Should you discover your saddle is creating pressure soreness, or doesn’t permit your horse the freedom of motion that it needs, you may be able to use corrective padding to help resolve the problems. The rule of thumb is to pad away from the pressure points. In other words, if there is pressure at the withers and the loins, pad in the area away from these - at the center of the back. If your saddle is too narrow, no amount of padding will help – and will, in fact, make the problem worse. Trying to pad for a too-tight fit is akin to putting on extra thick socks because our shoes are too tight. In this case, the only solution is to change to another saddle altogether.