Back to Basics: Basics of Horse Backs

Written by Brenda Imus

Portions of this article originally appeared in Trail Rider magazine. 

The greatest frustration for those owners of gaited horses that are ‘clued in’ to their animals is often finding a saddle to correctly fit the horse. It’s not uncommon for people to go through a half dozen saddles (or more) in their quest to help their horse to perform comfortably. I am commonly asked why this is so. Since this is spring, and the start of a new riding season, it seemed an appropriate time to respond to that question. It is my sincere hope that many of you, upon reading this article, will be spared the frustration so commonly associated with finding the right saddle for a gaited horse. If you know of someone dealing with a saddle issue feel free to forward this article on to them, or to print it out and share. (While gaited horses do have unique action through the back, owners of non-gaited horses with strong athletic abilities, very short backs, and/or unusual toplines also may benefit from the information contained herein.) 

A gaited horse is one that possesses the innate ability to be ‘quadridextrous,’ or to move all four legs independently of one another at speed, while a non-gaited horse can only move pairs of legs together when going faster than a walk. The traditional method for training a gaited horse to saddle has been to encourage it to stiffen up and hollow its back, and raise its neck and head. This effectively raises the animal’s center of gravity, making it easy for the trainer to shift his or her weight, see-saw on the reins, and throw the horse off balance. When this is done with certain timing, it results in some sort of 4-beat shuffle as the horse attempts to regain its balance. The rider then keeps the horse somewhat off balance, pushes for speed, and voila! – a smooth saddle gait has been obtained in very short order. The horse’s conformation, the way it has been trimmed, padded, shod, bitted and otherwise mechanically altered, combined with the rider’s seat, leg and hand position, all help to determine what gait the horse will perform. Repetition of this kind of riding helps to confirm the gait, so that the horse learns to habitually travel in a particular manner and at a certain gait when under saddle.

This type of training philosophy led to the (untrue) truism that “you can’t collect a gaited horse,” since collection requires that the horse’s back round up under the rider, rather than leveling out or going in an inverse, hollow frame. The results of this traditional view have been unfortunate, as gaited horses of all kinds pay a steep price for poor riding and training techniques. A horse consistently ridden with a high head and hollow back will almost certainly suffer pain and unsoundness issues at a relatively young age. Gaited horses have long been notorious for back, hock, stifle, and behavioral issues. As the back goes hollow, saddle fitting becomes a nightmare. Many of you already knew this – now you know why.

What has been little understood is that the physiology of gaited horses is different from that of their trotting counterparts. Specifically, their longissimus dorsi (back muscles) require a tremendous degree of flexibility as their action, when the horse is ridden in proper form with good engagement from the rear end, tends to be more back to front than up and down. In other words, the dynamics of the gaited horse’s back is similar to that of a wave, originating in the haunches, flowing forward through the back, shoulders, neck and poll, and ultimately being expressed through some degree of head nod in front.  That’s not to say that all gaited horses possess the more extreme head nod of a running walk horse – but some amount of head nod can be expected if the horse is ridden in good form.

This is easy to understand when you consider that smooth saddle gaits are all based on some variation of the walk, but performed with greater speed and impulsion. When you watch a horse walking at liberty across a field, you clearly see the rear to front action I’m describing. This is not as evident in a trotting horse, where the back motion is more up and down than back to front.

The primary reason gaited horses don’t gait when the rider attempts to ride them in good form is that the saddle and/or pad being used doesn’t permit the transfer of this wave-like motion through the muscles of the back. What I typically see is a saddle built on an inflexible tree, strapped down tight, with the weight of a rider seated on top – and that weight usually rests toward the rear of the horse’s back, rather than over its true center of gravity, just behind the withers. This seat position further interferes with the natural motion of the back.

In essence, the horse’s back has been strapped down and weighted into an unyielding splint, leaving it little choice but to go hollow to avoid painful contact with the weighted down saddle tree bars.  When we thus disrupt the inherent action of the gaited horse’s back, we make it impossible for the horse to maintain its 4-beat gait in good form. The horse often reverts to a trot or stepping pace, which are gaits requiring less freedom through the back. 

Unfortunately for the rider, an aversion to the up and down action of the trot is the reason most folks decide to ‘go gaited.’ Unfortunately for the horse, a stepping pace can be a smooth ride (or not!), but places a great deal of physical stress on the horse. It generally leads to a hollow back (think: saddle fitting issues), as well as to hock and stifle issues –the horse often develops related behavioral problems, as well.

Can good padding alleviate this problem? Yes. . .if. If the saddle is otherwise a good fit for the horse. . .if the rider doesn’t think that ‘good’ padding simply equates to ‘thicker’ padding. . .if the horse isn’t the type with greatly exaggerated rolling action through the longissimus dorsi. . .if the rider is willing to research and experiment with different padding materials to see what actually works, if anything – then yes, this problem may be addressed with good padding.

The kinds of pads I’ve had the greatest success with are constructed of soft closed cell foam. This is not the ‘memory foam’ that’s become popular on the market, as that material collapses under heat and weight. Supracor® padding may also be a good choice. Again, it’s important to research and experiment to find the most effective material, as well as the best placement for the padding.

There are times when padding alone won’t fix this problem. This is especially true if the saddle is too narrow. Trying to fix a too tight saddle by adding thicker padding is akin to putting on extra heavy socks because your shoes are too tight – it makes the problem worse. In this case the rider needs to become well educated as regards gaited horse saddle fit. I will say little about this here, except to mention that many types of gaited horse saddles use rigid trees with a great deal of ‘rock’ in the bars, in order to permit them to conform to hollow backed horses. If your goal is to repair or prevent a hollow back, this type of saddle will work against you.

How can you tell if poor saddle dynamics are your horse’s problem? First, check your horse for saddle fit and soreness. With a rider up, slide your hand up under the front edge of the tree bar where it sits in front of (or over) the wither and shoulder. Is it extremely tight? Very loose? It should feel slightly snug. Now have the horse move while keeping your hand in place. Is there pinching or pressure on your hand that normally is borne by the horse’s shoulder? Or does the saddle slide around loosely? Next, place the flat of your hand under the saddle at the point where the greatest amount of the rider’s weight falls, and press firmly. The first time you do this, you might see the horse flinch slightly as a reaction to an unexpected feel. But if the horse flinches hard, pins its ears, swings its head at you, or steps vigorously away, there’s a good chance you’ve discovered some deep-down soreness issues that you’ll need to address.

Another sign of possible back issues is crookedness. To check for this, stand on a stool or bale of hay behind your horse, out of kicking range. With your horse standing square, look down the horse’s back. Some asymmetry is to be expected, but if you see extreme crookedness, your horse’s head is positioned strongly to one side, and one shoulder is much more prominent than another, there’s a possibility he’s been traveling crooked in order to avoid pressure from the saddle bars. (This is only one cause of crookedness, and should not be your only evaluation criterion.) In this event, you’ll want to consider the services of an equine massage therapist or chiropractor to get back to square one.

One reliable indication of saddle problems is if you find your horse has no ‘second gear’ when being ridden. With some practice, a gaited horse should be able to go from an active walk to a more dynamic flat walk, and then into a faster gait, all while maintaining good form. If your horse continually throws up its head, hollows its back, and rushes right from a walk into gait – in spite of your repeated efforts to gain consistency and form – then it may be that he is simply unable to do a moderate gait, or to maintain good form, in your current setup.

I encourage you to watch my gaited horse saddle fitting and equitation video below: