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The Silent Abuser

Through the years of working with many horse owners on balance and saddle issues, what has become evident is that most owners do not understand the debilitating result of a bad saddle fit. The sad state of affairs is that these are responsible horse owners who are trying to keep their horse happy, healthy and pain free.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this widespread and insidious problem. One is that we no longer have saddle makers who either live on the farm/ranch where the horses are housed and worked or who go from farm to farm on a regular schedule making saddles as needed and repairing broken tack. From this comes the second contributing factor.  Today’s saddle manufacturers are interested in selling saddles, and rightly so, and are also far removed from your own horse. As such they are not set up for fitting a specific saddle to a specific horse. A few manufacturers employ representatives in the field to fit horses, however these reps are intent on the corporation’s goal to sell saddles, which is perfectly understandable. As we can see in saddle advertisements, there are two prevalent themes used as selling points for most manufacturers. Either someone famous is riding in their saddle, the implication being that their saddle must be good for your horse, or they focus on rider comfort creating an aura of more fun in the saddle while successfully achieving one’s riding goals.  Unfortunately neither of these approaches take the horse’s comfort and/or wellbeing into consideration. In today’s world of cross breeding both for function but often for looks, horses’ conformations are no longer the same as they used to be. This brings us to the third factor; our saddle fit habits may no longer be accurate.

This does not mean to say that the approach should be any different, a horse needs to be comfortable and able to perform athletically, but that certain habits that developed decades ago are no longer applicable. In other words, it used to be believed that the longissimus muscles were muscles that were there for carrying and that strengthening them meant carrying us more. In fact it’s now been established that those muscles are one of locomotion and that strengthening the back means allowing enough room for those muscles plus the other spinal procesess to act as they need to physiologically, and they only strengthen as the horses moves correctly under saddle. The entire horse’s body is needed to strengthen its back.

Additionally, decades ago horses used to have more typical conformations for each breed such that if you had fit one breed of horse in a country/breeding area you could then basically fit them all using the same parameters since they were that similar in build. That is no longer true with all the cross-breeding that has gone on and the advances in breeding programs. In fact, the science of breeding has outpaced both saddle making and training habits. For example, many young horses today may look more mature and look like they can handle more in terms of training but actually that is just the result of the science of genetics and breeding. The horses’ needs remain the same in terms of the training approach and pace. Another example is the many thoroughbreds I see being fit terribly because they often have much scopier shoulders these days. This means longer withers that need more clearance but a more forward girth channel which invites a forward placement of the saddle. Hard to find a saddle that accommodates those specifics.

To throw into this mix is the fact that saddle fitting is both a science and an art just as both the instruction of riding and the training of horses are. The art lies in allowing the horse to tell us what they prefer and for us to be able to decipher the horse’s communication – a tall order for us mere mortals.

So why such a strong title? Bad saddle fit leads to so many damaging problems in which we can effectively cripple our horses both physically and mentally.

Looking at the horse’s body through the perspective of the biomechanics of riding, we know that bad saddle fit contributes to the horse being unable to pick up his back to carry us. Instead it forces him to drag the rider around with a hollow back. This in turn leads to so many physiological problems such as lameness, back pain and joint pain; metabolic problems as well as problems associated with shallow and slightly rapid respiration; muscle pain and stiffness throughout the entire body along with neck, jaw and poll problems.

As you can imagine this then leads to a mountain of training problems. The horse literally cannot travel straight, with a hollow back, while we in turn try and cajole, pull and kick him into straightness, or a frame, in order to perform. The horse then refuses to perform, with this resistance showing up often in big ways such as refusing to jump, refusing to go up and down hills, refusing to do lateral work, bucking, kicking out, rearing etc.  Or the horse may show his refusal through speed such as taking off on an approach to a jump, galloping uphill and bucking downhill and spooking for no apparent reason. Other signs are kicking out at other horses or trying to bite other horses, an inability to turn quickly and tightly in balance, crooked tempi changes, rough transitions, stiff lateral work, insensitive to fine aids, slow to shift direction in speed-dependent events, an inability to really come under itself when riding patterns and the list goes on ad infinitum.

A sign of bad saddle fit that is often overlooked is the mouth/jaw/poll inflexibility that occurs. Day after day I hear riders and trainers talk about softening a horse’s mouth, poll, jaw. I watch riders manipulate horses’ heads in different fashions with different bits looking for the all-elusive softness. Unfortunately this head manipulation will never achieve the desired results when there is pain or discomfort (physically or mentally) within the horse because the resistance is in the horse’s ribcage. Often this discomfort/pain/resistance can be the result of bad saddle fit. Even when a rider acquires a well-fitting saddle for their horse this rigidity does not disappear. The horse now must learn to move freely and has to be re-taught not only how to carry a rider but to break habits of movement such as holding the ribcage stiffly or to one side,  tracking unevenly, diagonal crookedness on the forehand etc. This has to be taught in the horse’s body, which will then result in a soft mouth, a willing jaw and a resistance-free poll.

With these problems come the many vet, chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist visits as well as the cost of medication, supplements, x-rays etc . And yet often owners are unwilling to spend on saddle fit check, not understanding that saddle fit can be the source of so many problems. Just as an owner works with a vet, a farrier, a massage therapist or any other professional so does an owner need to work with a saddle fitter regularly in order to keep their horse happy, healthy and sound. Even with a well-fitting saddle, a rider needs to have the fit checked about every 6 months. Horses’ shapes change due to different levels of activity and age; riders’ shapes and abilities change and saddles themselves can shift in shape as well.

So what is the number one point we must keep in mind when fitting a saddle to a horse and rider? The saddle must fit in motion.  When the saddle works as an efficient adapter in motion it helps both horse and rider to move together in harmony. A saddle must allow for both the horse’s back and the rider’s back to move correctly to set the stage for harmony.

Let’s take a look at the horse’s back and the variables we need to take into account.

Our primary goal is for the horse to pick up its back and carry us rather than move us around. A horse can only accept and carry the rider’s weight when his back is relaxed.

The horse’s back is its source of all movement. Without the ability to use its back efficiently for movement the horse will move in a manner that creates pain for both himself and his rider.

A horse that is relaxed is better able to balance himself under the rider. This allows the rider to sit more comfortably and be able to absorb the horse’s movement correctly. In turn this allows for correct and efficient aiding.

A saddle that impinges movement or creates pain and discomfort creates a hollowed and/or tense back. Once again, this creates pain for both horse and rider.

Riding a horse whose back is hollowed or braced against the saddle and rider contributes to the breakdown of its connective and supportive tissues.

Riding a horse with a hollowed or braced back creates tension in and bracing of the rider’s back. This creates back problems for riders as well as hip and knee problems.

In terms of training and performance, the horse needs to be able to use his back to maintain his balance while keeping the correct rhythm of the gait he is in. Using his back freely and correctly also allows the horse to reach under his center of gravity with each step, which has him moving athletically and efficiently. In addition, what we may believe to be training or disobedience issues with our horses are instead very often saddle fit issues. This can then create a cycle of frustration and misunderstandings between horse and rider.

So what are we looking for in saddle fit with these points in mind?

The topside of the saddle must fit the rider’s pelvis shape and size, his/her leg shape and length and allow the rider to sit in balance while in motion on the horse.

The underside of the saddle must allow for shoulder freedom and back movement of the horse, as well as the most weight disbursement of the rider across his back muscles. The saddle must also protect the horse’s spine and connective tissues as well as not bear weight on his loin area.

Often times, because the rider or the horse has changed has changed shape or size; or the saddle has changed shape in combination with a worn-out pad that, a once well fitting saddle will no longer fit. Often we are unaware of these slight variations as they happen and bad saddle fit can occur even with the most conscientious rider.

Following are some signs of bad saddle fit for both horse and rider.

For the horse:

  • Sore Back – White spots on coat – Muscle atrophy on back

  • Girthy or fidgety while being tacked

  • Will not stand while being mounted

  • Behavior issues that cannot be solved through changes in training

  • Behavior changes from sweet to grumpy as soon as tack is brought out or tacking begins.

  • Cannot concentrate on rider and/or spooky

  • Rushing downhill or towards jumps

  • Tripping or stumbling

  • Unable to round back or use hind end

  • Unexplained lameness

  • Cannot move to next level of performance

For the rider:

  • Insecure feel in saddle

  • Upper and lower back pain

  • Seat, hip and/or knee pain

  • Difficult or impossible to maintain balanced, aligned position

  • Seat, legs and hands cannot work independently

  • Struggling to sit back or to come forward in the saddle

  • Cannot move to next level of riding skill.

Trying to determine on your own if your saddle fits can be frustrating and quite difficult. It is often best to request the help of a saddle fitter, whether it is the area representative for the manufacturer of your saddle or an independent saddle fitter.

Fortunately there are a couple of good books and DVDs out now that explain correct and incorrect saddle fit. Armed with this knowledge, owners and riders can better evaluate the approach of an independent saddle fitter or saddle manufacturer rep and choose to work with one whose philosophies and approach match their own and in turn be in a better position to keep their horses happy, healthy and sound.

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