How often have you seen a rider take a saddle off one horse and put it onto another. This happens far too often and people never consider saddle fit when it comes to the horse. If your horse is showing negative behavior, pins his ears or objects to being saddled and/or girthed, perhaps he is trying to tell you that the saddle, where it sits, or how it fits hurts his back. Listen to your horse.
According to Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM and recognized saddle fitting specialist, 23 out of an average of 25 horses, have at least moderate back pain which is related to their saddles.
Here is how you can check if your horse has back pain.
- Just behind the withers, rest your fingers on your horse’s spine and reach your thumb down to the hollow just which is about 4 – 5 inches down on most horses. That’s the starting point of the acupuncture pathway which will be your testing line to the rear end of your horse.
- Along that line moving towards the back of your horse, press into the muscle every inch or two inches. If he feels tense or tight, he’s sore; if he “splints” or stiffens his back, he’s really sore; if he collapses, he unbearably sore!
Now check your saddle for symmetry by turning the saddle upside down. Look at the panels, are they the same shape and fully stuffed?
- Turn your saddle right side up and look at it from the front to see if the tree is symmetrical. It should be even on both sides like a perfect triangle top.
- Brace the back of the saddle against your thigh and look down at your saddle. Make sure that the buttons are parallel (if not, the tree is twisted) and that the flaps are straight (if not, the tree may be twisted).
Check your saddle’s position on your horse. In my opinion, most horses in every sport wear their saddles too far forward. To place the saddle properly on your horse, put it up to his withers and then slide it back where it stops naturally which will depend upon your horse's conformation. Resist the temptation to place the saddle too far forward! If you use this natural saddling technique, this will get the tree off his shoulder blades and will leave your horse to “step out” and will not restrict his movement. To check to see if the saddle is in the right place, look for that flat area of your horse’s underside just in front of where his stomach starts to widen out. Typically this is about 3 to 5 inches behind his elbow. If the girth crosses this spot, then the saddle placement is good.
Here’s a neat trick I was shown using dressage whips to test the saddle tree by Dr. Joyce Harman. It provides a great visual concept when looking at your horse’s saddle tree.
- With the saddle positioned correctly on your horse, lie one dressage whip against your horse’s whither and one along the line of the tree, the seam of the saddle. If the tree fits your horse, the two whips won’t cross.
- If the two whips cross above the withers, the tree is too wide and this is a problem that may be resolved with corrective padding.
- If the whips cross below the wither, it is too narrow and no matter how much padding you put on your horse, it won’t correct the problem. A new saddle is the only solution.
When you put your hand underneath a correctly positioned saddle and slide your fingers along the panel, it should feel equally snug from front to back. The places where it is tighter will be the sore spots on your horse.
On a properly positioned saddle, there should be adequate clearance over the spine and connective tissue throughout the channel of the saddle. A channel that is too narrow may impede your horse’s movement. The saddle should rest on the, longissimus dorsi, long back muscle of the horse and not on the spine/connective tissue. The saddle should be stable and not shift from side to side or from front to back. Also, the saddle should never go behind the 18th thoracic vertebra (the vertebra corresponding with the last rib) as this is the weakest, non-weight bearing area of the back.
Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as the correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. Also keep in mind that horses change depending on their physical condition and training therefore your saddle should be examined on a frequent basis. Be prepared to change your saddle as one saddle will rarely fit your horse for the rest of his life.