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How to Determine if Your Saddle is Hurting Your Horse?
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How to Determine if Your Saddle is Hurting Your Horse?

According to recent research studies, a saddle that fits properly is critical in ensuring that a horse remains healthy and gives optimal performance. But how can you really tell if the saddle on your horse does not fit?

During the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention (2016) held from December 3rd to 7th in Orlando, Florida, Scott Anderson, a qualified vet outlined how owners and vets can determine if a horse’s saddle is causing the horse to feel pain using six simple steps. Anderson owns the Woodside Equine Clinic based in Ashland, Virginia and is also a sports horse professional.

According to Anderson, the first examination is done when the horse is standing straight with no saddle pad. Next, put the saddle on the back of the horse in such a manner that the front part of the flaps are not interfering with the movement of the shoulders as the horse is working. Anderson added that this is normally about an inch or two (between three and five centimeters) behind the shoulder (scapulae). When the saddle is properly placed you can begin your evaluation.

Is the saddle horizontal?

Is the lowest point of the seat level to the ground? But the cantle and the pommel do not necessarily have to be even with one another. Anderson points out that if the saddle has an uphill look, the tree is probably too restricted for your horse. On the other hand if it has a downhill look, this suggests it is too wide.

Place one hand on the cantle and the other one on the pommel, putting alternating pressure to observe how the saddle moves to and fro. Anderson advises that it should be relatively stable and he adds that a saddle that is rocking back and forth signifies that the riding tree is too broad or the panels are too curled. If the tree is too wide, there is normally little or no contact at the back end of the saddle.

Is the pommel allowance enough?

The pommel must not rest (or be close to resting) on top of the withers of the horse. Even though the space between the pommel and the withers differs depending on the horse conformation and saddle type, there ought to be some allowance between the top of the wither and the pommel when there is a rider on the saddle.

Is the contact between the tree and the withers uniform?

Whereas the pommel should not touch the top of the withers, the tree should touch their sides. Anderson notes that in theory the contact should be spread over a wide surface area with no focal pressure areas. Glide your hand between the tree and the withers and see if you can feel around four to five inches of consistent and smooth contact. If the contact is mostly situated close to the top, the saddle is sitting too wide. If the contact is mainly farther down, it is probably too narrow. 

Is the contact between the back and the panel consistent?

Glide your hand between the back of the horse and the saddle panel to see if there are any protruding areas on the panel, pressure points and sections with no contact amidst the two.

Does the back of the horse seem healthy?

Anderson suggested that if the horse has been ridden recently and frequently in the saddle that is being assessed, it is helpful to examine the back for signs of rubbed hair, swelling, pain and abnormalities of the skin and coat. In addition, palpate the back of the horse, including the spine and the scapula, to check if there are signs of pain like too much muscle contraction or moving away when pressure is applied.

He warned that even though back soreness can be caused by a poorly-fitting saddle, it can also be due to discomfort or general pain. He added that preferably the examiner ought to look out for soreness focal points, often on both sides, that correspond with the saddle problems that were discovered in the earlier part of the examination.

Subsequent steps

Anderson opined that after identifying a saddle-fit issue, it is recommended that you enlist the services of a vet skilled in saddle fitting or a professional saddle fitter in order to solve the problem.

In addition, he urged attendees to perform saddle fit evaluations regularly. He advised that saddles change with usage, particularly if used on several horses. A wool-flocked saddle needs to be reflocked as it continues to be used. A saddle that is well-fitting can end up fitting poorly because of muscle wasting (atrophy) or a changing conformation of the back. The musculature of a horse is affected by exercise and age, and this means that the saddle also needs to change.

Saddle-fit problems in the real world

Anderson remarked that in 2015, professionals at his clinic used the earlier described steps to assess fifty saddles and they discovered that twelve saddles had no noticeable fitting problems, twenty three had trees that were too broad, six saddles only touched the back of the horse at the cantle and pommel (known as bridging), the trees of five saddles were too narrow three required reflocking and one of the saddle panels had curved too much

With regard to the horses wearing those saddles, twenty showed saddle-related soreness when palpation was done, five exhibited adverse reaction like being averse to tacking, going down when they were being mounted and being ill-behaved when under the saddle, one of the horses displayed lameness because of saddle pressure on the back of the shoulder, but it recovered once the saddle was removed.

The Bottom Line

Anderson stated that the saddle greatly affected the horse’s performance and comfort. He added that assessment of the saddle enables the examiner to make sure that the saddle does not become a source of pain.

Image credit: saddlefit101.com

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