Ask The Equine Vet: Saddle Fitting

English Saddle

Shires Equestrian York All Purpose Saddle with Adjustable Gullet Plates

It has been said that a correctly fitting saddle is as important to an equine athlete as correctly fitting shoes are to a human athlete.  In fact, proper saddle fitting is important for both horse and rider.   The saddle on our horse’s back is our connection to him when we are riding.  Anatomically, that region consists of the skin, with thousands of nerve endings, the epaxial muscles, the spinal vertebrae, and the junction of the ribs and vertebrae.

What are the signs of poor saddle fit? 
If a saddle does not fit a horse properly, pain, performance issues and behavior problems can result.  Signs of saddle fitting problems include, but are not limited to: obvious sores; white hairs under the saddle; swelling under the saddle; sensitivity to palpitation or grooming of the saddle area; “cold backed;” resistance to work; tail swishing; not traveling straight;  general bad attitude; difficulty with collection; and many other subtle performance issues.

How do I know if it is a tack problem or a medical problem?
If your horse show signs of bucking, inability to keep on a canter lead, bunny hopping at the canter, twisting over fences, or is very difficult to collect, these may be signs of mores substantial back pain with true musculoskeletal changes such as kissing spine (dorsal spinous process impingement) or vertebral osteoarthritis.  Any horse exhibiting signs of back pain should have a thorough evaluation by a veterinarian including radiographs of the back to rule out orthopedic causes of back pain.  If no boney changes are present, then saddle fit should be evaluated.

Dressage Saddle

Tekna S Line Smooth Dressage Saddle with adjustable gullets.

So how do I check saddle fit?
There are many resources available to learn about saddle fit, as well as many qualified individuals who can help you evaluate your horse for proper saddle fit.  [Note from Equestrian Collections - You can check on-line for Master Saddle Fitters in your area] The magnitude of information needed to correctly fit a saddle is beyond the scope of one article, but there are some major points which all equestrians should be aware of.

Structure:
Examine all saddles carefully for any structural defects or asymmetry.  Twisted trees or asymmetric panels will cause pressure points on your horse’s back.

Position: 
This is the most critical aspect of saddle fit.  Most riders tend to place the saddle too far forward, covering the scapula.  [Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers.  Press down on the pommel and slide the saddle rearward until it stops at the resting place dictated by the horse's confirmation, well behind the shoulder blade - Master Saddlers Assoc.]
Panel and Bars:
The panels are the underside of the saddle that contacts the horse’s back.  If the saddle is placed too far forward, the panels will contact the back only in front and in back and “float” in the middle.  This will create pressure on these contact points.  The angle of the panels should allow even contact along the back.  The gullet of the saddle is designed to keep pressure off the horse’s spine and should span either side of the spine by 1-2 inches.  No part of the saddle should directly contact the spine.
A Western saddle has bars.  The bars need to have enough curve and flairs so that it fits the contours of the horse’s back.
Tree:
The tree is the internal structure of the saddle.  Traditionally, trees are wood, but they can be made of many new high-tech materials now.  They can also be fixed or adjustable. The tree crosses over the withers, and should not put ANY pressure on the withers.  It should fit without a pad underneath it.
Seat: 
The seat of the saddle should be level as viewed from the side.
Rider Fit:
Remember, the saddle needs to fit the rider as well!  If the fit is not proper for the rider, then improper balance can result.  This will result in the rider causing pressure points on the horse’s back.  Additionally, the rider may experience pain from trying to compensate for poor balance or being in an unnatural position.

 

Close Contact Saddle

HDR Rotate To Fit Pro Close Contact Saddle

So once we get a good fit, we’re set?
No!  Just when we think we have the right fitting saddle, horses go and do something sneaky.  Their bodies change.  As we work them and they develop more muscle and lose fat, that perfectly fitting saddle may no longer fit so well.  It is important to re-evaluate your saddle fit as your horse develops throughout the year.  This may require that you have your saddle reflocked, or maybe even a new saddle.  These are, however, small investments to ensure that your horse can give you his best performance.

What’s next in saddle fit and technology?
There are computerized methods to determine saddle fit.  A computerized saddle pad is placed under the saddle and pressure measurements are made while the horse is worked at the walk and trot, on the lunge and while ridden.  Another method is to use thermography on both your horse’s back and saddle to see if there are any areas of uneven temperature (indicating lack of contact or pressure points) while riding.  These can be used as adjuncts to visual inspection of fit and measurements of your horse.

Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice from a veterinarian for their horses medical needs. 

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