This page is here to provide information about what an incorrectly fitting saddle can and will do to your horse. It is also here to help you, the owner, identify whether their saddle may or may not fit. Please take the time to read this page – for your horse.
The initial signs of poor saddle fit or pain can be exhibited in various behaviours when catching, tacking up and riding. Horses only have behaviour to communicate with, nothing else. If your horse once walked to you and now walks away, if the horses expression changes for the worse when you approach with the tack, if the horse tries to bite or kick when putting his saddle on or when doing the cinch/girth up, if your horse bucks, rears, becomes very nappy, feels stiff, or offers any other negative behaviour – all this often indicates pain, and should be the first thing to rule out. Therefore, the first port of call should be to get the back checked by a professional and get the saddle fit assessed by a saddle fitter. It is important to rule out pain before any form of remedial training takes place.
If you are finding that you are needing ‘gadgets’, i.e. martingales, flash nose bands, and anything that helps tie the head down, this is also an indicator of back pain as horses when feeling back pain will raise the head and have an upwards banana shape. A horse which has had back pain for a while will often have a hollow on the top of the neck and may also have a hollow triangle on the side of the neck due to having to use incorrect muscles to carry itself.
This is a photo of a horse with muscle wastage. If this picture looks familiar, take heart that this can be remedied with the help of a good physiotherapist or other back specialist, a well fitting saddle – and time. Some horses have acute muscle wastage and pain. Ideally it would be better not to fit a saddle to the horse when I am first called but work on a program of physiotherapy, groundwork, and a break from being ridden. This would allow the horse time to recover physically and for the muscles to start building again in atrophied areas. Many owners do not want to (or cannot) take time off from ridden work. Therefore, we either look at fitting a well-padded treeless saddle or we fit a treed saddle a little wider than necessary and use the correct padding to take up the space. This allows the muscles the space to regenerate as they are not ‘held’ in shape by a tree. It is a good idea to also work with a professional to eliminate scar tissue and build muscle in atrophied areas.
How to check your saddle fit
Below is a list of points to look for to assess your saddle fit. It is not a definitive list and it will not replace having your saddle checked professionally but will hopefully give you some indicators. The other option is to hire or buy a saddle pressure testing pad this will illuminate whether there is uneven pressure, and where it is, and so is also a good option.
Signs of poor saddle fit
- With western saddles, with no pad underneath, run your hand under the front of saddle over shoulder – the saddle over the shoulder should feel free and not lumpy.
- Again, with western saddles, with no pad underneath – run your hand under the saddle whilst putting weight in the saddle with your other hand, you should feel even pressue all the way along. If there is more pressure towards the front or the back and less in the middle then the saddle is bridging.
- Dry areas under the saddle, when other parts are sweaty – but this is not definitive as some customers have found out. You can have a perfectly even sweat patch but the saddle does not fit.
- Newly-acquired white hairs under saddle.
- Swellings in the back after a riding.
- Needing to over-tighten cinch to stop saddle from slipping. You should not have to do up the cinch really tightly if the saddle fits well – even on roly-poly horses.
- Sensitivity in the back area, a dislike of being groomed.
- Bad tempered during grooming or tacking up.
- “Girthy” behaviour: horse puts ears back, bites, kicks, or ducks when the girth is tightened.
- Anxiety during saddling: wide eyes, tight mouth, hollow back, ducks away from saddle, kicks, bites.
- Cold backed: horse is ouchy when first saddled or mounted, and can even lie down when the saddle is put on, but seems “to work out of it”.
- Horse does not want to go forwards.
- Horse has difficulty flexing to the left or right.
- Horse has difficulty with lateral work to one or both sides.
- Hollowing of the back.
- Horse won’t stretch down.
- Moving along with head up in the air, “evading the bit”.
- Horse is “lazy”.
- Horse is “spooky” (extra tense while ridden).
- Speeding up instead of balancing.
- Speeding through transitions; rushed/choppy transitions.
- Horse won’t transition.
- Cross cantering.
- Horse likes to run fast and will not slow down to a slow lope.
- Horse has difficulty obtaining left or right lead.
- Horse short-strided.
- Unexplained tripping.
- Bucking, and bucking after a jump.
- Moving or resisting when trying to put saddle on.
- Moving when mounting.
- Painful in saddle area.
- Unusual behaviour – if horse is a ‘nice’ horse in all other ways but is showing resistance in one or a few areas this is usually a big sign of discomfort.
- Calm, easy-going horse in hand who gets ‘silly’ under saddle: always jogging or wanting to go faster, cantering sideways, bucking, etc.
- Hops rider off one particular diagonal, reluctance to canter on one lead, difficult to trot uphill, often preferring to canter.
- Dropped at the loins with a tendency to leave back legs behind or take small steps with back legs; as if walking in stiletto heels.
- Horse seems fine for months, then has an explosion (often “unexplainable”).
- Difficult to catch in the field, when in regular work.
- Hock or stifle issues! This is a big one, and is often overlooked.
- No indications at all from the horse (some horses are just that stoic and tolerant).
Of course these symptoms can also be caused by many other issues, including mouth problems, training issues, unsympathetic riding, etc. Also, it is vital to take the training and conditioning of your horses’ back slowly. If your horse is not used to being ridden – please build him/her up from the ground well first, and then take it very slowly once on board. Here is an excellent article about what age to start horses. It is written by Dr Deb Bennett at www.equinestudies.org Another very important part of training horses is correcting crookedness. I have done a brilliant online course, that will support you whether you ride English or western. The course is run by Marijke de Jong. There is also an excellent online western training course, called WRDP here.
I recommend a lesson on an Equisimulator. It costs approximately £25 for 30 minutes and it makes a huge difference to the way you ride. The closest Equisimulator to Ringwood is at Fir Tree Farm Equestrian Centre in Ogdens, Fordingbridge, Hampshire. Tel: 01425-654744. There are various Equisimulators located all over the country. Contact Heather Moffett for further information at www.enlightenedequitation.com.