Introduction

Does your horse show any of these signs? If so, a poorly fitting saddle may be the cause.
 
Physical signs of saddle fitting problems

  • Obvious sores
  • White hairs under the saddle
  • Temporary swellings (after removing the saddle)
  • Scars or hard spots in the muscle or skin
  • Atrophy of the muscles on the sides of the withers

Behavioral problems related to saddle fit and back pain

  • Any objection to being saddled
  • Hypersensitivity to brushing
  • Difficult to shoe
  • Not moving; or bucking, rolling excessively in field
  • Rearranging the stall bedding constantly
  • Unable to stand still

 
Training problems that may indicate a saddle fit problem

  •  “Cold-backed” during mounting
  • Slow to warm up or relax
  • Resistance to work
  • Resistance to training aids
  • Hock, stifle, and obscure hind limb lameness
  • Front leg lameness, stumbling, and tripping
  • Excessive shying
  • Lack of concentration on rider and aids, varying from mild to unrideable
  • Rushing to or from fences and/or refusing jumps
  • Rushing downhill or pulling uphill with the front end – unable to use the back or hindquarters properly
  • Inability to travel straight
  • Unwilling or unable to round the back and/or neck
  • Swishing the tail, pinning the ears, grinding the teeth, or tossing the head
  • Exhibiting a "bad attitude"
  • Difficult to collect, find a soft feel or maintain impulsion
  • Twisting over fences
  • Bucks or rears regularly
  • Decreasing speed on the racetrack or any other timed sport
  • Slow out of the starting gate
  • Ducking out of turns, turning wide
  • Starts ride doing well, gets more resistant later

Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. In the last twenty years great strides have been made in the running shoe industry, while the saddle industry has stood still or even lost ground since saddle manufacturers are generally fairly far removed from the horse industry. Most saddles are manufactured in factories by people who have never been near a horse, much less ridden on one competitively.

The present design of saddles has been primarily for the comfort of the rider; riders want close contact with the horse. However, in trying to achieve that effect, manufacturers have removed most of the support the horse needs in the panels. The riders then try various pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit better, but in doing so the close contact is lost.

In horses, skin or muscle damage and the pain associated with it usually shows up as performance problems, rather than overt sores. Performance problems range from a mildly “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between those two extremes is a whole host of symptoms most of us consider training problems, such as resisting, jumping poorly, being slow to warm up or not paying attention to the rider. Most of the time these behavior problems are related to pain and poorly fitting saddles.

To accurately determine the fit of a saddle with or without a pad we can now use computer technology. The computerized saddle pad consists of a thin cloth with pressure sensors in it. The computer pad is put underneath the saddle with any pad combination desired. The horse is then connected to a laptop computer with a quick-release longe line. A color image shows up on the screen indicating where there are places of high and low pressure. The horse can walk, trot, canter or jump while connected, though the majority of the information needed can be obtained at a walk and a trot. The only way to understand the effects of different pads is use the computer while the horse is being ridden. This technology is not generally available and it is not necessary to use it in order to fit a saddle well.  As with any computer equipment, the data must be interpreted correctly.

Saddle Fit

When evaluating a horse for a performance problem, examine the saddle on and off the horse. Saddle fit should be considered as important as, and similar to, shoe fit in a person. The basic factors to be considered when examining a saddle are:

  • The structure of the saddle
  • The position of the saddle on the back
  • The contact of the bars or panels against the horse’s back; absence of bridging
  • Must have enough rocker and twist to the bars to conform to the horse’s back (Western)
  • Whether the panels are wide enough for good support (English).
  • Whether the gullet is wide enough to clear the spine completely (2-1/2 to 3 inches) (English)
  • Whether the gullet is the correct width and tall enough to clear the withers (Western)
  • The fit of the tree to the horse’s back, especially across the withers
  • Whether the saddle sits squarely in the center of the back
  • The levelness of the seat
  • The placement of the girth
  • How the rider fits in the saddle
  • Position of the stirrup bars or stirrup placement

Structure

The structure of the saddle is extremely important and the manufacture of saddles has seldom included quality control. Therefore many new saddles are purchased with serious defects such as panels and flaps installed asymmetrically and/or twisted trees. The initial cost of the saddle seems to have no bearing on the number or severity of structural defects to be found. Examine the saddle carefully from all angles to check for balance and symmetry. Minor differences from one side to the other can be tolerated, but most differences that can be seen will cause pressure points on the horse’s back or cause the rider difficulty in finding the correct position in the saddle.

Position

The position of the saddle on the back is the most critical aspect of saddle fit. The most common mistake made is to place the saddle too far forward. This position places the rigid tree over the top of the shoulder blade, which significantly restricts the movement of the front legs. If the saddle is moved back to the correct position the stride will generally lengthen immediately.

When an English saddle is placed too far forward, the pommel is too high. This causes the seat to slope down towards the cantle and places the rider’s legs too far forward in an unbalanced position. The rider then tries to level the seat with pads under the back of the saddle. When a properly fitting saddle is in the correct position the seat becomes level.

Western saddles, when too far forward exert enormous pressure on the top of the scapula. The bars are too long and too straight for most horses’ backs so moving the saddle back to the correct position frees the scapula but puts the rider and the saddle too far back on the horse’s back. When the saddle is moved off of the shoulders the rider will often be tipped forward. Also, it is common for the fork to become too close to the withers after moving the saddle back. Saddles with shorter bars, such as those used in barrel racing and those designed for Arabians, can be easier to move back into the correct position due to the shorter bar. Many of the shorter bars are still too straight so the bars dig into the back and do not spread the rider’s weight out. Barrel saddles are more difficult to ride in as they are designed for a specific type of riding.

If the saddle, no matter what type it is, does not fit, no change in position will correct the problem.

Panels and bars

Moving the saddle back off the shoulder blade also increases the contact area between the panels (underside) and the horse’s back. When saddles are too far forward a bridge is created with pressure on the shoulders and the back of the saddle. The rider’s weight becomes distributed on four points, one on each side of the withers/shoulder blade and one on each side of the back at the rear of the saddle, rather than evenly along the horse’s back. This bridging causes the horse to stiffen his back. Many saddles, English and Western, have this bridge between the front and the back due to poor construction or poor fit even when the saddle is in the correct position. Bridging needs to be avoided. Most of the new flexible paneled endurance saddles are too long for the horse’s back and cannot follow the contour; this creates pressure points on the shoulder and loins. Then the flexible center of the panels offer, no support and the same type of bridging is created.

The English panels need to be wide enough to offer good support without losing the contour needed to fit the horses back. The gullet needs to be wide enough (2-1/2 to 3 inches) to allow the spine complete freedom from pressure, and to allow the spine to bend slightly laterally during movement. The angle of the panels needs to follow the angle of the horse’s back under the cantle. Many saddles have too acute an angle, putting pressure on the outer corner of the panel and creating pain at the center of the longissimus dorsi (back muscle). Many saddles have a wide gullet part of the length of the saddle, then a narrow gullet for the rest. Where the gullet becomes narrow, whether it is near the withers or the cantle, the movement of the horse’s spine will be compromised.

English saddles need to be reflocked (restuffed) every year or even more frequently to maintain good contact with the horse’s back and finding a saddler who really knows how to reflock a saddle can be a challenge. Wool stuffing is often the best at present as it is resilient and offers a smooth surface to horse’s back. Foam-stuffed panels are hard to replace and most foam looses some of its resilience in a short time. Foams can be excellent, however, if the panel is correct for the horse’s back, since they do not change shape and do not need restuffing. Many panels are stuffed with hard material, whether it is wool, synthetic material or foam; hard panels can be very painful against the soft muscle of the back.

Western bars need to have enough rocker (curve to the bottom) and flair (curve at the ends) so the bar shape conforms to the shape of the horse’s back. Very few trees have enough rocker and flair. Trees that are too straight bridge putting pressure on the shoulders, the loins and even the gluteal muscle when the bars are too long. The skirting needs to be short and flared so it does not interfere with the shoulders and loins. The bars should only put pressure on the rib cage; any part of the saddle extending past the rib cage should not put any pressure on the loins.

The saddle must sit squarely down the middle of the back supported by the bars or panels, as the spine is not designed to carry weight directly on it. There is no muscle covering over the spinous processes (bone along the top of the spine), therefore nothing to cushion the hardness of the saddle on the hardness of the spinous processes. Pressure can lead to bone pain and to degeneration of the ligament that runs along the top of the spine. Some preliminary diagnostic ultrasound data from England indicate that damage to this ligament may be common and may be an important factor in back pain.
 
Trees

The tree of the saddle, as it crosses the withers, must fit the horse without the use of pads. In fact, a bare tree with no leather should conform to the horse’s back. If the tree is too narrow for the withers, pressure points or sores will be created and the pommel will sit up too high, unbalancing the rider. In this situation if a rider placed pads (keyhole and bounce pads) under the back of the saddle to raise it, more pressure would be placed on the withers. If the saddle is too wide across the withers the rider will be tipped forward and the saddle will make contact with the withers.

Many saddles are poorly designed through the withers area and have pressure points built in. On many western saddles the bar is grooved too deeply for the stirrup leathers, leaving a pressure point at the base of the fork. English close-contact saddles often have an outward flare to the tree along the withers. This causes a very small and painful pressure point since the horse’s withers are flat in shape at this point. Most horses do not tolerate this pressure well, and will shorten their stride and hollow their back. Other saddles especially some of the dressage and a few western/endurance saddles have pressure points underneath the stirrup bars or attachments. In the dressage saddles pressure points sometimes occur under the stirrup bars because the manufacturers try to design the saddle wide through the front of the tree to clear the shoulder blades, leaving the saddle tight near the area of the stirrup bar.

Level seat

An important aid in determining saddle fit is that the seat must be level when viewed from the side and the rider must be placed in the center of the seat. If the seat is not level or the lowest point is incorrectly placed, the rider will be out of balance and will be unable to help the horse or ride correctly. The rider may be totally unaware of the problem. A saddle that is too narrow will sit up too high at the pommel since the tree is too narrow to follow the contours of the withers. The rider’s weight will be pitched toward the cantle and the rider’s legs placed forward, one of the most common rider faults. If the saddle fits well but needs significant restuffing, it will also slope down towards the cantle. A saddle that is too wide will tip forward or down at the pommel, pitching the rider forward and the rider’s legs back behind the vertical.

One method that can be used to determine the levelness of the seat is to pretend to roll a marble from either the cantle or pommel towards the center of the saddle. The marble should stop in the center of the saddle, not towards the front or rear. If the marble rolls towards the front, the saddle is probably too wide, if it rolls to the rear the saddle may be too narrow. The marble rolling to the rear can occur if the saddle is made with the center of the seat placed too far to the rear.

Position and shape of the girth

The girth will always end up in the narrowest point of the rib cage perpendicular to the ground. Because the girth is attached to the saddle, it is important that the girth drop naturally down into the narrowest part of the thorax or the saddle will move either forward or back as the girth finds its natural spot. Some horses girth spots are just behind the elbows, while others are one to two hand-breaths behind the elbow. An otherwise well fitting saddle can become a poorly fitting saddle just by having the girth attached in the wrong place.

The short girths, (both the western girths and the short dressage girths) can often cause discomfort just behind the shoulders and elbows. The correct length to have the girth is so it ends just below the saddle, just out of the rider’s way and as long as possible for the horse.
 
Rider fit

If the saddle does not fit the rider, the rider becomes the saddle-fitting problem. The most common fault is having the seat too small for the rider, forcing them to sit at the back of the saddle. This puts excessive pressure on the horse’s back concentrated at the rear of the saddle, even if the saddle fits well. The correct way to determine seat size is to measure the rider from the hip joint to the knee. The rider’s knee should be at the center of the knee roll in an English saddle. The difficulty arises when the rider has a long thigh and a small buttock, because they will find the large seat needed for their leg too large to sit in. A properly designed custom saddle would add a block of foam at the rear of the seat, and riders could try to do that in their own saddles using a seat saver with foam sewed under the back part.

The position of the stirrup bars or stirrup placement is critical to the comfort and balance of the rider. Stirrup bars places too far forward will cause the rider’s legs to drift forward, leaving them in a chair-seat position. Many riders suffer from instructors yelling at them to keep their legs back under them, when the problem is that the saddle does not fit the rider.

On western saddles particularly, the ground seat is made too wide for the rider’s legs to drop comfortably down to the side. The wide ground seat places the legs the same way riding bareback does. The thigh is pushed out to the side so the knees cannot lie against the horse’s side. This rolls the pelvis back and prevents the correct use of the lower leg, forcing riders to brace with their legs out in front of them. It is almost impossible to find western saddles with a correct ground seat for the rider.

Locating pressure points

If white hairs are appearing under the saddle there will be a pressure point above them. On a Western saddle the sheepskin covering of the panels will become worn down over the pressure points. Another way to locate pressure points is to ride with a thin, clean, white saddle pad. Where there are dark spots after 15 or 20 minutes there will generally be pressure points. Light areas or areas with no sweat are generally from a lack of pressure, but, be careful, these can also be caused by excess pressure which decreases the amount of sweat produced.

Measuring the back

To measure the horse’s back for some assistance in fitting saddles a flexible ruler from a stationary store is a tool that is easy to use, and works well as a rough guide to the fit of the tree. Such a ruler can be molded to the shape of the horse’s withers, and then a drawing made on cardboard and cut out. If this is done at four-inch intervals along the saddle area, a basic diagram of the horses back can be constructed. By holding the cut-out shapes of the back inside a saddle, a very general idea of whether the saddle may fit can be obtained. Several new methods, including computerized pressure analysis and thermography are becoming available which will help with fitting saddles.

Confounding variables

Saddle variables

Saddles come in all different tree sizes and widths, but there is no standard of measurement between brands. Some brands have a range of sizes, while others have only one size. As in shoe fit, some saddles tend to run wide while other brands with the same width on the label run narrow. Good knowledge of saddle fit is uncommon in many tack shops and the truth is that a saddle cannot be sold as being correctly fitted for a horse without trying it on the horse, any more than a person would by a pair of shoes without trying them on. Many saddles are sold as “one size fits all horses of one breed”, however each breed has different sizes of backs. Quarter horses can be narrow, though they are normally medium-wide to wide. Thoroughbreds tend to be narrow, but can also be as wide as a quarter horse.

A saddle should also be ridden in before purchase to see how well it suits the rider and the horse together. This will only happen when purchasers and tack shops allow marks to be made on the saddles, yet still have them sold as new. It is possible to wrap the stirrup leathers in vet-wrap or a similar product to protect the leather on the flaps.
 
Horse variables

A major complicating factor is that horses do change shape across the withers, rapidly at times, and particularly as they change their level of performance or level of nutrition as the seasons change. Horses in hard competition change shape basically 3 times throughout the competitive season. They start out heavy and wider when they are unfit, lose weight and become average in mid-season, and can get thinner and narrower late in a hard season. This is when saddle fit becomes a very complicated issue. Eventually an adjustable-tree saddle will be made that will solve these problems, but those presently on the market do not fit horses very well, and are generally not very durable.

Posture changes can affect the shape of the back. As horses progress through training and learn to move differently, they carry their backs in different positions and saddles will fit differently. Shoeing changes can affect the posture and therefore the fit of the saddle. Acupuncture and chiropractic work will generally change the shape of the back, so if you are having acupuncture performed, be careful about purchasing a new saddle after the first treatment; the saddle may not fit two months later.
 
The horse’s conformation can create problems at times. Wasp-waisted or slab-sided horses may have difficulty keeping a saddle forward in the correct position without a breastplate and in many cases breastplates do not do an effective job of keeping saddles in place without putting undue pressure on the horses chest and shoulder. Horses with a forward girth spot may have difficulty with keeping the saddle from sliding forward and will need a girth placed near the front of the saddle. Very high or long withers make it difficult to find a saddle that fits without touching the withers, especially those with long withers. Often the saddle looks acceptable until you feel inside the gullet towards the back of the withers. The saddle may contact the withers well out of sight of a normal exam.

Rider variables

The rider, by virtue of the fact that he/she is sitting on top of the horse, guiding it through complex movements, has enormous influence on the horse’s back. The integral relationship between the rider and the horse has been brought to light in recent years mainly through the writing and teaching of Sally Swift and her concept of Centered Riding. She has demonstrated very clearly that if a part of the rider is stiff, such as the back or right shoulder, that stiffness will be reflected in the horse directly and will show up as being stiff in the back and right shoulder. Most riders have some degree of back pain and stiffness; this is transferred directly to the horse. Many riders sit off to one side or the other due to skill problems or body pain. Over time uneven pressure is created on the horse’s back and can mimic a saddle problem.

Many times the rider’s style of riding, or the saddle’s design, creates pain in the rider, especially with saddles that put the rider in a chair-seat position. The discomfort comes from the fact that the rider is not moving with the horse and must brace some part of their body in order to stay in the position the saddle has put them in.

Therapeutic Pads

Therapeutic pads are often used to try to solve saddle-fit problems. Much of the time the pads provide only temporary relief and may cause more problems than they solve in the long run. The addition of the pad to a saddle is similar to a person adding an extra sock to his shoe. If the tree of the saddle is wide enough the pad may help. If the tree is already too narrow, and this is the most common scenario, the addition of the pad causes more pressure on the withers. Muscles will atrophy along each side of the withers after long use with thick pads. Extra pads, such as pommel pads, compress the withers even more. Since the addition of most therapeutic pads narrows the space available for the withers and the gullet, the pommel will sit higher in front, as it does when the tree is too narrow. This unbalances the rider, who then adds some more pads under the back of the saddle, lifting the back and driving more pressure onto the withers.

Frequently the addition of a pad will cause a dramatic improvement in a horse’s performance. This may last for only a couple of days or for several months, but the same problems usually return, because the pad changes the fit of the saddle and moves the pressure points slightly. The intensity of the pressure point is also changed by the addition of the pad but is seldom eliminated. Over time the pressure points find their way through the pads and cause the same problems again. This results in an unending attempt to find another pad to help correct the problem.

Having said that, a saddle properly fitted with a pad to act as an interface and shock absorber can be a big help to these horses. The saddle must be fitted with a pad in mind so there will be enough room for the withers with the pad in place. The ideal pad is not too thick, breathes, has memory and may not have been invented yet. Many pads on the market are useful; the secret is to select the pad with care and fit it with the saddle, just as you would fit a shoe with the type of sock it will be worn with. For endurance horses it is especially important that the pads breathe due to the long hours in the saddle.

Shims are thin pads the can be placed under a part of the saddle, for example on either side of the front to correct a saddle that is slightly too wide. Shims made from open-cell foam can be added sometimes to help balance the saddle. Shims must be used carefully so they do not interfere with saddle fit or make the problem worse.

Correctly fitting saddles can make all the difference between a happy, quality performance and one that is miserable.

Contributed By: Joyce C. Harman, DVM, MRCV