Saddle fit


Want to start an argument in a room full of horsemen and women? Just start talking about saddles and saddle fit.

Want to start an argument in a room full of horsemen and women? Just start talking about saddles and saddle fit.

This horse shows a characteristic saddle sore in the mid back region. Poor fitting saddles with a narrow channel or with excessive shifting can lead to rubs and sore areas that occasionally scar and grow white hairs.

Everyone has a strong opinion and, just like with politics and religion, that opinion is bound to disagree with that of many others in the group.

One of my clients recently contacted me with concerns about this issue that made me evaluate the veterinarian's position in regard to saddle fit.

"As an owner," she wrote, "I find the distance in knowledge between saddlefitters and vets to be very frustrating. On one hand the fitters are convinced that saddle fit contributes to many/most soundness and/or behavioral problems, while most vets will argue that they rarely treat a horse for back soreness relating to saddle fit."

This client's comments concerned me because saddle fit and tack analysis are perhaps the last major areas in equine sports medicine that have remained outside of mainstream veterinary education. Veterinary schools now routinely offer coursework in shoeing principals and equine dental care and great strides have been made recently in the incorporation of chiropractic, acupuncture and even holistic medicine in the modern curriculum.

The one area that remains lacking, though, is that of saddle fit and tack analysis. As my client observed, "Proper saddle fit and the problems and troubles from lack of fit, to me, are essential pieces of knowledge for anyone involved in a sport at any level. It is a responsibility in my eyes. Now, do the fitters take it too far? Perhaps. Should most owners and vets take it further? Very likely."

Developing areas

The 2001 American Association of Equine Practitioners meeting included a session on bits and bitting concerns and there are numerous equine researchers actively investigating saddle fit and performance issues. These are developing areas and more and more information is becoming available all the time. Practitioners should become familiar with this new information and should begin to incorporate saddle fit analysis into their examinations and evaluations of the performance horse. Most saddle examinations that I have seen done have been cursory at best and a better approach is certainly needed.

One of the best ways to become more familiar with saddle fit and to become more competent at it is to deal with professionals in this area.

The Master Saddlers Association is one of the most respected groups dealing with saddle fit. This association was established in order to provide education for the general horse riding and owning public and for the training, certification and continuing education of saddle fitters. Courses are available that teach the principles of saddle fit analysis and professionals in this organization are available to help veterinarians and their clients.

Back problems

Equine back diseases and problems have been under-diagnosed and under-treated for years simply because the horse's back did not lend itself to easy evaluation. It cannot be readily flexed, blocked, and radiographed like other areas of the horse and the available treatment options were generally not that rewarding. Recent advances in ultrasonography, thermography and scintigraphy, however, have made back problems a bit more accessible to diagnosis and treatment.

There still remain those horses, though, that have performance problems that cannot be attributed to specific joint or muscular conditions and the concept of saddle fit problems must be considered.

At times the saddle is fine but the rider is unbalanced. This can be a delicate issue and is an area where the veterinarian and trainer must work together with the rider to identify and correct the problem. At other times the saddle is truly the problem.

Trying to correctly fit a saddle is a difficult task because so many factors come into play. Young horses are growing and changing their body shape. Horses in training and use constantly change degrees of fitness, which affects saddle fit. Very few horses are symmetric and even brand new, name-brand saddles contain their own variations and asymmetries.

10-step method

There are some easy steps that can be used when evaluating saddles, however. These "10 steps to static saddle fit" represent an objective means for veterinarians and owners to evaluate a saddle. All these steps should be done with the horse standing squarely on level footing. The horse's head and neck should be kept straight, so an assistant is necessary for this procedure. Each step should be done on both sides of the horse with the saddle in direct contact with the horse's back and without any pads.

Step 1- Position of the saddle

Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers. Then press down on the pommel and slide the saddle caudally until it stops at a natural resting-place determined by the conformation of the horse's back. Repeat this process a few times until this "natural" stopping place seems consistent. This point should be well behind the scapula. Resist the temptation to place the saddle too far forward on the withers. This is a very common mistake according to Gene Freeze, master saddler and founder of County Saddlery.

"Many riders place their saddles too far forward and this leads to pinching of the withers and restriction to motion of the shoulder blades," says Freeze.

Step 2-Angle of the points

To find the points, lift the flap of the saddle and look for a leather pocket into which the wooden processes of the pommel are fitted. This is the point pocket and there is one on both sides of the pommel just under the saddle bars. (It becomes important to know the terms used in saddle making and the internal structure of a saddle.) These points should lie parallel to the withers and not contact the back musculature. If the angles are too narrow the points will dig into the horse's muscles and the middle of the saddle will not evenly contact the horse's back. If the angle is too wide the saddle will sit down in front and will put pressure on the withers. To assess the point angles, stand looking from the front of the saddle with the flap lifted. The points should be parallel with the musculature. Some points are concealed on certain saddles. In these cases, one must rely on the panel pressure procedure.

Step 3-Panel pressure & contact

Panels are the wool-stuffed underside of the saddle that rest on the back of the horse. Place one hand in the center of the saddle and press down to secure the saddle in place. Put your other hand between the front of the panel and feel for any uneven pressure under the points. The front panel should not pinch the withers in any area. Run your hand, palm up, along the entire panel feeling for even pressure. You should raise the sweat flap and check that the panels fit snugly and evenly all along the back. Panels may be made of materials other than wool, such as foam. Wool is generally considered superior, though, because it can conform to the variations of contour in the horse's back better than foam and because it can be adjusted to correct for a multitude of balance and symmetry problems. Panels on whatever material cannot correct, however, for a poorly designed or incorrectly fitted tree.

Step 4- Pommel to cantle relationship

Visualize a straight line parallel to the ground from the pommel to the cantle. (Photographs can be taken with a digital camera and lines drawn to more accurately evaluate this relationship.) In saddles with deep or moderately deep seats, the cantle should be between 2 to 3 inches higher than the pommel. In shallower seats, such as in close contact jumping saddles, the cantle may be only 1 to 2 inches higher than the pommel. In almost any saddle, however, if the cantle is level with or below the pommel then the saddle is not properly fitted.

Step 5-Level seat

Visualize the same straight line parallel to the ground and look at the deepest part of the seat. This area should be level, in order to put the rider squarely on their pelvis (seat bones) and in balance. This shows the importance of evaluating rider balance. A proper fitting saddle will still result in uneven forces on the horse's back and potential problems if the rider is not correctly balanced.

Step 6- Wither clearance

There should be adequate clearance between the pommel and the top of the horse's withers - approximately two to three fingers. If there are more than three fingers then the pommel may be too high and the tree too narrow. Less that two fingers clearance may mean that the pommel is too low and the tree too wide. Either condition can lead to performance issues and possible lameness. Wool-stuffed panels will settle a half inch or so and should be factored in. Some horses have flat round withers and may need more clearance under the pommel and one may need to rely more on cantle to pommel balance as an indicator of fit in these animals.

Step 7- Channel clearance/gullet width

There should be adequate clearance over the spinal area and throughout the channel of the saddle. A narrow channel will restrict the horse's movement dramatically and may cause soreness. The channel of the saddle should completely clear the connective tissue of the horse's dorsal midline and rest instead on the musculature of the longissimus dorsi. Because the saddle will press downward and outward under the rider's weight, steps 6 and 7 should be repeated with the rider in the saddle. Adequate clearance over the withers and the spine should be observed with the rider mounted as well.

Step 8-Shifting

The saddle should not shift excessively from side-to-side or up-and-down. Sometimes shifting is a function of either the horse or the rider's symmetry, however, and not the saddle. Changes to the panels, shims or other measures can be taken to help such shifting and the veterinarian's attention to any other balance issues for the horse is also important.

Step 9- Seat length

The saddle should never go behind the 18th thoracic vertebrae, which corresponds to the last rib. Behind the 18th vertebrae are the lumbar vertebrae that are quite weak and not designed to support weight.

Step 10- Horse response

It is important to not lose sight of "the big picture" while paying attention to the sometimes technical aspects of saddle fit. Watch the horse's response to the saddle. Watch its ears and body language. Carefully evaluate its movement with and without the saddle. The horse is, after all, the best evaluator of saddle fit and will give you an honest indication of a properly fitting saddle.

These 10 steps can provide an objective assessment of saddle fit and will enable the equine practitioner to do a much more thorough job of saddle analysis. This method of technical analysis will also promote more detailed evaluation of the role of tack in equine locomotion and lameness. There are computer-assisted devices that evaluate saddle forces as well. These can be used as riders actually ride and jump courses. Thermography is helping with saddle analysis as well since scanning a saddle after use shows increases and decreases in heat that correspond to differences in force and pressure between the saddle and the horse's back. This thermographic fingerprint of saddle contact can be very useful in determining fit and possible problems. Digital camera analysis will soon offer still more information on symmetry and balance as the horse and rider move together and this novel perspective will undoubtedly teach us new things about saddle fit.

Saddle fit analysis remains a difficult area that is changing rapidly.

It should be an area that is embraced by equine veterinarians and incorporated into sports medicine evaluations.

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