If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions below, it might be time to take a look at your horse’s saddle fit, writes Maria Owens.
The initial signs of pain from poor saddle fit can be exhibited in various behaviours when catching, tacking up and riding. Horses only have behaviour to communicate with, so if your horse’s expression changes for the worse when you approach with tack or he tries to bite or kick when putting his saddle on, it may be because he is experiencing pain. Other behaviours under saddle such as bucking, rearing, napping and stiffness may also indicate pain. Of course, these symptoms can also be caused by other issues, including mouth problems, training issues, unsympathetic riding etc. Therefore you must eliminate saddle fit from the list before undertaking any form of remedial training.
Your first port of call should be to get your horse’s back checked by a professional and get your saddle’s fit assessed by a saddle fitter. The need for gadgets such as martingales, nosebands and anything else that help tie the head down may also be an indicator of poor saddle fit, as pain in the back will cause a horse to raise its head up. 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. Although your western saddle should be checked for fit without a saddle pad, it is essential that you use a pad when riding and that the pad also fits properly. Unlike English saddles, which have their own shock absorbency built-in, in the form of flocking, western saddles need a pad. Western saddle pads provide balance, shock absorption, protection for the saddle and the horse’s back, and takes the sweat away from the horse’s body to aid with cooling.
Questioning Saddle Fit
Does your horse try to bite or kick when tacking up?
Does your horse buck, rear, nap under saddle?
Do you need ‘gadgets’ to help keep your horse’s head down?
Does your horse have uneven muscle tone or muscle wastage?
Are there uneven sweat marks under your saddle after work?
Does your horse have any newly acquired white hairs under his saddle?
Do you need to over tighten your cinch to stop the saddle slipping?
Is your horse reluctant to go forward under saddle or does he rush his transitions?
Does your horse have difficulty with leads, flexing or lateral work?
Do you find your horse hollow backed and unwilling to stretch down?
Tools to help
Saddle pressure testing pads are available to hire or buy. These illuminate to show uneven pressure. Malleable templates are also available and have the added benefit that you can form them to fit your horse’s back.
Comparing the shaped template to your current saddle will give you an indication of any differences in shape.
Maria is a UK based western saddler based in Hampshire. She travels nationwide to fit saddles and stocks a wide variety of treed and treeless models. Visit www.western-saddler.co.uk for more information.