Working as an Equine Massage Therapist and TTeam Practitioner, I have seen many different types of horses, riders and saddles and pad arrangements. Most times when there is a back or shoulder problem, one or all of these factors are not working together.
The tell-tale signs I generally find are a tightness, sensitivity or raised area on the wither or lower back, restricted shoulder movement and shortened stride or reports of bad behavior. Another area of concern is on either side of the spine. If overly tight or sensitive I ask to see the saddle.
I discuss here some of the problems I see when people purchase a saddle or try to make a saddle fit a horse. I am not suggesting a particular saddle is inferior to another; only not all horses are suitable for the various choices available.
BRAND NEW SADDLES
Today, due to increased cost of materials, many of the new saddles are foam-filled. This is fine if you have a good fit; however, you may not be able to change/adjust the fit of a foam-filled saddle. Some saddlers may try it but most I have spoken to will not attempt it. Even if you initially do have a good fit, foam, like wool, will compress with age. It may cost a bit more, but a wool-flocked saddle gives more adaptability for saddle fit. If, however, you are looking for an inexpensive saddle, it fits and it is not going to be used a great deal, a foam-filled saddle may be a good choice.
A few saddles are offering an adjustable tree. This is a good concept; however, check that the width of the gullet (the channel that runs under the saddle) is also adjustable or is wide enough to accommodate most backs. If the gullet is too narrow for your horse, no amount of widening the pommel area will make it more comfortable. With a too-narrow gullet, the sides of the spine are pinched and become tender under the pressure. The horse may be reluctant to bend, a canter depart may be labored to a sudden tightening in the body and no canter, or a launch into the canter. A walk to trot may be preceded with head shaking and any attempts to do lateral work may be met with a crooked horse and/or twist in the poll. Why? As the horse lifts his back, he hits the saddle panels rather than lifting into the saddle. If the rider persists, the horse will either escalate in resistance, or find a way to do what is asked. Often this simply means the back flattens and the horse does not use his hindquarters.
The gullet of the saddle is important but is often overlooked. Many saddles claim a tree size but the gullet is still too narrow to accommodate the back. It may fit when the horse is young or just starting a program but it does not take long for the top-line to develop and the gullet is then too narrow. This pressure on either side of the spine can cause the problems mentioned above and other less obvious symptoms. Very few riders are completely centered all of the time. Everyone has a side they tend to lean, especially when tired. This added pressure could be all it takes to create trouble. It can be very elusive, as the rider may not always lean. Trying to pad a saddle with a too-narrow gullet will only raise the saddle off the back. You will lose the stability of the saddle. At the least, you may have a sensation of rolling to a side, at the worst your entire saddle can slip off to the side as if it were too wide for the horse. A strong moving horse can actually lift the saddle off the back and up the wither. Then you not only have a too narrow saddle but a very upset horse as they now are restricted in their shoulders. If you find your horse becomes resistant after 15-20 minutes into work, check where your saddle is.
Treeless saddles are another good concept if the rider has a stable seat and/or the horse is balanced. In a treeless saddle, there is little support for the rider. The shifting weight of an unbalanced rider can create discomfort and bruising to the horse's back. I have worked on several horses who are ridden in treeless saddles. The success really depends on the rider?s ability, the horse and the type of riding. I know one horse and rider who successfully competed at third level dressage in a treeless saddle and another horse who had to be retired due to severe muscle bruising and damage. When looking at this type of saddle, be honest with yourself when you have the saddle on trial. If you detect any signs of discomfort from either you or your horse, it probably will not improve with time. Both you and your horse may be better suited for a well-fitted traditional saddle.
When purchasing a used saddle, many people sacrifice their comfort if the saddle fits the horse. I can say from experience, if the saddle does not fit you, you are not going to be able to effectively ride the horse. You and your horse are partners. Both of you need to be happy with the fit of the saddle. If you cannot get an ideal fit, you may be better off purchasing a saddle that is slightly too wide for your horse and use padding. Just be sure it does not sit too low on your horse?s back. It does not necessarily have to be the traditional three-finger breadth, just a uniform distance. If it does come too close to the spine it could cause discomfort when your horse tries to lift his back.
There are now many choices in pads. Ideally you want to ride the horse with only a simple pad and the saddle. However, this is not always the case. I know several horses who go very happily in additional padding and the saddle. If you have more than one or two horses or are a trainer, it is also rare that one can afford to own one saddle for each horse. A collection of pads may be a necessity.
When choosing a pad, I prefer a pad that has a split or is contoured to accommodate the spine. The center portion should fit up in the gullet. If the pad lies against the back, it could create pressure where it stretches across the spine. Also be aware that your padding is not creating more of a problem. Added padding can increase the pressure of an already tight area. As mentioned before, you can lose the stability of the saddle. You may also put the saddle bars in an area where it could press into the sensitive area between the wither and the shoulder. This is a difficult area to access. It is actually an open area where a pocket of blood or hematoma can hide. Since it is so open, the heamtoma may not be apparent on palpation or show any sensitivity until weight, and the horse?s moving shoulder, presses against it. I worked on a horse who had an elusive shoulder problem. I could barely feel any tightness yet the rider stopped riding him because he would literally turn around and look at her. When I rode the horse, he worked well. She rode the horse and he would turn around and look at her. I noticed she tended to lean to the side he turned around. Once I got her to sit back he stopped turning around.
Maggie Moyer has been an ESMT since 1992 and is a Level I TTeam Practitioner.