Saddles are the necessary evil of the competition horse. They are rigid structures that connect the dynamics for the horse with the rider. The fit and position of the saddle affect the movement of the horse and the rider's ability to communicate his or her wishes (i.e., aids). Soft tissue pain created by an ill-fitting saddle contributes significantly to the poor-performance syndrome, as well as many of the behavior and lameness problems seen in horses in every discipline.
Performance problems can be as mild as a protest from being saddled to becoming an unrideable bucking bronco. Many, if not most, of the problems handlers call training difficulties are related to pain due to an ill-fitting saddle, although other causes of such pain can be unbalanced hooves, mouth pain from sharp teeth, rough hands, a harsh bit, or lack of rider balance. These negative stimuli result in a horse hollowing its back, inverting its neck, increasing concussion to all limbs, and constantly attempting to evade the rider.
The saddle industry has few systems to aid in fitting saddles or to help with manufacturing, design or quality control. The Saddletech is a computerized saddle pressure measuring device that I use in my practice when the saddle is suspect. This piece of equipment can measure pressures exerted on the horse?s back by the weight-bearing saddle and give a multiple color scan showing where the pressures are. We place the pad underneath the saddle, then the rider warms the horse up and the test begins. The rider rides the horse at the walk for 2-3 minutes and at the trot for 2-3 minutes. (The canter adds very little information, so it is not generally included, although if we need information from the canter, we will canter and even jump if required.) While the horse is being ridden, an image is recorded on the computer via cable, though some units have radio capabilities. After data are collected from the horse being ridden in both directions, the data can be analyzed. All of the data must be analyzed and not taken out of context, which is why only trained professionals should be called on to use this machine. Data can easily be misinterpreted simply due to ignorance or unscrupulousness.
The use of the computer has allowed me to study the effects of pads also. One study I conducted using this equipment was designed to examine the effects of saddle pads on the fit of saddles. Saddle pads can affect the fit of a saddle significantly, so it was necessary to study the effects of pads on the pressure scans. In this study a majority (65%) of pads affected the fit of the saddle in a negative way, by increasing the pressures under the saddles' pressure points. Only five pads (35%) out of the 14 examined either improved the fit or did not change it in a negative way. The study confirmed what has been my clinical experience, that pads tend to give short-term relief, but cause problems in the long term. If the saddle is a poor fit, the pad cannot make up the difference. It merely changes the location of the pressure points.
The computer has allowed me to study the effects of saddles and pads and refine my knowledge of saddle fitting. A good saddle fitter, who is trained in saddle fitting and has a good eye for the art of meshing a stiff saddle to a flexible back, does not need a computer to do a good job. A combination of using one's hands and eyes, as well as watching the horse and rider in motion can be enough to fit saddles well. Many horse owners have become quite competent in fitting saddles well.
Saddle fitting is an important issue in the poor performance syndrome because tissue damage caused by pressure points leads to pain and therefore contributes to decreases in performance. Pressures exerted by the saddle can be quantified with the computerized saddle pressure-measuring device. This allows for scientific examination of the saddle fitting issue, education of the horse industry about saddle fitting and opens up avenues for research in this area.
SIGNS THAT MAY INDICATE A SADDLE FIT PROBLEM
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
Any objection to being saddled
Hypersensitivity to brushing
Difficult to shoe
Not moving; bucking, rolling excessively in field
Rearranging the stall bedding constantly
Unable to stand still
- 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 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
FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN EVALUATING SADDLE FIT
- Structure of the saddle
- Position of the saddle on the back
- 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 (2.5 to 3 inches) (English)
- Whether the gullet is the correct width and tall enough to clear the withers (Western)
- Fit of the tree to the horse's back, especially across the withers
- Whether the saddle sits squarely in the center of the back
- Levelness of the seat
- Placement of the girth
- How the rider fits in the saddle
- Position of the stirrup bars or stirrup placement
Joyce C. Harman, DVM, MRCVS, operates Harmany Equine Clinic in Washington, VA. Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbs, nutrition and saddle fitting make up most of the practice. www.harmanyequine.com