“When my young horse proves himself, I will get him a good saddle” is comparable to saying, “When my child learns to play sports properly, I will get her a pair of running shoes that fit.”
As a saddle fitter, I always wonder how young horses are supposed to prove themselves if the athletic equipment we ride them in is poor quality and doesn’t fit well. How are they supposed to be loose and relaxed and supple if their saddles are pinching and uncomfortable?
A horse’s back is not built to carry the weight of a rider (although there is a ‘safe spot’ that can actually carry up to 300 pounds for up to 8 hours). A horse’s growth plates close from the ground up, finishing in the spine (where the saddle sits) when the horse is six years old, no matter the breed.
Often bad behaviour stems directly from pain caused by a saddle. If a young horse is fitted properly through his development, pain can be kept to a minimum, allowing for positive development of muscle. Behavior learned in the first year under saddle is behavior that a horse is going to demonstrate throughout its life.
Your horse’s body has two systems of suspension that are not held firm by the skeleton. By changing the muscling and the horse’s way of going, we can actually affect these two systems. If we damage these systems, we can permanently change a horse’s movement and conformation.
The ligament that runs from the top of a horse’s neck down the spine into its tail is the spinal nuchal/supraspinous ligament (figure A). When the horse’s neck and back lift, this ligament supports collection and suspension. Imagine putting a saddle on the young horse’s back that is too narrow and pinches this ligament system (figure B). To put it in perspective, if a piano player had the ligaments in the back of her hands rubbed continually for 45 minutes five days a week, how supple do you think her hand would be? If the saddle rubs on the sides of the spine, and therefore the ligament, it stands to reason that your horse will not want to lift his back and bend and move his spine. Pinching this ligament can cause a dropped or swayed back and an unwillingness to bend. By the time the young horse is old enough to be ridden, this spinal width is no longer going to change. Therefore this needs to be measured and the width between the panels of the saddle needs to be appropriate for the width of the spine and ligament.
The second suspension system has a much larger affect on the conformation of the horse, especially the young horse. Horses do not have collar bones the way humans do. If you look at a cross-section of the horse’s ribcage (figure C), you will see the shoulder connected to the ribcage by muscles. In this example, the muscles suspending the ribcage are in yellow. A horse is a naturally “downhill” animal because they eat off the ground, shifting their weight forward and onto the forehand. When we ride, we elevate the head, bringing it off the ground and shifting the weight of the horse onto its hind end. When we do this we ask the muscles (wither, shoulder, and pectoral) to lift and support the ribcage. As a horse does this repeatedly, these muscles strengthen and grow. As a result, the more we lift the front end, the stronger it gets and the more “uphill” our horse becomes.
You can see the difference in the musculature between the fit horse and the unfit horse (figure C). In our fit horse, the ribcage is higher and the shoulders are pushed out wider, revealing more definition in the shoulder and a higher wither.
If our saddle pinches on the muscles of the wither (figure D), the opposite development can result. When the trapezius muscle of the horse is pinched, the horse hollows its back, lifts its head and pulls the pelvis forward. If the spinalis muscle is pinched it causes the horse to lock in the base of the neck and the jaw. Both of these actions force the horse onto the forehand and do not allow the muscle development seen in figure C to happen.
If a young horse’s saddle pinches the wither, then although the rider’s hands, seat and legs are telling the horse to round and come through, the saddle is telling the horse to invert, stop and lock in the neck. You can imagine the confusion to the young horse and why he would exhibit bad behaviour if this is happening.
There is no specific model of saddle that is perfect for the young horse. Although all breeds have the same bones and muscles, each one has slightly different conformation. That is why it is so important to work with a saddle fitter from the first day of riding to get something that fits properly. It is also imperative to have equipment that can be adapted to the horse as the angles of the shoulder and wither change through “uphill” development. A young horse should be fitted at least once every six months to ensure that the saddle is still fitting properly through his changes in shape.
If you want your child to be able to score the winning goal then they need good equipment. If you want your young horse to succeed in a positive training environment they need equipment that fits as well.
Kristen Vlietstra is a Certified Saddlefit Technician, Senior Sales Associate and Training Coordinator at Schleese Saddlery Service. She is an expert in the science of saddle fitting to horse and rider, providing clients with diagnostic analysis, re-fitting and adjustment service. Kristen presents educational lectures and demos at symposiums, trade shows and client groups. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org