The equine back is an area I frequently treat after assessing my clients for pain and there are numerous factors that can contribute to this discomfort. However, an item of tack that is used by all horse riders is the saddle and this can have a huge impact on the movement and comfort of your horse! It is important to be aware of what problems poor saddle fit can cause, signs of incorrect saddle fit, how you can check your saddle, what structures in the back can be affected and why using a Master Saddler or qualified saddle fitter to adjust your saddle is a good idea!
What are signs of a poor fitting saddle?
To the trained eye, subtle changes in gait and muscle symmetry can be indicators of poor saddle fit. I am often called out by owners who have seen a change to their horse’s behaviour and in some cases the cause can be that they are feeling discomfort from their saddle or girth. Some of the behavioural changes you may see are:
Bucking, napping, rearing or bolting
Not standing still when anticipating saddle, girthy
Cold backed, tail swishing, ears backing when saddling up
High head carriage, tossing head
Not standing still for farrier
Sensitivity to gently pressing over saddle area i.e. grooming
Poor saddle fit can also cause some behavioural problems that can be seen in your training and work too. Some of the changes you may see are:
Reluctance to canter
Stopping or knocking poles when jumping
Reluctance to walk up or down hills
Reluctance to move forward or to collect
Short choppy stride
Tripping or stumbling
Takes time to warm up and relax
Rider having problems with their position- sitting crooked or being thrown forward to backwards in the saddle
When I visit a horse, the first thing I do is look at it in standing and assess its conformation, muscle bulk as well as foot balance and symmetry. I observe if there are any noticeable changes to the back and wither region of the horse that may be caused by poor saddle fitting. But changes in the hind limb can also be present due to compensating for pain/discomfort by a saddle for a period of time (i.e. may cause unilateral weakness). When looking at your horse, some immediate signs you may see that can indicate poor saddle fit are:
White hairs near wither
Hair rub marks
Sores or lumps on back under saddle area
Uneven sweat patches after work
Dry patches or swelling under saddle region after work
Muscle wastage/atrophy under saddle region
Unable to develop topline
Asymmetry in muscle bulk through fore limb and hind limb muscles
What problems can poor saddle fit cause?
If saddle fit is too tight it can affect circulation by compressing tissues. If severe, this can lead to impingement of nerves supplying muscles under the saddle region and cause muscle weakness or atrophy and inhibit muscle development. Back pain can affect the way the horse trains, and more stress may be placed on the spinal tissues and joints, especially if the horse is working in an extended (hollow) outline to guard the area from pain. But this can cause spinal or ligament impingement and restrict the ability to work in an outline, engage its abdominals to lift the back and/or limit movement at the shoulder. If the horse is not or cannot use its back properly then it can have carry over effects to other areas of the body, for example; being unable to use its hind limbs effectively can produce muscle weakness and asymmetry. Or problems may refer forward and affect movement and symmetry at the shoulder or cause stiffness and pain in the neck. Ill-fitting girths can also affect the structures around the chest/stomach of the horse and again restrict shoulder movement and cause rubs, sores, pain and atrophy. Girths come in many shapes and sizes so fitting a clean and soft girth to the shape of your horse, for example; to accommodate an upright or sloping shoulder, will help prevent this.
Why check my saddle?
Regular saddle checks and yearly saddle fitting by a registered saddle fitter is important to help prevent all of the above issues from happening! Knowing how to check your saddle for fit and if there is anything damaged such as a damaged panel or broken tree, which can happen after a horse fall. A horse will often alter in weight with the seasons and also with workload, building more muscle when they are being worked correctly and getting ready for competition. Age of the horse will also affect how a saddle fits, so if you own a young horse, it is important to recognise that they will grow taller and develop broader shoulders and wider backs over time. So it is a good idea to get the saddle checked more regularly whilst they are growing to adjust it frequently and allow for muscle development.
What areas of the back are affected?
See my drawings that demonstrate the muscles that sit under the saddle region (both superficial and deep). These can all be affected by the saddle and girth.
How do I check my saddle?
Check the length of your saddle; does it finish by the last rib? Find the last rib (rib 18) of your horse and follow it up towards the spine. This is as far back as the cantle of the saddle should sit.
Is the front of the saddle flap sitting behind the shoulder? Find the top of the shoulder blade and follow it backwards and down – the saddle should not be sitting on top of the shoulder blade.
Can you see daylight through the gullet of your saddle?
Does your saddle sit with the pommel and cantle vertical (i.e. not tipping forward or backwards) and with the seat the deepest part of the saddle when on top of your horse?
Is the gullet wide enough for your horse and not touching the vertebrae? They are wider than you think! Your saddle fitter can check and alter this as needed.
Check the conformation of the horses shoulder. Is it sloping? Is it upright? Does the girth sit behind the elbow with a 1-2 inch gap to prevent skin pinching and allow full shoulder range of movement?
Look at the saddle off the horse and hold it up against a wall, do both saddle flaps sit flush to the wall?
Look at the panels of the saddle, are they flat, level and even?
Does your saddle twist in the middle? Unless it is a treeless saddle, movement may indicate a broken tree.
Also, look at your horses back without the saddle on. If you can safely stand on a box near your horse’s hindquarters, look at the straightness of the spine, the symmetry of the shoulders and back muscles.
Why use a Master Saddler?
Physiotherapists often work closely with Master Saddlers and qualified saddle fitters to find a saddle that suits your horse or to alter your existing saddle and reduce the impact it is having on the spine and soft tissues. They train for many years (a minimum of a 4 year apprenticeship) to be able to fit and make saddles. They have extensive knowledge about how the saddle impacts the structures of the back and can work effectively with Physiotherapists to find the most suitable saddle for your horse.
© Megan King Physiotherapy