Does your saddle fit?

Ever get the feeling that your horse is trying to tell you something? Perhaps his eye hardens or he doesn’t seem as comfortable moving out anymore. Maybe his reaction is more noticeable, taking the form of bucking, flinching, or moving away when you try to saddle him up. Unfortunately many of these “reactions” can easily be chalked up to disobedience rather than discomfort. This “gray” area is a very common source of frustration for the horse owner. Although the majority of us wish that our horses could just tell us about their problems, it is a good bet that your saddle is a part of the problem. A surprisingly large number of horses have or have previously had poor fitting saddles.This not only creates discomfort due to pressure points or bridging, but can also seriously affect the muscular system, nervous system, kidneys, and the integrity of the skeletal system.

Here are a couple of simple tests to determine whether your saddle is fitting…

The Tree Test:  Uneven pressure, bridging and general poor fit can often start at your saddle’s tree. This is the solid part of the saddle, which normally does not change its shape throughout the duration of its existence. Check the integrity of the tree by squeezing the saddle between your knees gently and also from front to back. If the tree has broken or cracked it will be possible to feel some instability during these tests. Unfortunately, a damaged tree usually means the end of your saddle. Now check the balance of the saddle. Inspect it closely from all angles. Is there any differences from side to side? Is the padding in the panels evenly stuffed (in English saddles)? Are the angles of the panel the same? Optimally, the saddle should be perfectly symmetrical. If it is not, there is definitely a possibility that this may be causing discomfort for your horse.

The Pressure Test:  If your saddle passed the first test, place it, without a pad, on your horse’s back.  Note if your horse has a tendency to flinch when the saddle is being placed on his back.  This can often be a major indication of discomfort.  Now, run your hand under each side of the saddle from the shoulder to the loin.  With an optimal fit, the saddle should exert the same pressure on your hand along the entire panel.  Check down the shoulder.  Does the pressure change?  If so, this may be causing uncomfortable pressure points.  Also, if there is seems to be a gap between the shoulder and the loin where the pressure on your hand decreases, this can be cause for concern.  This is a condition known as bridging.

Fortunately, “shimming” your saddle can quickly and easily solve this problem.   Remember to check the other side.  Is there a difference in the pressure between the sides?  Also, check that the spine has ample room.  There should be 3-4 finger widths between the withers and the pommel of your saddle.  You should also be able to see down the middle of the saddle where it sits over the spine.

Try the same test with your saddle pad under your saddle.  Does this change the fit?  Are any problems you found improved or worsened by the addition of the pad?  One major misconception is that a saddle can be made to fit by adding padding.  This actually tends to exacerbate any problems and pressure points, creating more discomfort for the horse.

The Sheet Test: How is your saddle holding up so far?  A little depressing? Don’t quit quite yet!  The last test is very simple and easy.  All you need to do is place a clean white pillow case or piece of sheet on your slightly dirty horse under your saddle pad and saddle. You can also put a dark sheet under and sprinkle baby powder on your horse (if you can’t bear to have a slightly dirty horse!). Ride as you normally would (sweaty is good!). When you are finished your ride, take a good look at the sheet.

Are there any areas which seem to be darker or lighter than others? Are the markings symmetrical from side to side? Where is the most pressure being applied? Does this pattern correspond with what was found in other tests? Optimally, the colour will be the same down the entire panel, with a clear space down the spine. If you have darkened areas or surprisingly clean areas, it is time to consult a professional. These areas indicate pressure points, which will adversely affect your horse’s willingness and well-being.

If your saddle passed these tests with flying colours, congratulations! This is rare indeed. If not, that’s ok too. It just means that you may have to spend some time and energy finding the correct fit for your horse. Here are some options:

Consult a professional. They will be the best informed on what steps need to be taken to help your saddle fit properly. Fortunately, there are many ingenious ways to create the perfect saddle fit with your current saddle. Educate yourself about saddle fitting. There are some great websites and books on this exact topic. Being educated can definitely help you to understand all the options for improving the fit of your saddle. If worse comes to worst you may have to buy a new saddle which fits properly. It is worth your while to get a professional’s opinion before making this decision.

If you suspect you need some help with saddle fitting get in touch.

Alexa Linton, Equine Sport Therapist