National Saddle Centre NZJosephine Giles DancyOwner, Founder & Master SaddleFitter
What the horse needs from the saddleThe horse’s primary need is comfort and freedom of movement.A well fitting saddle minimizes the damage we do to out horses back by ridinghim. By distributing our weight as sympathetically as possible on the horse’sback we increase the horse’s comfort and his ability to preform what we areasking of him.To expect a horse to perform kindly and give his best whilst wearing an“instrument of torture” is not reasonable and we should not be surprised if thehorse reacts towards us in a negative way if we do so.We will go through some of the signs to look for both physically and behaviourwise which might indicate that your horse is not as happy as he deserves to be.
Signs of an Ill-Fitting SaddleWays your horse may tell you that he isn’t comfortable…
What is your horse trying to tell you?Physical Signs Soreness Reaction to Touch Muscle Loss Tension in the Back Dry spots White hairsSudden Changes in Behaviour Ears back Biting Kicking Threatening Dislike of grooming and being tackedup Unusually grumpy behaviour
What is your horse trying to tell you? Reluctance to go forwards or down hills Suddenly refusing to jump, rushing fences or clipping poles. Hollowing and working away from the saddle. Overly high head carriage or inability to drop head low on long rein. This isa good test because if he is sore he will be unable to work through his back, therefore beingunable to drop his head. Bucking, if it unusual for him to do so.Under SaddleThese are ways your horse may tell you that he isn’t comfortable:
Dry SpotsDry spots would seem to indicate excesspressure – these can be caused by asaddle that is too narrow or too widewhere the balance has not beencorrected, or the incorrect use of backriser pad in an attempt to “correct” thebalance.Dry spots tend to occur more often onhorses with poor conformation,particularly those that are higher behindthan in front (croup high) and arebelieved to be the precursor to whitehairs.
White HairsWhite hairs are definitely caused by excesspressure – these can be caused by a saddlethat is too narrow or too wide where thebalance has not been corrected, or theincorrect use of back riser pad in an attemptto “correct” the balance. Poor conformationand excess weight of the rider are oftencontributing factors.The points of the tree and stirrup bar areoften responsible and we see NSC’s e-Bardoing a great deal to alleviate this pressure.The angle of the rails in the tree on thehorse’s back is usually responsible for whitehairs along the back as illustrated in thebottom photograph
Muscle LossYou can see muscle loss in the form of“hollows”, usually behind the scapulawhere the points of the tree andstirrup bar sit.Taller horses, where the angles on theback are greater, are more likely tosuffer from this. The saddle for thistype of horse needs much moresupport across the front third. Theshape of the tree and design of thepanel is very important here.Obtaining the balance of the saddleand clearance by making the fitnarrower is usually responsible.
Viewing the Horse HolisticallyWith all temperament and behaviour issueswe have also to rule out other bio-mechanical changes in the horse.Remember that horses are reactionary ingeneral – they do not suddenly react badlyunless something bad is happening tothem. If your horse persists to actuncharacteristically it will almost certainlybe something that is happening to him.However, behaviour is sometimes just amemory and once established as a truly“grumpy” horse, bad behaviour can persistlong after the course of discomfort hasbeen removed.A Comfortable, Happy Horse =Improved Performance
Why did he behave like this?The whole temperament and behaviour issue has to be viewed holistically.For Example:Did my horse buck me off because:1.I hadn’t ridden him for a few days and he had been having a lot of feed?2. Was it a windy day and he was feeling just a bit too well?3. Did I pull on his mouth and land too heavily on his back after a fence – was heshowing his displeasure?4. Could it be his feet or his teeth?Etc…Or… Could his saddle be making him uncomfortable?Have I changed anything; girth or saddle blanket?Can I detect any soreness?Has he gained or lost condition?Have I been asking him to work too hard before he was fit enough?If any of the latter apply, it is time to get your saddle and your horse assessed .
Does your saddle fit?Unweighted ChecksThe Basics
Check the PositionThe points of the tree should sitthree fingers (2inches/5cm)behind the scapula.
Saddle in Correct PositionSaddle sitting too far forward. The points of the tree arejamming into the scapula. The balance is lost. Doing this can havesevere implications on the ligaments around and above thescapula.Saddle sitting too far back. Balance is lost and weight is beingtaken beyond the 18th thoracic vertebrae and into the lumbarregion.Saddle sitting in the correct position. The points of the tree are 2inches/5cm behind the scapula, the back of the saddle does notencroach into the lumbar region and balance is good.xx
Check the BalanceThe cantle of the saddleshould sit about1inch/2.5cm higher thanthe pommel.The lowest part of theseat should be parallel tothe ground.
BalanceThe saddle is sitting in correct balance. The cantle about aninch above the pommel; the lowest part of the seat sittingparallel to the ground so the rider’s weight is being takenmost sympathetically on the horse’s back.This saddle is sitting “cantle low”. The pommel is level orhigher than the cantle causing the rider’s weight to be takentoo far back. This can totally destabilize the saddle and causepressure at the back of the saddle and friction throughout. Itmay incline the saddle to slip forward.This saddle in sitting “cantle high”. The cantle isconsiderably higher than the pommel causing the rider’sweight to be taken across the front third of the saddle. Thiscan cause excessive pressure from the points of the tree &stirrup bar and friction & concussion at the back of thesaddle.xx
Check the ClearanceMake sure that there issufficient clearancebetween the withers andthe arch of the saddle.It is very important tocheck the clearancethroughout the channel ofthe saddle not just at thefront.
ClearanceInsufficient clearance: Balance lost;saddle is sitting too close to the horseswither and spine where all the rider’sweight will be taken.Bad choice for this horse.Too much clearance: Balance lost;weight taken at the back of thesaddle; front destabilized and saddlelikely to slip forward.Bad choice for this horse.Good clearance: good balance.Good choice for this horse.xx
Check the PointsWhen you stand by yourhorse’s side the points ofthe tree should follow thecontours of the horsesoutline, running parallelwith the area behind theshoulder where they sit.
Check the ContactFeel underneath thepanels to make sure thereis contact throughout thehorses back. Pressureshould be even and noteshould be taken of anylight spots or where thesaddle feels heavier.
Check the SizeThe saddle must be anappropriate size for bothhorse and rider . Noweight should be takenfurther back than thehorses 18th thoracicvertebrae (T18). To checkthis, find the last rib andfollow it up to where itmeets the spine – that’sT18!
Check the width of ChannelMeasure the horses spineand then measure thewidth of channel.When correct, you willhave the mostsympathetic weightbearing surface on thehorse’s back and will haveminimised friction againstthe spinous processus.
Does your saddle fit?Weighted ChecksThe Basics
Check the Panels are EvenStand behind the horseand make sure the panelslook even on each side ofthe spine and that thesaddle isn’t tipping over toone side.
Check the StabilityWhen the rider stands in thestirrups the back of thesaddle should stay in contactwith the horse’s back.Looking for this stabilitywhen the horse is beingridden and we have addedthe dynamic of horse andrider movement is one ofthe most important checks.
Check the Riders BalanceFirstly, you mustcheck the saddle is incorrect balance andis in the right placeon the horses back.The rider should be sitting in the lowest partof the seat, not tipping forwards orbackwards and in the correct shoulder-hip-heel line.
Balance, Stability & ClearanceCheck the Stability: After the saddle has been ridden on for 10minutes or more get the rider to stand in their stirrups. Check tomake sure the saddle isn’t coming up off the horses back when therider is in two point position.Check the Clearance: After the saddle has been ridden on for 10minutes or more, get the rider to sit on the seat and check theclearance at the front of the saddle. You should be able to seedaylight throughout the channel.Check the Balance: After the saddle has been ridden on for 10minutes or more, check the balance of the saddle when horseis standing four square on flat, level ground. The cantle shouldbe approx. 2.5cm higher than the pommel if a parallel line wasdrawn.
National Saddle Centre NZFor more information, visit our website:www.nationalsaddlecentre.co.nz