The majority of equestrian athletes use saddles. Saddles are made to make riding more comfortable for both rider and horse. But you can imagine that it is really more comfortable if the saddle fits well. Just think of shoes that do not fit you, that does not make walking more pleasant. Various challenges you may encounter with your horse may arise from a poorly fitting saddle. We will discuss some of these in this article.
A poorly fitting saddle can cause visible problems. Think of abrasions and pressure sores, swelling or even open wounds. But all kinds of problems can also arise under the skin, something that may not be immediately visible to everyone. For example, horses may experience back pain. Because the saddle does not fit properly, too much pressure may be put on certain muscles in the back, causing pain. Because of this pain, the horse will not be able to use its body properly, rather it may push its back away or, for example, push its nose in the air. Muscular atrophy may also develop, a condition in which muscles decrease and become weaker.
In addition, it may manifest itself in lameness. For example, research has been conducted into the relationship between saddles that slide (to the left or right) and lameness. A total of 506 working sport horses were looked at. Of these, 46% had been shown to be lame or to have a stiff canter. In 12% of these cases, the horses had a saddle that moved. Lameness was mainly in the hind legs. The researcher says, “Given these figures, horses with hind leg lameness and irregular gaits are over 50 times more likely to have a saddle that slides compared to other horses.”
The moment a horse is in pain somewhere in its body, it cannot tell us in words. Horses, on the other hand, express their pain with body language and behaviour. Various behavioural challenges may arise from a poorly fitting saddle. These may be ridden, such as bucking, rearing, balking or, for example, stopping at fences. You may see that the horse has trouble with collection and bend in its body, because the saddle hurts or restricts its freedom of movement. It is also possible that the horse already shows behaviour when saddling and girthing up, such as biting or girth sourness.
As soon as your horse shows this behaviour in saddling and/or riding, you should immediately ask yourself if this could be a physical issue and if your tack is in order. Have your horse’s back checked by a specialist (such as a chiropractor or osteopath) to treat any physical problems. Have them, or another (saddle) specialist, also look at the saddle immediately. If the saddle does indeed not fit properly, it is important to find out whether you can have the current saddle adjusted or whether you need a new saddle
Tips for checking your saddle
There are a number of points where you can see whether your saddle fits properly or not, but this also shows in the behaviour of the horse. If you suspect that the saddle does not fit properly, or if you are unsure, always have it checked by a specialist saddler. When checking the saddle, make sure your horse is standing square so that you get a good image.
Location: The saddle must be in balance, so it does not tip forwards or backwards. It should also not be too far forward over the shoulders, which can hinder the movement of the shoulders. Also look at the back and front of the horse to make sure the saddle does not slide to the left or right.
Length: The saddle should not protrude further than the 18th (last) rib of the horse, this is at the transition to the loins.
Tree: A well-fitting saddle tree gives the shoulders freedom of movement, follows the shape of the back evenly everywhere and gives the withers sufficient freedom. The moment the tree is too narrow, the saddle will tend to tip backwards. With a tree that is too wide, the saddle will just tip forward. Also check if there is still enough wither space while you are on your horse, you should be able to fit 2 to 3 fingers between the withers and the saddle.
Gullet: There should be enough space for the spine to keep it free from pressure. If you can see under the saddle all the way through, the spine should have enough freedom of movement.
Panels: The panels should not be filled too hard, you should still be able to press them with your thumb. In addition, it must be free of lumps and bumps, as this can cause hotspots. When the saddle is on the horse, the panels should give even pressure everywhere. You can check this by sliding your hand under the saddle. Do you feel more pressure in one place than in another? Then the pressure is not evenly distributed.