“Did you see? Caramel hurt his withers again. I can’t get it to heal. He’s off right now. He’s holding back, he’s super tense, he isn’t jumping well…he’s almost lame. I don’t know what to do. Do you have a good cream I could use or a chiropractor I could talk to?” “Sure, but I have something even better…a good saddle maker!”
Just like with the bit, we tend to not pay attention to our saddle. However, it plays a key role in our horse’s performance and well-being. Camille and Annette Rancurel, saddlery engineers, explain why.
I want to be completely honest with you. We have a lot of Equisense Motion users that report how much their symmetry grade changed after having changed their saddle (+2 points with a good saddle, -2 points with a “bad” one). That’s why I thought it might be a good idea to tell you everything you need to know about the saddle. How to know if the saddle fits? Why is it important to adjust one’s saddle? Together with our expert Annette, we give you all the answers.
1. Basics: Why do we use saddles anyway?
So our rear ends hurt less!
On a more serious note, the main goal of a saddle is to evenly distribute the pressure generated by a rider.
Simply put, force is your weight plus that of the saddle. The larger the contact surface on your horse’s back, the lower the pressure. When you’re riding bareback, the contact surface is just the surface of your rear end. The surface area is small, so the pressure is very high. When you’re in the saddle, your weight is distributed across the entire surface of the panels. The pressure is much less, and your horse is much more comfortable as a result. I don’t mean you should never ride bareback, but just that it should be done within reason. The saddle distributes pressure across the back while keeping weight away from the entire length and width of the horse’s spinal column.
The saddle serves another purpose as well. It lets you stay balanced and vertical without getting tired. What’s more, the saddle and the reins are the only things that separate you from your horse. So, if you want a clear line of communication between you two, a saddle that fits both you and your horse is absolutely necessary. It’s the saddle that transfers the information from your hips and torso to your horse. If the information is impeded in some way, it stands to reason the message won’t be correctly received.
The problem is that the saddle, despite all the important functions it serves, can do much more harm than good when it doesn’t fit.
2. What is a poorly fitting saddle?
First, let me clarify. There are three types of “poorly fitting” saddles. There are saddles that are poorly designed, saddles that are poorly adjusted, and saddles that aren’t in the right place. For the first type, imagine a pair of plastic eyeglasses with one temple that’s longer than the other. No matter how hard you try, there’s not much to do. You’ll never see well, and they’ll always be uncomfortable.
Poorly adjusted saddles are like a good pair of glasses that don’t have the right prescription. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a problem that can be solved.
Finally, good saddles that aren’t in the right place are like if you had a good pair of glasses with the right prescription but wore them at the tip of your nose.
More concretely, a poorly fitting saddle doesn’t distribute pressure correctly, rubs or cuts into the horse’s back, or stores up heat.
In terms of pressure, a poorly fitting saddle will result in areas along the horse’s back that receive substantially more pressure. For example, if the gullet is too narrow, the saddle will create pressure points up and down the spine. If the opening of the gullet area is too narrow, there will be pressure points all around the withers. The effect is a bit like a clothes pin. However, if the opening of the gullet is too wide, the saddle will tip forward and crush the withers (ouch). At the same time, the cantle will pop up and shift from side to side every time the horse moves, causing severe chafing.
If the saddle panels are angled too sharply, the contact surface will be less, placing a significant amount of pressure on each side of the spine. And so on.
It’s important to note that pressure causes the back to extend. Have you ever seen a veterinarian test the mobility of a horse’s back by pressing his or her fingers on one side of the spine? The horse immediately hollows its back, and the reaction can be quite intense. Now, imagine your saddle is pressing on the same point. Your horse would have a hard time staying soft and supple under such conditions.
Finally, when the saddle is not correctly placed, it’s typically too far forward (we rarely tend to put it too far back). As a result, it hinders the motion of the shoulder blades and shortens the horse’s stride length.
In the photo below, we see what happens with a poorly fitted or poorly placed saddle. These images were taken using a saddle pad equipped with pressure sensors and placed under the saddle. The blue and green indicate low pressure, meaning the horse is comfortable. The yellow and red represent excessive pressure, which hurts the horse.
3. Consequences of poor saddle fit
First off, a saddle that doesn’t fit your horse is going to significantly impact its movement.
A study (Peham, 2004) looked at the effects of poor saddle fit on a horse’s motion and found horizontal speed and acceleration as well as acceleration across the diagonal was significantly more variable. Because the horse is uncomfortable, it will look for any way to relieve the pressure and therefore will be incapable of moving in an even and stable manner. It’s difficult to advance in the levels and progress normally when the horse cannot move out evenly.
The saddle comes into contact with many anatomical structures that must be protected, including the spine. The saddle should not press on this particular part of the body no matter how the horse is moving (flexion, extension, bending, and rotation). The muscles of the back and scapula (shoulder) can also be hindered by the saddle.
Excessive pressure prevents blood from circulating through these structures and compresses the horse’s muscles against its skeleton. It’s important to know that pressure-induced pain quickly becomes unbearable. As a result, the horse becomes numb. It’s exactly like when we wear too many socks inside our boots. In the end, we can’t even feel our feet anymore because our circulation has been cut off. It’s incredibly painful and makes us clumsy and grumpy. The same thing happens with our horse. If the saddle doesn’t fit well and presses down too much in certain places, it will constrict blood flow. The result is a horse that either can’t feel its back anymore or one that’s in lots of pain and very clumsy and angry as a result. As you might expect, it’s hard for our horse to correctly respond to what we’re asking of it under such conditions.
The horse’s musculature can become asymmetrical if excessive pressure causes the muscles to atrophy. In turn, this can result in a sore back or even lameness. (Greve, 2013; De Cocq, 2004). In fact, did you know that poorly fitting saddles are the primary cause of back pain in sport horses (Jeffcott, 1999)?
Finally, saddles can also cause visible injuries. These are the famous wither marks that cause people to say, “Oh, this horse is ridiculous, he’s constantly injuring his withers!” The appearance of white hair along the withers should be a major warning sign!
“OK, I get it now. But how do I know if the saddle fits well?”
Before we talk about saddle fit, let’s look at saddle placement.
Where you put the saddle matters, too. A good saddle in the wrong spot does just as much damage, as you saw above.
A saddle that’s too far forward (that’s the main worry since we rarely put the saddle too far back) will stop the shoulders from working properly by limiting the movement of the scapula.
To know whether your saddle is in the right spot, you have to be able to locate too important anatomical markers—the back of the scapula and the last rib. Your saddle should go between these two points. If it’s on top of the scapula, the horse won’t have a full range of motion in its shoulder, which means the stride length of its hind end will be limited as well. When it’s placed behind the horse’s last rib, the saddle is no longer on the thoracic vertebrae but on the lumbar vertebrae.
4. In concrete terms, how can I know whether or not my saddle fits?
Unfortunately, there’s no single rule to know whether your saddle fits your horse, but here are a few tips:
- the gullet has to be wide enough to not touch the thoracic vertebrae (three fingers is an absolute minimum)
- the saddle cannot touch the withers
- the saddle must be stable (it shouldn’t move side to side or up and down when the horse walks)
- the saddle shouldn’t extend past the last rib (it shouldn’t be too long)
- the panels should be symmetrical and lay evenly across the horse’s back
- the angle of the panels in the back should follow the angle of the back
- the seat should be horizontal and put you in a vertical position
- the billets should be in line with the “girth groove” to keep the saddle from moving forward or backward. Saddles have three billets so you can adjust the angle of the girth to fit your horse’s shape.
5. What about half pads?
We’ll talk more about half pads in a later article. In short, they can be really great, but they can also do a lot of damage.
Half pads are a bit like orthopedic insoles in our shoes. They can be a real game-changer, for better or for worse. Just try to walk in shoes that are too small and fitted with someone else’s insoles, and you’ll see what I’m talking about pretty quickly! The same goes for half pads.
The best approach is to analyze your saddle and understand the purpose of the half pad. Are you using it to distribute the pressure, absorb shock, or rebalance the saddle?
Depending on its design and your saddle’s fit, the half pad might be completely useless, play an essential role, or make everything worse. Plus, depending on the situation, you might not always need the same half pad. The pad’s shape and materials are dictated by how it’s being used.
So, be careful of opting for a half pad just because it looks nice.
To wrap up this long article, remember the saddle plays a key role in your success and does much more than look pretty and keep you comfortable. However, each situation is unique. There are no hard and fast rules to tell you whether or not a saddle fits well. Only a professional can help you there. What we can tell you is that some Equisense Motion users have increased their symmetry scores by three points by making sure their saddle fit properly. That’s pretty impressive!
We hope these images gave you food for thought, just like they did for the Equisense riders. I’d like to say thanks to Annette for the time she gave me in writing this article.
Stay tuned for the next article,
Camille Saute & Annette Rancurel
GREVE et S. DYSON, «The horse-saddle-rider interaction», The Veterinary Journal, vol. 195, pp. 275-281, 2013.
DE COCQ, P. R. VAN WEEREN et W. BACK, «Effects of girth, saddle and weight on movements of the horse», Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 36, n° 18, pp. 758-763, 2004.
C. PEHAM, T. LICKA, H. SCHOBESBERGER et E. MESCHAN, «Influence of the rider on the variability of equine gait», Human Movement Science, vol. 23, pp. 663-671, 2004.
A. BYSTRÖM, M. RHODIN, K. VON PEINEN, M. A. WEISHAUPT et L. ROEPSTROFF, «Basic kinematics of the saddle and rider in high-level dressage horses trotting on a treadmill», Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 41, n°13, pp. 280-284, 2009.
S. BIAU, «Interaction biomécanique entre le cavalier et son cheval – Etude bibliographique,» chez XIIe colloque de l’Ecole Nationale d’Equitation – Posture du cavalier et posture du cheval, Saumur, 2008.
L. JEFFCOTT, M. HOLMES, H. TOWNSEND, Validity of saddle measurements using force-sensing array technology – preliminary studies. Vet. J. 158, 113-119, 1999.