Saddle fit is a huge topic and it can be hard to decipher the useful stuff for the everyday equestrian. I believe every horse rider should be able to recognise basic saddle fit and monitor changes to their horse’s back. The aspects I am going to address in this basic overview are:
- the effect of posture and movement on saddle fit
- the ever-changing horses back and impact of gullet width
- saddle length and the position of riders weight
Posture & Movement
The posture of the horse can effect how a saddle sits on a horses back. Therefore, posture can impact on pain associated with saddle fit. When a horse has their head in a neutral position they have a relaxed back. The trapezius muscle is relaxed and the sternum, abdominals and pelvis are neutral. when the horse is in flight pose, their back becomes hollow. The act of raising the head causes tension in the trapezius muscle – upon which the saddle sits. The angle of the sternum and pelvis also change, and abdominal muscle engagement becomes difficult.
A horse who moves hollow whilst being ridden will inevitably end up sore as they are unable to support the burden of the rider’s weight on their back. When we place a saddle with a fixed shape on top of tense muscles and a weak back shape, we further compound the issue and increase the risk of back pain. When we look at the two photos of posture below, it becomes easy to see how posture can change saddle fit.
Posture, Pain & Saddle Fit
I commonly come across horses who are displaying some perceived training and behaviour issues. Issues may range from napping (being reluctant to move or work), rushing or bolting, rearing or bucking. More often than not, when I run my hands over these horses backs they are reactive through their trapezius muscles. Additionally these horses often don’t know how to use their body and topline to effectively carry a human (ie they have hollow movement).
Hollow movement alone can make these muscles sore, however a gullet that is too narrow will greatly exacerbate the issue. The horse is then placed into a situation where the solution to fixing their back longer term is re-training their movement (as well treating their pain in the short term), however they are unable to soften their trapezius and relax their neck and engage their topline as they are being restricted by a gullet that is too narrow.
The Ever-Changing Back
It is quite widely accepted in the horse world that saddle fit is important. Saddle fitters are becoming increasingly sought after as people try to do the very best for their horse. So why do we still have so many problems with saddle fit?
It is nobody’s fault! Saddle fitters can only fit the horse they see on the day. The problem is the musculature of horses backs can change in a matter of weeks depending on work and movement. A saddle that fit well four weeks ago, may now be too narrow if the horse has built topline through work. It has also been found that a horses back will change throughout a single riding session! Back width was found to be greater after a period of exercise. This indicates that saddle fit must be considered both before and after exercise 1.
Conversely, if your horse has been spelling they will have lost topline muscle. You must consider the possibility that your horse is not simply ‘fresh,’ but they are trying to communicate discomfort to you. Muscle and fat are not created equal and influence back shape. A different shape will affect saddle fit and comfort. Fitness will also impact on the horses ability to move correctly and work with a supple back. Horses are no different to people in their requirement for building fitness. You may also need to supplement lack of topline muscle with a thicker saddle pad until your horse has built muscle up in work.
Monitoring Saddle Fit
The ability to monitor basic saddle fit is a huge asset to the everyday equestrian. You know your horse best, and you are best positioned to pick up subtle changes in movement or behaviour. It is your job to identify issues and seek help for your horse. Getting a saddle fitter out every month is prohibitively expensive to the majority of us, so it is helpful to be able to gauge for yourself if saddle fit is likely to be the issue!
Assuming that overall saddle fit is right for your horse (so that we don’t need to get bogged down in details such as channel width etc), there is a simple method to check the suitability of your gullet width.
Firstly, sit the saddle in position on your horse. Then run your hand from the pommel down the shoulder of your horse under the saddle flap. Your hand should move smoothly and freely down the shoulder and not encounter any resistance. If your hand feels as though it gets ‘stuck’ at any point, your gullet may be too small. It is important to ensure your horse has enough space to move their shoulders.
Conversely, it is also important to ensure the pommel is not sitting on your horses withers, this indicates a saddle which is too wide. This simple check takes a matter of seconds, and can be done periodically to monitor fit or at any time you suspect an issue.
Another simple aspect of saddle fit that any rider can check is the saddle length. A saddle which is too long for the horse can position the riders weight too far back. The rear of the rib cage and lumbar region are less equipped to bear weight. Excess weight and pressure in this region can quickly lead to large amounts of pain and can result in poor canter transition, pig-rooting and bucking.
The saddle should sit in front of the last rib 2. To determine if a saddle is too long for a horses body, we simply locate the last rib and follow it up to where the rib connects to the spine. This is shown in the above pictures. Alternatively I have a video demonstrating these two concepts on Facebook at Reel Heart Horsemanship.
1.Saddles and girths: What is new? SueDyson LineGreve https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090023315002683
2.Saddle fitting, recognising an ill‐fitting saddle and the consequences of an ill‐fitting saddle to horse and rider S. Dyson S. Carson M. Fisher https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/eve.12436