Understanding Saddle Fit, Part IV: Confounding Variables

In this week’s #TBT, Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine Clinic finishes out her four-part series on saddle fitting for both English and western disciplines. In Part IV, she discusses discuss “confounding variables”: horses, saddles, therapeutic pads and more.

Flickr/caroline fitchett/CC

Flickr/caroline fitchett/CC

Need to catch up? Don’t miss Part I: An Overview, Part II: Saddle Construction and Part III: Is It a Fit?

Correct saddle fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. The present design of saddles has been primarily for the comfort of the rider; riders want close contact with the horse. However, in trying to achieve that effect, manufacturers have removed most of the support the horse needs in the panels. The riders then try various pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit better, but in doing so the close contact is lost.

In horses, skin or muscle damage and the pain associated with it usually shows up as performance problems, rather than overt sores. Performance problems range from a mildly “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between those two extremes is a whole host of symptoms most of us consider training problems, such as resisting, jumping poorly, being slow to warm up or not paying attention to the rider. Most of the time these behavior problems are related to pain and poorly fitting saddles.

Saddle variables

Saddles come in all different tree sizes and widths, but there is no standard of measurement between brands. Some brands have a range of sizes, while others have only one size. As in shoe fit, some saddles tend to run wide while other brands with the same width on the label run narrow. Good knowledge of saddle fit is uncommon in many tack shops and the truth is that a saddle cannot be sold as being correctly fitted for a horse without trying it on the horse, any more than a person would by a pair of shoes without trying them on. Many saddles are sold as “one size fits all horses of one breed”, however each breed has different sizes of backs. Quarter horses can be narrow, though they are normally medium-wide to wide. Thoroughbreds tend to be narrow, but can also be as wide as a quarter horse.

A saddle should also be ridden in before purchase to see how well it suits the rider and the horse together. This will only happen when purchasers and tack shops allow marks to be made on the saddles, yet still have them sold as new. It is possible to wrap the stirrup leathers in vet-wrap or a similar product to protect the leather on the flaps.

Horse variables

A major complicating factor is that horses do change shape across the withers, rapidly at times, and particularly as they change their level of performance or level of nutrition as the seasons change. Horses in hard competition change shape basically 3 times throughout the competitive season. They start out heavy and wider when they are unfit, lose weight and become average in mid-season, and can get thinner and narrower late in a hard season. This is when saddle fit becomes a very complicated issue. Eventually an adjustable-tree saddle will be made that will solve these problems, but those presently on the market do not fit horses very well, and are generally not very durable.

Posture changes can affect the shape of the back. As horses progress through training and learn to move differently, they carry their backs in different positions and saddles will fit differently. Shoeing changes can affect the posture and therefore the fit of the saddle. Acupuncture and chiropractic work will generally change the shape of the back, so if you are having acupuncture performed, be careful about purchasing a new saddle after the first treatment; the saddle may not fit two months later.

The horse’s conformation can create problems at times. Wasp-waisted or slab-sided horses may have difficulty keeping a saddle forward in the correct position without a breastplate and in many cases breastplates do not do an effective job of keeping saddles in place without putting undue pressure on the horses chest and shoulder. Horses with a forward girth spot may have difficulty with keeping the saddle from sliding forward and will need a girth placed near the front of the saddle. Very high or long withers make it difficult to find a saddle that fits without touching the withers, especially those with long withers. Often the saddle looks acceptable until you feel inside the gullet towards the back of the withers. The saddle may contact the withers well out of sight of a normal exam.

Rider variables

The rider, by virtue of the fact that he/she is sitting on top of the horse, guiding it through complex movements, has enormous influence on the horse’s back. The integral relationship between the rider and the horse has been brought to light in recent years mainly through the writing and teaching of Sally Swift and her concept of Centered Riding. She has demonstrated very clearly that if a part of the rider is stiff, such as the back or right shoulder, that stiffness will be reflected in the horse directly and will show up as being stiff in the back and right shoulder. Most riders have some degree of back pain and stiffness; this is transferred directly to the horse. Many riders sit off to one side or the other due to skill problems or body pain. Over time uneven pressure is created on the horse’s back and can mimic a saddle problem.

Many times the rider’s style of riding, or the saddle’s design, creates pain in the rider, especially with saddles that put the rider in a chair-seat position. The discomfort comes from the fact that the rider is not moving with the horse and must brace some part of their body in order to stay in the position the saddle has put them in.

Therapeutic pads

Therapeutic pads are often used to try to solve saddle-fit problems. Much of the time the pads provide only temporary relief and may cause more problems than they solve in the long run. The addition of the pad to a saddle is similar to a person adding an extra sock to his shoe. If the tree of the saddle is wide enough the pad may help. If the tree is already too narrow, and this is the most common scenario, the addition of the pad causes more pressure on the withers. Muscles will atrophy along each side of the withers after long use with thick pads. Extra pads, such as pommel pads, compress the withers even more. Since the addition of most therapeutic pads narrows the space available for the withers and the gullet, the pommel will sit higher in front, as it does when the tree is too narrow. This unbalances the rider, who then adds some more pads under the back of the saddle, lifting the back and driving more pressure onto the withers.

Frequently the addition of a pad will cause a dramatic improvement in a horse’s performance. This may last for only a couple of days or for several months, but the same problems usually return, because the pad changes the fit of the saddle and moves the pressure points slightly. The intensity of the pressure point is also changed by the addition of the pad but is seldom eliminated. Over time the pressure points find their way through the pads and cause the same problems again. This results in an unending attempt to find another pad to help correct the problem.

Having said that, a saddle properly fitted with a pad to act as an interface and shock absorber can be a big help to these horses. The saddle must be fitted with a pad in mind so there will be enough room for the withers with the pad in place. The ideal pad is not too thick, breathes, has memory and may not have been invented yet. Many pads on the market are useful; the secret is to select the pad with care and fit it with the saddle, just as you would fit a shoe with the type of sock it will be worn with. For endurance horses it is especially important that the pads breathe due to the long hours in the saddle.

One of the new products on the market that really does work combines wool felt with a horse-back-shaped fiberglass mold. The fiberglass does not allow pressure points through, while distributing the weight of the saddle over the entire area covered by the pad. Saddles can be manufactured on top of the shell, or retrofitted with the original saddle attached to the top of the shell.

Shims are thin pads the can be placed under a part of the saddle, for example on either side of the front to correct a saddle that is slightly too wide. Shims made from open-cell foam can be added sometimes to help balance the saddle. Shims must be used carefully so they do not interfere with saddle fit or make the problem worse.

Correctly fitting saddles can make all the difference between a happy, quality performance and one that is miserable. Enjoy.

About Joyce Harman: Dr. Joyce Harman opened Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd in 1990, bringing holistic healing to horses from all walks of life, backyard retirees to Olympic competitors. Over the years, Dr. Joyce Harman has observed and adapted to the changing needs the industry. Twenty-plus years ago, no one had heard of Lyme disease or Insulin Resistance, yet today that makes up a large part of her clinical practice.

In 2001, she wrote the first paper in a peer-reviewed journal about the possibility that horses have insulin resistance (IR), and now it is part of our every day conversation. In 2004 she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800’s, with the western version of the book following in 2006. To this date, these books are the only books written by an author who is independent from a saddle company, which brings unbiased information to the horse world.

In 2015, Dr. Harman released the Harmany Muzzle, a customizable and breathable grazing muzzle designed with the horse in mind. Because she deals extensively with metabolic and insulin resistant horses, she felt it was her duty to offer them a comfortable muzzle option.

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