‘Summer Bodies’: Seasonal Saddle Fit Considerations

More grazing time, a busy season of competition or increased hours on the trail can all change the way your horse’s body is shaped heading into fall — and therefore change his saddle fit too. Dr. Joyce Harman explains what to look for and why.

Flickr/Joe Hart/CC

Humans aren’t the only ones who work hard on our summer bodies— our horses do, too! While horses don’t have to worry about their clothes fitting differently, their backs can change drastically over a summer of grazing. If a horse’s back changes too much, saddle fit becomes a concern.

Although it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the way your saddle is fitting your horse over the course of the summer, now is a good time to take a little assessment if you haven’t yet evaluated — especially if you’ve noticed new under-saddle behaviors or unexplained lameness with your horse.

If you think your current saddle is giving your horse a sore back, here’s how to check:

  1. Rest your fingers on your horse’s spine and reach your thumb down to the hollow just behind the withers, about four or five inches down on most horses. That’s the starting point of the acupuncture pathway.
  2. Along this pathway, you’ll test for back pain. Mark the starting point with your thumb (if he’s a little dusty, even better!).
  3. Press into the muscle every two inches along the pathway. If he feels tense and tight, he’s sore; if he “splints” (stiffens) his back, he’s really sore.
Why is saddle fit so important?

The back is perhaps the most important part of the horse’s anatomy when it comes to movement. It connects the front legs to the back legs, it supports the rider in the saddle and it is directly connected to the neck. If any joint in the spine has pain or does not have normal mobility, the lower legs are where the compensation occurs.

An easy way to understand the importance of the back is to do a simple exercise. Stand holding on to the back of a chair and make your back hollow and stiff. Now lift one of your legs as if to touch your chin. You will see that you cannot reach very far. Next round your back and repeat the same exercise. You will see you can now bring your “hind leg” up towards your chin. This is similar to the type of motion a horse can do with a flexible back.

If the horse’s hindquarters cannot come under the way you could in that exercise, the hocks and stifles will take the abuse. Horses with stiff backs often have hock pain, yet most people think the hock is the origin of the problem. In some cases hocks can cause back pain; however, clinically I find many hock problems are solved by correcting the back pain.

Another way to observe difference between free movement and painful movement is to compare the experience of dancing with or watching an excellent dancer versus a stiff dancer. The excellent dancer floats across the floor while the stiff one lumbers across the floor. The stiff one actually hits the ground harder with each step.

We talk a lot about horses moving their backs, rounding their backs, being in a correct frame, using their hindquarters, and many other terms that relate to the ability of the horse to be flexible in the way you were in the exercise above. The minute there is restriction of movement in the back, the lower legs cannot come underneath the horse and allow it to float across the ground. It is actually possible to hear horses hitting the ground harder when they are wearing a saddle that is painful compared to when they are wearing a saddle that is comfortable.

As a horse starts to move incorrectly the lower legs begin to get sore. A very common example is a horse with lumbar or sacroiliac pain on the right side starting to become sore in the left front foot or ankle. Because the horse is on four legs, when one corner becomes sore the diagonal opposite leg takes up the extra pressure as a compensation for the soreness.

As a horse acquires back pain, it tends to drop its back down to avoid moving it since motion is painful. Once the back moves less freely, each leg is also moving less freely. This means the stride length changes and when the stride length changes the feet are likely to land differently then when the horses moving normally. This can create foot pain or joint pain.

The biomechanics of motion link all parts of the body together. It can be complex to understand, but studying videos of good motion versus poor motion can teach us a lot. Riding a horse with a poor fitting saddle and then a well-fitting saddle can give you a sample of the concepts discussed here.

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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