Saddle fit

Ten-step process can end client confusion, provide horse with important competitive edge; growing area for veterinarians' expertise
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Apr 01, 2002


This horse shows a characteristic saddle sore in the mid back region. Poor fitting saddles with a narrow channel or with excessive shifting can lead to rubs and sore areas that occasionally scar and grow white hairs.
Want to start an argument in a room full of horsemen and women? Just start talking about saddles and saddle fit.

Everyone has a strong opinion and, just like with politics and religion, that opinion is bound to disagree with that of many others in the group.

One of my clients recently contacted me with concerns about this issue that made me evaluate the veterinarian's position in regard to saddle fit.

"As an owner," she wrote, "I find the distance in knowledge between saddlefitters and vets to be very frustrating. On one hand the fitters are convinced that saddle fit contributes to many/most soundness and/or behavioral problems, while most vets will argue that they rarely treat a horse for back soreness relating to saddle fit."

This client's comments concerned me because saddle fit and tack analysis are perhaps the last major areas in equine sports medicine that have remained outside of mainstream veterinary education. Veterinary schools now routinely offer coursework in shoeing principals and equine dental care and great strides have been made recently in the incorporation of chiropractic, acupuncture and even holistic medicine in the modern curriculum.

The one area that remains lacking, though, is that of saddle fit and tack analysis. As my client observed, "Proper saddle fit and the problems and troubles from lack of fit, to me, are essential pieces of knowledge for anyone involved in a sport at any level. It is a responsibility in my eyes. Now, do the fitters take it too far? Perhaps. Should most owners and vets take it further? Very likely."

Developing areas The 2001 American Association of Equine Practitioners meeting included a session on bits and bitting concerns and there are numerous equine researchers actively investigating saddle fit and performance issues. These are developing areas and more and more information is becoming available all the time. Practitioners should become familiar with this new information and should begin to incorporate saddle fit analysis into their examinations and evaluations of the performance horse. Most saddle examinations that I have seen done have been cursory at best and a better approach is certainly needed.

One of the best ways to become more familiar with saddle fit and to become more competent at it is to deal with professionals in this area.

The Master Saddlers Association is one of the most respected groups dealing with saddle fit. This association was established in order to provide education for the general horse riding and owning public and for the training, certification and continuing education of saddle fitters. Courses are available that teach the principles of saddle fit analysis and professionals in this organization are available to help veterinarians and their clients.

Back problems Equine back diseases and problems have been under-diagnosed and under-treated for years simply because the horse's back did not lend itself to easy evaluation. It cannot be readily flexed, blocked, and radiographed like other areas of the horse and the available treatment options were generally not that rewarding. Recent advances in ultrasonography, thermography and scintigraphy, however, have made back problems a bit more accessible to diagnosis and treatment.

There still remain those horses, though, that have performance problems that cannot be attributed to specific joint or muscular conditions and the concept of saddle fit problems must be considered.

At times the saddle is fine but the rider is unbalanced. This can be a delicate issue and is an area where the veterinarian and trainer must work together with the rider to identify and correct the problem. At other times the saddle is truly the problem.

Trying to correctly fit a saddle is a difficult task because so many factors come into play. Young horses are growing and changing their body shape. Horses in training and use constantly change degrees of fitness, which affects saddle fit. Very few horses are symmetric and even brand new, name-brand saddles contain their own variations and asymmetries.

10-step method There are some easy steps that can be used when evaluating saddles, however. These "10 steps to static saddle fit" represent an objective means for veterinarians and owners to evaluate a saddle. All these steps should be done with the horse standing squarely on level footing. The horse's head and neck should be kept straight, so an assistant is necessary for this procedure. Each step should be done on both sides of the horse with the saddle in direct contact with the horse's back and without any pads.

Step 1- Position of the saddle Place the saddle slightly forward on the horse's withers. Then press down on the pommel and slide the saddle caudally until it stops at a natural resting-place determined by the conformation of the horse's back. Repeat this process a few times until this "natural" stopping place seems consistent. This point should be well behind the scapula. Resist the temptation to place the saddle too far forward on the withers. This is a very common mistake according to Gene Freeze, master saddler and founder of County Saddlery.

"Many riders place their saddles too far forward and this leads to pinching of the withers and restriction to motion of the shoulder blades," says Freeze.