Get horses, saddles and riders fit for performance

The veterinarians’ role in welfare and safety issues associated with saddle slipping and proper fit.

By David W. Ramey, DVM

Horse saddles increasingly are a greater topic of interest in equine studies, especially how they relate to welfare, performance and safety issues for both horse and rider. Researchers are finding that serious problems can arise when these considerations fall to the wayside.

Saddle slipping can contribute to poor performance and lameness— something of a “chicken or egg” situation, as lameness can cause saddles to slip due to gait asymmetries and saddle slip can ultimately cause lameness. In fact, horses with hind leg lameness appear to be as much as 52 times more likely to have a slipping saddle than horses that aren’t lame. Usually, saddles slip on the side of the horse with the lame leg, and, as might be expected, saddle slip tends to be more pronounced when the horse travels in a circle.

Asymmetrical saddle flocking also can contribute to slipping. Saddle slipping is reduced when heavier riders ride lame horses, but when the saddle is the problem, heavier riders cause saddles to slip further.

Compounding the issue

Saddle problems aren’t simply a matter of poorly fitting saddles or lame horses, however. The shape of the horse’s back also contributes to the problem. For example, a horse with a rounded back may also tend to have a saddle that slips. Somewhat paradoxically, a saddle that fits the horse’s back very well is more likely to slip than a poor fitting saddle. Apparently, areas that are less well fitted offer some resistance to slipping, whereas a well-fitted saddle that has even contact with the horse’s back may tend to slide over the muscles.

Many variables relate to the saddle itself. Solid wooden trees, common in Western saddles, differ greatly from the spring trees found in English saddles. Many trees now are being made with synthetic materials; treeless saddles also are made for both disciplines. Even here, no “one size fits all,” as treeless saddles differ in their construction and flexibility, and how force is transferred to the horse’s back. Further complicating the problem is that most saddles are constructed based on principles that have existed for centuries.

Saddle padding is another consideration. English saddles typically rely on cushioning built into the saddle itself, whereas Western saddles typically are cushioned by a heavy pad. Wool flocking is favored by some, but foam flocking also can be effective. Shim pads can help redistribute pressure when indicated. Gel pads do not respond quickly to pressure changes and may not be ideal when the saddle is loaded rapidly. Under any circumstances, saddles and pads should help distribute the weight of the rider fairly evenly over the horse’s back and should avoid pressure points or “bridging” from the withers to a spot on the horse’s back.

Other considerations

Veterinarians observing horses for saddle fit also would do well to observe the riders. As might be expected, riders who exert more pressure on one side of the saddle or another load saddles asymmetrically and can contribute to saddle slipping and lameness. Communicating such observations to the rider can be a challenge, however. If saddle slipping is noted or reported as a problem, have a horse that is lame under saddle be ridden by someone else to see if the problem persists. If it does, the slipping may be more likely to be related to a primary lameness.

A horse’s back shape can change over time. This is obvious to anyone who has seen age-related changes, but improvement in the shape of the horse’s back can occur when saddle fit is improved, as horses become more fit and as they gain weight. On the other hand, lameness has negative effects on the shape of the horse’s back. Because the shape of the horse’s back can change, evaluate saddle fit frequently, especially in performance horses. Saddle fit can change even during exercise; sound horses can experience an increase in back width during exercise that can result in a tight saddle, even when saddle fit was good at the onset of exercise.

One of the difficulties in achieving an ideal saddle fit is that saddles typically are fitted when horses are standing still. Of course, when the horse moves, the shape of the back changes. Each gait has its own characteristic pressure pattern. Furthermore, rider movement can cause increased saddle pressure, especially during the rising trot, when forces are exerted on a relatively small spot (the stirrups) as the rider pushes up. Increased saddle pressure may even cause local ischemia and muscle soreness.

Then there’s question of how often a horse’s saddle fit should be evaluated. While one might argue that frequent evaluation is best for the horse, the expense of regular evaluation and saddle adjustment (e.g. reflocking) may be a considerable deterrent. Observant owners can avoid such costs by helping to keep track of how the saddle fits and how the horse is performing.

Even with all these considerations, the fact is that the tools currently available to veterinarians, trainers and saddle fitters don’t provide adequate objective measures of saddles and saddle fit. How saddles and saddle pads affect the horse’s back is a complicated issue. Ultimately, no single tool may be adequate to evaluate the complex interactions among saddle, horse and rider. New solutions are coming to light, however; hopefully, new information can help veterinarians, trainers and riders record, evaluate and store valuable information about their horses and themselves.

Dr. David W. Ramey is a Southern California equine practitioner who specializes in the care and treatment of pleasure horses. Visit his website at doctorramey.com. Visit saddleresearchtrust.com for more information on saddles and saddle fit

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