One of the keys to optimal performance and soundness.
Ill-fitting saddles can become instruments of torture and cause:
- muscle spasms
- nerve damage
- atrophy in the locomotion muscles of the back
- restricted range of motion, short-stepping
- negative self-carriage ("upside down") and resulting stifle/hock problems
- behavior issues, unwillingness, "lazyness", refusing jumps, unable to "step under"
- permanent skeletal changes (in young horses), leading to "acquired sway-back", for example
- sores and
- the respective slew of compensatory problems (tightness in the lumbar region, stress on the sacroiliac, tight hamstrings, etc.)
All these issues arise as the horse tries to move in a way to keep himself comfortable or reasonably pain free when moving under an ill-fitting saddle.
In general, I believe that saddle fitting should be left to educated professionals. The basic principles, however, can be learned by anyone in a short period of time. Books, DVD's and seminars are a good way to up your knowledge level. Whether you are considering the purchase of a custom-fit saddle, a brand new store-bought saddle or a good-quality used saddle, educating yourself about basic principles will help you choose the best possible saddle for your horse and yourself.
Some "Subject Matter Experts" can steer us wrong and we pay the price in $$$, our horse in many painful hours under saddle.
Here a few resources that will enable you to make good choices:
Books & Videos
Saddle problems are not always obvious...
...but spending a good amount of money on a saddle does not ensure the saddle fits the horse, especially as his body changes throughout his life. Common mistakes in saddle fit and saddle use include
- fitting the saddle to the rider, without giving enough consideration to the way it fits the horse
- trying to compensate for a wrong fit with all sorts of padding (including 'correcting' pads etc.)
- underestimating the importance of balance (see video below)
- putting the saddle too far back, beyond the weight bearing area of the horse (!!!! Important !!!! This is a new 'fad' that does not serve the horse!)
|Upon investigation, it turned out that this good-looking saddle was bridging. >>
A new fad: Putting the saddle too far back on the horse to 'free up the shoulder'
3 important criteria:
- Of course, the horse's shoulder blade (scapula) and the sensitive scapular cartilage on the upper edge of the scapula need ample room to move as the horse is stepping forward.
- The weight-bearing area of the horse's back is limited to it's thoracic vertebrae, meaning the part of the spine that has ribs attached to it. Going too far back will put weight on the weakest part of the horse's anatomy, the lumbar region.
- The balance of the horse's saddle should enable the rider to align his center of balance with the horse's center of balance!
(Image taken from Dr. Heuschmann's book "Tug of War")
How do we combine these 3 criteria into optimal fit?
- The saddle needs to 'flare' in the shoulder area, meaning the cut of the saddle needs to allow for freedom of movement.
- The saddle needs to fit the horse's back in length, meaning we do not want to put a long saddle on a short-backed horse. (Length of back is determined by the length of the thoracic spine.)
- The saddle needs to fit the rider and give him/her enough room and fit the horse at the same time, meaning that if you need an 18" saddle but your horse can only accommodate a 16" saddle, you have the wrong horse!
- Moving the saddle too far back often results in more pinching of the shoulder and puts the rider behind the horse's center of balance.
After having seen a great deal of structural problems in horses that—after some investigation—could be linked back to saddle fit, I can be a witness to the fact that fancy contraptions and high-priced designer saddles and pads can do just as much damage as an ebay purchase.
A saddle should always be...
- of good, solid materials (leather should be supple, not old, dry and cracking; tree must be flawless, not repaired or broken)
- manufactured by a specialist company or saddle maker (not a replica, made in an unnamed foreign country)
- fit your horse without a pad first (a pad, shim or cushion will not make your ill-fitting saddle fit your horse)
For the purposes of this article, we'll look at the example of an English style saddle. Jochen Schleese of Schleese Saddlery Services has posted some excellent short videos on youtube to explain the different aspects of saddle fit. Below his series of 9-Steps videos. For more information about the Schleese System (I am not affiliated with Schleese...) please go to Jochen Schleese's website.
Armed with the knowledge you gain by watching below videos, I hope you will feel encouraged to explore the topic of saddle fit further and - if your horse has any structural, performance or behavior problems that remain unexplained - consider questioning your current saddle's fit and embark on the search for a saddle that fits both you and your horse.
9 Steps to Saddle Fit by Jochen Schleese