Saddle Fit it is not that straight forward!!
Lock down has affected us all in many different ways. For many it has brought stress and anxiety, for others peace and time for reflection, or time spent reconnecting with family. For us all it will be a time we will never forget! For me it has mostly been a time for reflecting, a time for study, and it's given me time to reassess my own horses and think about clients horses in more detail than I am usually able to. I have taken part in a few equine talks and watched a few too. Every talk raises the importance of getting the saddle fit right and the negative impact when that is not achieved.
All of this information considered over the past few weeks has prompted me to get some information together looking at the many sides to saddle fitting and why its just not straight forward.
There are so many outside influences that affect the saddles ability to perform that to cover them all would take a book rather than a blog. I am going to try and attempt to cover a few of these to see if this can help you with your own saddle troubles.
So let's start with the Saddle fitted to the static horse. Let's look at the obvious areas that most of you will know, and then let's look at the less obvious that seem to be more often ignored or unknown.
The obvious static fit rules which mostly seem to be considered are -
- Tree Shape to follow the shape of your horse's back
- Tree Length not to go past the last rib
- 3-4 finger rule between pommel and wither
- Balance front to back, position of saddle.
- Channel Width which needs to include the spinal processes and the ligaments. Does your saddler know how to identify the width of both?
- Girth Strap alignment with the girth groove - which seems obvious but is very often ignored
- The Trapezius muscle - is it free or clamped in between the front of the saddle panels?. The base of the wither cannot lift when this is trapped. The front of the saddle will look like an A but we want it to look line an arch or a big n. If you close the trapezius down not only does the horse lose the ability to lift its back it also stops the horse wanting to go forwards. The trapezius is exactly where the stallion would bite the mare, stopping it from being able to move forwards and this will force the back to drop and the pelvis to lift. Please look at the following photos and now think about your saddle? Has your horse got the room they need? If you would like to watch a video on the affects of trapping the trapezius muscle please copy and paste the like below:
Trapezius Muscle -
Keeping the Trapezius, Spine & Ligaments free - Arch fronted to work around the shoulders
Channel Widths allowing room for the spine, ligaments and back to lift
All of the above needs to work for the rider. It is essential for the rider to be in balance if the horse's back is to stay pliable. When the pelvis is not in the correct alignment for the chosen discipline it creates tension through the horse. Despite how fit and strong the rider maybe, if the saddle does not allow the rider to sit correctly with the leg hanging in the middle of the saddle flap it will not allow the rider to influence the horse. We will look at the rider in more detail a bit later on.
Static the horse - saddle and rider may look good but everything can change alot in motion. This is where it can get interesting and complicated!! Let's look at why??
The assessment before seeing rider and horse in motion may involve lunging if there are behavioural issues. Horses behave a certain way for a reason if they are really saying "NO" we need to assess why. Sometimes just kicking on an ignoring the reality is not the right thing to do and can leave your horse mis-trusting you for a long time to come!
So again lets look at the obvious areas that are looked at in fitting a saddle for a horse and rider combination in motion, and then look at those areas of influence that can change and aren't so recognised -
- the horses back shape and fitting the tree to this
- assess conformation such as high wither, sway back, croup high, short back, flat back
- Muscle Development that's clear - obvious asymmetry
- Shoulder shape you would hope - but this is also missed out a lot so could sit in both obvious and not so!
Now let's look at the many areas affecting the saddles performance in motion many of these can be spotted when a horse is static but many are missed out. Some of these can be due to compensation through injury, illness, general wear and tear or sadly sometimes due to an Equine Professional maybe not getting it quite right
- Crooked Horse - Horses are crooked from the start. They find the dominant diagonal pretty much from the start. I have been speaking with a few breeders who tell me from birth foals generally choose to feed from one side of the mother positioning themselves that way. From the day we start to work with them, it's our job to try and build a horse that bends both ways, moves equally and lands each hoof with the same load. Its a constantly moving target as life happens and things change and it needs reassessment weekly/daily. There are many ways this will affect how that saddle performs. Crooked Horses generally tend to slip the saddle off of their back one way or the other depending which way they are bent. The muscle Development with these horses is usually pretty noticeable. With all of these physical issues I am able to use my performance cameras to really identify what is happening for the horse in motion. That way I can help support your training programme and your Equine Bodyworker/Vet. A horse struggling with saddle slip!
- Crooked Spine - I see this problem unrecognised quite a lot. It creates a hollow side and a rounder side. The saddle will generally full into the empty side or be pulled over to the rounder side. It depends on the whole back shape and how the horse moves with this problem. Something to always consider with crookedness in the spine - Kissing Spine is a caused by muscles being imbalanced. The tight muscles will pull the spinal processes together causing them to gradually touch and cause the horse much discomfort. Kissing Spine can be avoided and in some cases reversed if found early enough with correct training and working to correct the crooked spine. Unrecognised it will escalate and this horse depending on temperament and pain threshold may become unrideable. Sometimes I see it through a mild lameness. Many KS horses never really build good muscle over the back - no matter how good the training. More severe cases will be bucking or napping. It's also important to check the saddle isn't twisted if there are signs of a crooked spine. A Kissing Spine Horse with saddle slip right.
- Crooked Tuber Sacrale - One Hip Bone looks higher than the other. This can be something as simple as a slip in the field or it can be a functional compensation too a bigger trauma such as a rotational full. It will firstly take a good Equine Osteopath or Physiotherapist to help you with the answers. But it may also need a vet if it's extreme and causing the horse discomfort. Definitely make sure you have a good Equine Physio/Ostepoath in your team they are vital in helping you keep your horse aligned. They can help you with all of the above mentioned but remember its part of your team including finding a good vet, farrier, saddler and bridle bit fitter, trainer, dentist, nutrionist, massage therapist and other Equine Professionals depending on your individual horses needs. This horse is in the picture is square albeit he stands with his hinds out behind him. Obviously fitting a horse this compromised comes with its problems. It needs a good rehabilitation programme to correct this problem - its absolutely vital to its future.
- Stiffness in the joints mostly the Hind Quarters will affect the saddles ability to remain still. A horse that is struggling to flex the hocks for instance will not want to step the hind legs under the body but will prefer to swing them outwards and toe drag. (Just to note as could a horse with Hind Suspensory Pain). Many times these horses will bounce the saddle up off of their back as the joints are stiffening, I have also seen a horse with Hock and Stifle problems bounce and swing the saddle side to side. As already mentioned I am able to use my performance camera on a horse that is not moving correctly to assess what the horse is doing. This can be the game changer on how you move forward as it indicates the exact movement of the hindlimb!
- As mentioned Stifle Problems - I see this quite a lot. More so its weakness. The ligaments are loose and so the stifles slip or lock. Some horses can be quite panicked by this, and will rush or take a long time to come downward in transitions. Trot to walk for instance can be very progressive the trot will get shorter and shorter before they finally walk. Frightened to feel the imbalance of the stifle getting stuck. Many times it makes the horse very crooked or unhappy to work. Saddle slip is quite likely with these horses as they will become crooked. A strengthening programme should be built for this horse. The Pessoa is definitely something that should be avoided as the horse will position itself against the force if they are weak in the stifle. Good in-hand work, Hill work and a good trainer who understands how to strengthen is what's needed.
- SI Pain - This can be assessed whilst the horse is static through palpation. I come across a few horses showing signs of pain around this area. It generally comes with Thoracolumbar Muscle Tension and depending on how long this has been going on Asymmetry of the muscles or Bones may also be noticeable. The SI joint problems should only be diagnosed by a vet. It is not a joint you can manipulate so an Equine Bodyworker won't be able to diagnose it accurately enough. They can discuss the fact it's under strain by the fact there is pain there - but remember with every area that shows pain it could be a compensation area for something else. Your SI may be under strain because your hocks aren't working correctly or your horse has stomach ulcers for instance. Also consider that if your saddle is fitted tight to the trapezius or not allowing the shoulders to glide under the points of the tree your horse will not be able to lift his back and tuck his pelvis underneath him. Sometimes this problem with the SI being in pain can look like the rider is sitting on a washing machine - going round with the hips rather than forward. Its also usually quite clear in trot and canter as the horse will be croup high showing tension in the back.
- Stomach Ulcers - This is very often confused with a sore back. Most horses with Ulcers will display pain through the back - mostly because the pain of the ulcers makes it much harder for the back to come up and the abdominals to contract. When this is evident the horse may object mildly or sometimes very extreme to the girth being tightened. As this can also be a symptom of a saddle being too tight in front and especially on the trapezius muscle it can cause confusion all round. Some horses when ridden will kick out at the leg aid, hollow and feel crabby about coming round and over the back. Generally they do not want a saddle or girth on their back and very often there is back spasm after being ridden. Horses with Ulcers will get worse if they are not treated and managed.
- Hind-Limb Lameness can sometimes be hard to recognise especially if it bi-lateral. The horse will lean away from the lame limb. The Canter could be on 3 tracks. A crooked Tail is a good clue to hindlimb lameness or SI pain - 8.6 x more likely to be an indication of lameness behind. 88% of horses with a crooked tail stayed crooked after the lame hindlimb was blocked (Research by Dr Sue Dyson) Head Tilt can also indicate hind limb lameness but so can bad hands in the rider, incorrectly fitted bridle or bit, respiratory problems, imbalanced teeth and TMJ pain. All of the above hind limb problems can cause saddle slip and soreness in the back.
- Farrier's - Sore Feet, imbalance, wrongly fitted shoes, Barefoot and not managed correctly. I see foot problems affecting the horse quite often. More so that it causes tension and soreness in the body. Sore feet can cause a Sore back. It doesn't generally affect the saddle but shorter strides, and tension can cause confusion as to whether the saddle has got tight or uncomfortable . Limb Length Disparity and Low Heel, High Heel can have a greater affect on the horses asymmetry and make it harder to fit a saddle. The limb length and height difference can impact the shoulders with the lower heeled horse generally having a higher shoulder and also sometimes much bigger. I know that seems hard to believe, but what I have found with some of my clients horses is the horse with the lower heel has longer limbs on that side- so the heel sits lower and shoulder sits higher. Because of this limb length difference going unrecognised by the farrier the horse lands unevenly and gradually it starts to impact the whole horse. All horses are individual in how they cope with their imbalances, but I have met some that have gone undiagnosed for a long time that are now dysfunctional and in need of a reduced work load to manage life (Seen in the photo below). Remembering everything from the ground up affects the horse and everything from above down affects the horse. For instance an imbalanced rider can change the way the limbs load and create asymmetry in the feet. I think Farriers that fit/trim/pad etc looking at the whole horse are worth there weight in gold!! I like reading the work of Esco Buff on this subject - it just seems to make sense to a non-farrier!
Medically all of the above can be diagnosed by a Vet. Harder areas to understand and cause much more confusion, but can affect the way the horse positions the saddle or builds muscle are:
- Wobblers syndrome - the horse may never make complete sense when ridden. The back end may not look connected to the front end. Hypermobility may also be evident. And this horse may never really build a good top line. Impingement of the nerves can sometimes make the horse look drunk or in worst cases they could fall over. Saying all of that though, some horses function well and go on to be very talented in their discipline.
- Gut Imbalance - this time of year many horse owners move the horse from a bare paddock to lush green grass. It seems like a very satisfying thing to do - but mostly its pretty harmful to your horses gut. It should be introduced to the different pasture slowly so the gut adapts just as it would if you were changing feeds. The sugars in this new grass can also flare up so many others problems like laminitis, Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM), Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). Fields that are fertilised need management as many sprays are toxic to the gut. There are horse friendly fertilisers so this should be considered. I have found Red Light Therapy really helpful to help my clients horses in this area.
- Fascia Blockage - Fascia is everywhere and links everything within your horses body. The first time I diagnosed a horse I could not believe how it covers the whole body. It made me realise how important it has to have a good Equine Professional in your team that can assist with this. If it's blocked it can look tight and its actually most noticeable I think through the back.
- Hormonal Mares - They quite like to buck!! They also have an amazing ability of lifting the saddle up off of their back and twisting it. I've seen the biggest extremes of saddle slip or twist with these conditions.
- Emotional Trauma Or Equine PTSD - An area that can be very mis-understood as bad behaviour. Horses definitely feel emotion despite the fact it can be ignored if you choose. The horse 100% tries to communicate with us in their non-human horse way. Many humans try to humanise their behaviour. Horses just live in the moment. Sometimes they have just lost confidence in their owner because they pull on the reins too much! If it hurts they maybe trying to tell you. If it genuinely frightens them they may need your reassurance - a gentle voice or a scratch on the neck. Sometimes foals are stripped from their mother too quickly and it can affect that horse for the rest of its life. Try to understand your hairy partner and if its to confusing or complicated get a more experienced professional in to help. You can also seek out a behaviourist, reiki healer or body worker that works with the horses energy.
Finally let's look at the Rider. As much as the horse has a huge impact on the Rider the Rider has just as much impact on the horse - and THE SADDLE!. It's an area that I think up until recent years has been a bit neglected. Growing up around horses and having had lessons all of my life the riders impact on the horse was rarely spoken about. The horse was generally always to blame. I have seen first hand working closely with a Human Physiotherapist the difference it can make on everything when you get your rider functioning straight.
Andy Thomas (Current Human Physio to the USA Olympic Teams) has worked with over 11,000 riders to date. Over this time he has established that approximately 92% of riders have muscles that are switched off in the right side of the pelvis and are over working the left. I have been lucky enough to run many clinics with Andy and assess riders of all levels and disciplines in the UK and the USA. I've used Andy's methods within my role as a saddle/horse/rider biomechanist for the last year to address any problems my clients are facing with their riding and its been phenomenal. I've learnt so much about how the rider truly impacts the horse.
Obviously when I look at at horse in motion I consider all of the above information - BUT when i have a combination with saddle slip and non of the above issues are noticeable - through Andy's method I can assess what impact the rider is having on the problem. I can address Saddle slip immediately and also what excites me most I can affect that horses way of going directly from the correction.
Saddle slip can 100% be caused by a rider. I have seen it now too many times to not believe that. That collapse of the rider can stop the hind leg coming through on that heavier side, it can also create a lack of cadence in the horse. It should not be underestimated the difference correcting the rider can make.
Once we have addressed your muscle imbalance I can then focus on your general riding position. The first photo below shows a young rider before and after correction. You can see how much she leans in to stop herself from falling out. Once corrected she can sit equally on both seat bones and therefore upright in her body. The second photo is a young Dressage Rider before and after correction. I really enjoy working with clients using the performance camera to assess the rider and the horse. The changes seen through filming of horse and rider are amazing to see - its picks up on the specific detail that we can work on. Detail not visible to the human eye.
Also quite often I will refer clients to attend mechanical horse lessons with Nicola Bell at Sparrow Oast. Her attention to detail and understanding of the rider's compensations is so helpful in improvement. Nicola is also training for certification with Andy Thomas so we all understand what we are trying to achieve. If you don't have anyone like this in your area, Andy has a website where you can learn the exercises needed to help you before you get on. www.testt.co.uk
All of this is obviously only possible if the saddle fits you! This is an area I found very difficult to achieve before making my own brand. Finding that balance point that puts the rider comfortably central with no force or restriction is vital to the movement of that horse.
Its a very big subject which again I could write a book about but to explain as simply as possible if you are not sitting comfortably without force, restriction or fighting for adjustment- without your leg hanging in the middle of the flap with enough room between the back of your knee and top of your heel its not the right saddle for you. Your pelvis should feel like its pliable and aligned for the discipline you are trying to achieve.
Riders of all levels are affected by the shape of the seat, position of the stirrup bar, width of the twist, block position and flap length. It's important to analyse what's working and what isn't and adapt the saddle to assist. It can sometimes mean a completely new design or just an adjustment of a block position. The rider in the picture on the right has been slightly tipped back in the pelvis which has encouraged the rider to lean back - this has impacted the bend of the elbow creating a straighter arm and the thigh and knee has been encouraged to point out of the saddle. The rider on the left can sit up more upright with the pelvis in a good position. The are is bent and the leg hangs without restriction in the middle of the flap. The horse is in the same phase of the movement - but I think the differences in the rider are clear.
I also think it really helps if you ride and fit saddles, as you have a much better understanding of feel and where you want to sit and why. If you don't ride I'm not sure you can really understand what your trying to achieve with the horse or the rider's body.
To Summarise all of the Above -
- Good Training should help both horse and rider achieve symmetry
- Humans and Horses affect each other and both affect the saddle as much as it affects them!
- Correctly fitted tack will support correct training
- No one thing is enough to make changes - meaning if you have buy a great saddle but you train badly the picture won't get better
- Learn how your horse moves so you understand when it changes
- Symmetry is a life long goal
- A compromised structure leads to poor function and vice versa
- Build a Good Trustworthy Team around you, that understand what is needed to improve and make sure they care
Most subjects are not covered in a great amount of detail as the Blog would be longer than most would want to read. I hope you find it helpful, and a good guide to what may be going on for you and your horse.
If you have any questions or info you wish to discuss please get in touch. Your horse may well thank you for reading this Blog!
To finish I'm leaving you with several pictures of horses in good training and understanding of how the horse should look when being ridden with the respect it deserves