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Veterinarians Urged to Learn About Saddle Fit

November 2015 by Cristina Wilkins, Editor, Horses and People Magazine

Veterinarians Urged to Learn About Saddle Fit: Horse owner education and detection of poor saddle fit a priority.

As poor saddle fit is increasingly recognised as a welfare issue, a recent article published in the Equine Veterinary Education Journal highlights the need for veterinarians to learn more about the principles of saddle fit and how to recognise an ill-fitting saddle. Compromising a horse and rider’s short- and long-term health, an ill-fitting saddle can result in pain, muscle atrophy, poor back function and poor performance, which means early detection is crucial. 

The authors state that working in conjunction with professional saddle fitters, coaches and physiotherapists, veterinarians could be at the forefront to educate horse owners and improve horse and rider comfort. 

Combining their expertise and previous knowledge acquired through many years investigating saddle-fit related soundness and performance issues, asymmetry and rider posture, the authors provide an up-to-date, educational guide to (English) saddle fit and recognising an ill-fitting saddle. The 11 page illustrated article includes a glossary of terms relating to saddle fit principles and there are supplementary images and descriptions available online. 

Corresponding author Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust’s Centre for Equine Study, is world renowned for her interest in lameness and poor performance in sports horses. Dr Dyson lectures internationally and has published more than 200 peer reviewed papers in scientific journals relating to lameness and diagnostic imaging in the horse.

The co-authors are professional saddle fitter Sue Carson from Sue Carson Saddles, a company specialising in custom-fit saddles, and Mark Fisher from Woodcraft Equine Services, a Qualified Saddle Fitter and Master Saddler who regularly lectures and assesses for the UK’s Society of Master Saddlers. 

In the horse, an ill-fitting saddle can contribute to back pain and cause muscle soreness and swelling under the saddle which may lead to muscle atrophy, compromised back function and short steps. Therefore, when cases present with these symptoms, veterinarians should assess whether saddle-fit is a contributor and can play a role in the treatment and rehabilitation of the horse. Behaviour aspects such as an unwillingness to more forward freely, bend laterally or longitudinally, whilst being aspects related to the horse’s training, also indicate that saddle fit needs to be assessed.

For the rider, an ill-fitting saddle can cause back pain, ‘hip’ pain, sores under the seat bones and perineal injuries. 

Previous studies have already concluded that a high proportion of riders cannot detect poorly-fitting saddles nor recognise the affect they have on the horse’s health and performance, and this is another reason why the authors believe that veterinarians could be play a crucial educational role. 

The article begins with guidelines for assessing saddle fit to a horse; from the panels and gullet width to the size, balance and position of the saddle in relation to the horse’s conformation it explains the principles of good fit and adds practical strategies for determining the areas of contact and identifying unevenness, gaps or tight spots, for example, dusting builder’s chalk powder into the horse’s coat over the saddle bearing area, carefully positioning a clean white cloth under the saddle and checking the pattern that results after 20 minutes riding. 

Correct spacing between the gullet and the horse’s spine and width of gullet and panels in relation to the horse’s conformation and anatomical landmarks are also detailed. Other aspects are the width and length of the saddle as a whole and the positioning of the tree points in relation to the scapular cartilages (top of the shoulder blade), as well as the length of the tree according to the position of the horse’s 18th rib. Interestingly, they suggest that for horses with short backs, a saddler may be able to increase the length and/or width of the seat without lengthening the tree. 

Regarding saddle pads and numnahs, the authors remark on the lack of scientific evidence to support any manufacturer’s claims about force distribution or shock absorption and that saddle pads can actually compromise the function of an appropriately fitted saddle. They reiterate that saddle fit has to be assessed with any saddle pad/s the rider intends to use and the importance of a contoured design to ensure clearance of the withers. Girths and girth straps and how they interact with the horse’s barrel and forelimbs are also discussed in detail, from the position and length of the straps to girth materials and elastic inserts. 

Saddle fit during ridden exercise has to be assessed in all gaits checking for excessive movement, whether side to side, forwards and backwards and lifting off the back, as well as slipping to one side, an issue that has been linked to hind limb lameness and can be used as a diagnostic tool. 

The article explains the correct rider posture as the basis for identifying deviations from the ideal and determining if the saddle is the contributing factor that is not allowing the rider to sit in the middle of the seat without tipping. There is also a section for recognising an ill-fitting saddle which is supported by supplementary images and descriptions. 

The following poor performance and/or soundness issues are listed as ones that should prompt veterinarians and physiotherapists alike to assess saddle fit:  

  • Muscle soreness under the saddle (abnormal behaviour, flinching and/or reacting to touch in the saddle area) 
  • Transient swellings on the dorsal midline - can appear after ridden exercise. 
  • Dry patches, which reflect focal pressure points, and dry patches surrounded by sweat.   
  • Ruffled hairs or scabby skin lesions indicate the saddle is moving too much during exercise or may be caused by the saddle blanket binding rubbing. 
  • Muscle atrophy resulting in depressions pointing to chronically poor fitting saddle and pressure points
  • General muscle atrophy which may reflect stiffness and lack of proper function. 
  • Adhesions between the skin and underlying fascia and fibrosis
  • White hairs - which indicate that excessive pressure and perhaps heat or friction has injured the hair follicles. 
  • Whenever a horse shows restricted forelimb step length, back stiffness, overall shortness of step, unwillingness to bend and a tendency to become above the bit.

The article covers the often overlooked issue of changes to the horse’s back dimensions. Studies have previously identified that the horse’s back can increase in dimensions both - temporarily during exercise, as well as over time, and that the variation is quantifiable and considerable. They also showed that an ill-fitting saddle prevented transient changes occurring during exercise, something which may have long-term consequences for muscle development and performance. The longer term studies also showed that improved saddle fit was one of various factors that had a positive effect on changes in back dimensions. The article authors, therefore, recommend that saddle fit is assessed during exercise and several times a year, especially if there has been a change in work intensity. 

They also recommend that each horse has its own custom-fitted saddle, and say that pads, numnahs of shims should never be considered as long-term solutions for a saddle that does not fit. 

For professional yards where there are more horses than saddles, the authors recommend that each horse-saddle combination is assessed (regularly) and each horse is assigned one of two saddles that provide the best fit. They do not recommend adjustable trees as a solution for fitting a saddle to more than one horse, although these may be suited for a single horse that tends to change shape frequently under the front of the saddle. 

If a saddle requires a breast-plate and/or a crupper to stay in position, state the authors, the saddle does not fit the horse properly. In particular breast-plates used to lock the saddle in place may cause continuous pressure on the chest and shoulder and restrict the movement of the forelimbs.  

Other influencing factors such as asymmetry of the rider as well as the horse’s back dimensions or shoulder region, need to be identified and require adjusting to the individual horse. The article also draws attention to the issue of rider body size relative to the horse noting that despite the lack of scientifically validated studies, the general guide should be that the ratio between rider and horse bodyweight should not greatly exceed 20%. Veterinarians are in a good position to provide advice concerning rider size and bodyweight relative to horse size and type, for example at the time of a pre-purchase exam.

The guide is rounded up with saddle storage and maintenance recommendations, statistics on the prevalence of saddle-related problems and information about how saddle-fitters are trained in the UK and the UK qualifications that are also valid in other countries. 

This article is a very comprehensive guide to saddle-fit and despite being addressed to veterinarians it is recommended reading for anyone who rides in an English saddle and wants to do the best for their horse. 

NEWS! Thanks to negotiations by the Saddle Research Trust, the Equine Veterinary Education Journal has made the article available for FREE DOWNLOAD until April 2016! You can download the full article here.

The abstract: Saddle fitting, recognising an ill-fitting saddle and the consequences of an ill-fitting saddle to horse and rider, by S. Dyson, S. Carson and M. Fisher can be accessed here.