Understanding Saddle Fit

Do we underestimate the impact of ill-fitting tack on our horses? Learn how to assess saddle fit in this article from the Riding Horse 2023 issue of The Horse.
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Do we underestimate the impact of ill-fitting tack?

saddle research trust conference; My Saddle Doesn't Fit My Horse...Now What?
It’s crucial to involve a saddle fitter when your horse’s body has changed for any number of reasons. | Alexandra Beckstett/The Horse

Some analogies compare the equine back to a violin. The horse’s spine is the wooden body of the instrument, and the muscles are the strings. When the horse’s muscles and other soft tissues move the spine, the structures must stretch and extend accordingly for the entire instrument—the back—to function. The horse’s ability to engage and use his back depends on well-­developed and healthy musculature. Underutilized, atrophied, or spasmodic or otherwise painful muscles disrupt the animal’s locomotion. Unfortunately, this kind of muscle damage often occurs due to a common, often-overlooked culprit: ill-fitting saddles. In this article we’ll tackle the process of recognizing and addressing saddle fit problems to help you be sure your equine partner has a pleasant experience in the tack.

The Importance of a Saddle That Fits

Imagine running a 5K with sneakers that are too small and tight for your feet, causing blistering pain with every footfall. Or picture a track-and-field athlete attempting to navigate a course of hurdles while wearing tightly buttoned jeans that dig into the skin and cause uncomfortable friction at the seams. These struggles are similar to those horses endure in the hands of well-­intentioned but ill-informed riders—and even trainers. Undoubtedly, pain, lameness, muscle atrophy, and behavioral resistance in the ridden horse can all be linked to an improperly fitting saddle. With so much potential for harm if fitted incorrectly, saddles deserve the attention of the professionals on your horse’s team—­veterinarian, bodyworker, and saddle fitter.

When it’s Time to Call a ­Pro

“It’s crucial to involve a saddle fitter when your horse’s body has changed for any number of reasons,” says Jenna Shipley, of Shipley Equine Services, a certified equine bodyworker and saddle fitter based in Carmel, New York. Like most independent professional saddle fitters, Shipley recommends a routine saddle checkup at least twice a year. She names a few scenarios that might affect this schedule and warrant dialing your saddle fitter’s number:

  • Extreme weight gain or loss. This can include significant muscle loss from a period of inactivity, decreased nutrient intake, or even systemic illness.
  • Starting (or restarting) a horse under saddle. Commencing training with properly fitted tack is better than fixing problems down the road.
  • Rehabbing a horse after a period of stall rest due to injury. Shipley says the shape of the topline will change when transitioning from inactivity back to work and encourages horse owners to have saddle fit evaluated throughout the rehabilitation process.
  • A change in riders. “Crooked riders make crooked horses,” says Shipley. Researchers have shown riders who are too large for the saddle, out of balance, or crooked create uneven force distribution across the tack (Bondi et al., 2019). “These unbalanced riders can actually change the quality of their tack, creating unbalanced, asymmetrical saddles,” she says.

Furthermore, ill-fitting saddles can create a “vicious cycle,” our sources say. “Horses with saddle-induced back pain can have the shape of their back change, often dramatically, in a short amount of time, from the associated muscle atrophy,” explains Shipley. “We have to remember how dynamic a horse’s musculoskeletal system is, how much it responds to its environment.”

Erin Contino, MS, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, associate professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, echoes these observations: “Whether from saddle fit issues or underlying back pathology (disease or damage), horses with back pain will often ‘turn off’ their stabilizing muscles, causing them to atrophy. Many horses with back pain will appear to have lost muscle mass over their topline rather quickly.”

As a general rule, Shipley recommends more frequent saddle fit checks for horses in a dynamic program—green horses that are still maturing, athletes rehabilitating from an injury, or horses experiencing a variable workload throughout the year—than those in a static program. This latter group is governed by consistency: These horses have a steady workload throughout the year, and their bodies are less likely to change rapidly.

Realistically, many horse owners look for more practical and cost-effective alternatives to having their saddles ­professionally ­evaluated and adjusted as frequently as every couple of months. Researchers’ findings suggest certain saddle pads can in some cases reduce pressure on the back (Kotschwar et al., 2010).

“I do see value in some half pads that come with the ability to have shims added and subtracted, as they can be particularly useful during these times when the horse’s body is changing a lot,” explains Shipley. “The reality is that although corrective saddle pads can temporarily improve the fit in certain cases, they can’t be a permanent solution.” And more padding isn’t necessarily harmless—layering on various pads to correct a gullet or tree that’s already too narrow will only make matters worse, similar to adding thick socks to your tight shoes

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We at The Horse work to provide you with the latest and most reliable news and information on equine health, care, management, and welfare through our magazine and TheHorse.com. Our explanatory journalism provides an understandable resource on important and sometimes complex health issues. Your subscription will help The Horse continue to offer this vital resource to horse owners of all breeds, disciplines, and experience levels.

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Written by:

Lucile Vigouroux holds a master’s degree in Equine Performance, Health, and Welfare from Nottingham Trent University (UK) and an equine veterinary assistant certification from AAEVT. She is a New-York-based freelance author with a passion for equine health and veterinary care. A Magnawave-certified practitioner, Lucile also runs a small equine PEMF therapy business. Her lifelong love of horses motivated her to adopt her college care horse, Claire, upon graduation.

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