Hot Topics in Saddle Fit
Saddle fit struggles aren’t just a bane to horse owners and a boon to consignment tack sellers. They’re also a legitimate topic of discussion among equine practitioners looking to help their clients’ horses. This was evident as veterinarians packed themselves into the Saddle Fit and Rider’s Effect on the Horse table topic to weigh in on their biggest saddle concerns at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 17-21, in San Antonio, Texas.

Scott Anderson, DVM, of Woodside Equine Clinic, in Ashland, Virginia, and Kevin Haussler, DVM, PhD, of Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, moderated the discussion. Anderson specializes in sports medicine and lameness, chiropractic, and acupuncture, while Haussler focuses on spinal issues, chiropractic, and acupuncture.

At the start of the session, they polled the audience for topics of interest and narrowed their discussion to nine issues:

1. Kissing Spines

“Kissing spines are the vogue thing to look at,” said Anderson. “You can X ray and find it on horses with no signs of problems. Then there are horses out there with severe radiograph changes but can perform perfectly well. Whether pain under saddle is kissing spines or (saddle) fit can be really difficult to find out.”

He suggested veterinarians palpate to determine whether points of soreness on the horse’s spine correlate with points of contact on the saddle and/or radiograph results. If so, these types of horses will need particularly well-fitted saddles.

Haussler emphasized that kissing spines and saddle fit are two separate issues. “First address the back pain (e.g., using acupuncture, corticosteroid injections, shock wave therapy, etc.), then work on core-strengthening exercises. Start with the back, then manage the saddle.”

He said he sees more problems in backyard and unfit trail riding horses that don’t have much core strength than he does in fit performance horses. It’s challenging to keep these horses comfortable because expensive treatments such as back injections are “a much bigger deal to these owners,” he said.

2. Memory Foam

“There’s always a new foam that goes into saddles,” said Anderson. “I think it really comes down to whether the saddle fits well than what it’s flocked with.”

Says Haussler: “My general feeling about foam is it’s a bad substitute for wool. If you’re in the saddle for hours, it’s not going to hold up; it’s going to compress. I think it’s a fad we’re going through and we’ll always go back to wool.”

3. Western Rigging

Western saddles come with a variety of hardware types for connecting the straps that hold the saddle in place. Different rigging placements and styles can affect how the saddle and rider sit on the horse’s back.

Haussler recommended using ¾ rigging (set at 3/4 of the distance from cantle to pommel, which allows for even distribution of the rider’s weight) for general purposes, while a veterinarian in the audience lauded center fire rigging (centered between the cantle and pommel) for gaited and endurance horses.

Another veterinarian who rides Western said, “I often find that despite where the rigging is, the saddle will migrate to where it wants to be.”

4. Saddle Pads

With regard to Western saddles, “I think a good, well-fit felt pad is best,” said Haussler. “I don’t think neoprene is a good choice. It has a lot of stick and isn’t breathable. I’ve worn a wetsuit before, and it’s not fun.”

With English saddles, said Anderson, padding can make a difference in some instances, such as a saddle with a wide tree that isn’t bridging (putting pressure mostly on the front and back instead of distributing it throughout the saddle’s panels). A pad will not help if a tree’s too narrow.

“We can fine-tune and tweak saddle fit with judicious use of shim pads,” Haussler added. “I like the ones with three shims. Don’t use it as a cure, but as an aid. Western saddles have some of these, too.”

5. Fitting English Saddles

Anderson described how he’d evaluate an English saddle for proper fit. “I will look at it with and without a pad,” he said. “Make sure the flap is 3 cm behind the scapula (shoulder blade). Is the saddle level? The deepest part (of the seat) should be right in the center from front to back.

“Put your hand on the cantle and pommel, and try to rock it,” he continued. “If there’s motion, there will be a painful pivot point. Feel for contact between the tree and wither. High contact means it’s too wide; low contact means it’s too narrow. Put your hand between the panel and the back, putting pressure on the seat—contact should be uniform. Then look at the pad. If the saddle fits well, you don’t need excessive padding.”

6. Fitting Western Saddles

Haussler then ran through Western saddle fitting points: “I put the saddle on my boots and look at the contour of the tree,” he said. “I look for seat wear marks from the rider’s seat bones, wear marks on fleece, loose screws, etc. Then I put the saddle on the horse without a pad. The concho (decorative silver disk near the base of the pommel) should be right behind the scapula. There should be two to three fingers clearance over the withers. Feel under the stirrup bars and panels; rock the saddle. Then add a pad and repeat.”

One of the veterinarians in the audience noted that many older saddles nowadays are too narrow because the average Western horse’s body shape has changed over time.

7. Rider Weight

An often-touchy topic that came up in discussion was how to have a conversation about overweight riders and their effect on the horse. Attendees agreed that it often depends on the rider.

“You can have overweight riders that are very balanced and skinny ones that are very unbalanced and applying lots of pressure (to the horse’s back),” said one veterinarian.

“Rider quality makes a difference,” Haussler added. “The general rule (for maximum recommended rider weight) is about 20 to 25% of the horse’s body weight.”

One veterinarian noted that her clientele includes many older, heavier trail riders but doesn’t believe the extra weight affects that population of horses as much because they’re not galloping and jumping. “Gaited horses also seem to do okay because they always have that supporting limb on the ground,” she said.

8. Rein Lameness

Rein lameness, a gait irregularity that doesn’t stem from pain, can be challenging to pinpoint definitively. “If the lameness correlates with the rein, you have to think about what’s causing it,” said Anderson. “Neck pain comes to mind. Anything from the bit to the rider could cause it. But I think in most situations there’s a problem in the horse that needs to be found.”

Several veterinarians cited causes they see for so-called rein lameness, including dental problems, neurologic conditions, and riding with more tension in one’s dominant hand.

9. Asymmetrical Riders

Riders that aren’t symmetrical in the saddle can cause back pain and other physical issues for the horse. Haussler, who has worked with therapy horses, said many of these programs have able-bodied riders exercise the horses regularly so they’re not always subjected to asymmetrical riders.

Another veterinarian in the audience described one client who is very one-sided after being in a car accident. In this scenario, the trainer rides the horse a few times a week to keep him working properly in both directions.

Other vets emphasized the importance of working on proprioception (awareness of the relative position of one’s body parts) training for the rider to address the root issue.