Lately there has been a noticeable trend in dressage forums to ask the question, “Why has saddle fit become so important? When I rode as a kid we never worried about that stuff”.
Obviously, the fit of the saddle to the horse is of paramount importance to us, or why would we have built our business trying to make the horse and rider more comfortable? It may surprise some people that saddle fit isn’t all snake oil with some cleverly disguised smoke and mirrors thrown in.
There are some very specific tenets that must be observed when fitting a saddle. To begin speaking on saddle fit, we first need to look at all the parts of your horse’s physiology that are affected by the way that your saddle is fitting.
Your saddle sits primarily on two different muscle groups. To begin explaining the importance of saddle fit, we begin at the front of your saddle under the pommel. All we need is three fingers clearance, right? Wrong! Under the front of your saddle we find a muscle that extends all the way up into the neck, the trapezius muscle. A tight saddle results in pinched muscles, tight neck, and tight back.
One of the most common problems experienced with the discomfort of horses under saddle is that the tree itself just does not fit. You can get an idea of how the front of your saddle is fitting by placing the weight of your arm on top of the saddle and running your hand down the inside, between the wither and the saddle. What can often happen is a “too tight on top, too wide on bottom” feeling which is illustrated in diagram A. This scenario means your saddle is pinching in two little spots on either side of the trapezius muscle. Now if you take your hand and pinch the horse on either side of the wither what happens? In most horses the back will tighten and drop, and the head will come up. This is not what we want to occur when we are riding.
This test is not meant to set up alarms and denigrate saddles in general. In order to make the horse and rider as effective and comfortable as possible, we have to have a communicator or interface between them.
The saddle is always the communicator however, a well-fit saddle is the interface which allows the team to feel each others actions and get peak performance. We cannot help causing a degree of pressure when we put a foreign object onto a horse’s back. The most important thing, however, is that we do the best for them that we can; meaning trying to keep pressure points to a minimum. So what we really want to feel when we run our hand down the same spot is an even feeling from top to bottom with the tree a little more loose or free at the top. (See diagram B).
Now why do we want this?
Diagram B provides much more even and well distributed pressure down the length of the supporting tree, therefore the muscles in the neck can relax and drop and we can work our horses into a relaxed true engagement.
The second area of the saddle we want to look at is where it lies over the horse’s back: the panel system. There are many complicated and interwoven muscles in the horse but the major muscle that supports the mid to back of saddle is the longissimus dorsi muscle. It is the muscle on either side of the spine that connects at the front of the pelvis through to the base of the neck. It runs under the shoulder and doesn’t hit the surface until behind the wither. In a former article, the topic of a 30/40/30 ratio was discussed for how the saddle’s pressure should be distributed over your horse’s back: 30 front, 40 middle, 30 in the back. Unfortunately, many saddles ‘bridge’ which is the exact opposite of what we are trying to accomplish with
the above ratio.
Bridging occurs when there is pressure or contact in the front and the back of the saddle but no contact in the middle. In the example diagram C these four circles show where those pressure points occur. So why do we want our saddles not to bridge? When the saddle does this it causes the longissimus dorsi muscle to tighten and therefore the back drops, the head comes up and the pelvis rotates up. Now we have a stiff, disengaged, unhappy horse.
So by having the saddle lying evenly on the horse’s back taking more pressure in the middle, we have now utilized the horse’s natural physiology and also distributed the pressure more effectively over the back. This
allows the horse to relax his back and therefore get his hind-end underneath him and move forward properly engaged.
The best scenario is a pressure pattern like is shown in diagram D. The ribcage in your horse’s back only extends so far and we want to carry the weight of the saddle on this ribcage, more specifically at the widest and strongest section of the rib cage – the middle.
Of course, not every difficult and unhappy step that your horse takes is the fault of the saddle. We have to remember the entire group of professionals that affect our horse’s soundness of body and mind. Your horse’s circle of influence ideally consists of the veterinarian, the equine chiropractor, the farrier, the equine dentist, the trainer, the barn manager, and the saddler; not to mention many other subsections of these groups. Changes to your horse’s feed program, his farrier and his training schedule will effect how his body looks just as those changes will affect us in the same manner. In an analogy, if you were to buy a pair of jeans and than work out and diet for the next six months it would be unreasonable to assume that these
jeans would still fit perfectly and you might tend to blame it on the store or tailor.
You would either get them altered or buy new ones!
Fortunately, you do not always have to go to the extent of having to purchase a new saddle every time your horse muscles differently but it is good to get into the habit of seeing a saddler at least once if not twice a year. New advances in the industry are allowing more and more flexibility to the saddle itself giving the owner the ability to keep the same saddle. It is common practice to consult the farrier every five to six weeks; why is it so unusual to consult with a saddler every six months? It makes even more sense when we know that all of a horse’s body is interconnected. An article in the June 2001 edition of Equus called ‘The Key to Locked Stifles’, by Dr. Deb Bennett, PhD, gives an excellent idea of how a tense longissimus dorsi can
cause not only stiffness but also lameness in the hind end. The article truly gives the reader the ability to see how all of these muscles, tendons, and ligaments are tied together.
So, in summary – when you were a kid you probably rode at one of those stables in any saddle that was available with a small amount of effort given to fit. (If it doesn’t fit simply throw another pad under it…). However, you may not have been asking those horses to engage and use their bodies in a one half hour lesson where the horses go nose to tail, so this is really no basis for comparison. Horses are athletes. We ask them to do their jobs whether their discipline may be dressage, jumping, hunters, eventing, saddle seat, reining, Western pleasure, endurance, or simply pleasure riding. In order for them to reach their peak performance we need to make special considerations for their comfort so they are free to do their jobs.
This article was primarily written by Kristen Vlietstra, one of Schleese’s certified saddle fitting technicians and top salespeople.