Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s nice to ride in a comfortable saddle. Most likely, horses would, too. In the last few years, the horse’s saddle has received a good bit of attention in equine studies, especially as to how it related to welfare, performance, and safety issues for horses and riders. While most saddle research has been conducted on English-type saddles, proper saddle fit is an important consideration no matter what the horse’s use. Researchers are finding that horse problems can occur when welfare, safety, and performance considerations are not considered together as pertains to a well-fitting saddle.
When it comes to “proper” saddle fit, there are a couple of things that pretty much everyone seems to agree on. First, as a general rule, saddles and pads should help distribute the weight of the rider fairly evenly over the horse’s back. Second, they should avoid pressure points or “bridging” from the withers to a spot on the horse’s back. Beyond that, well, things can get a bit murky. The devil, as they say, is in the details (“they” meaning nobody is exactly sure who said it in the first place).
Saddle problems are not necessarily easy to study. One reason is that there are so many variables related to the saddle itself. For example, solid wooden trees, such as are common in Western saddles, differ greatly from the spring trees found in English saddles. Many trees are made with synthetic materials; treeless saddles are also made for both disciplines. Even with treeless saddles there is no, “One size fits all.” Treeless saddles differ in their construction, flexibility, and the that that force is transferred to the horse’s back.
One thing that has remained something of a constant is that most saddles are constructed based on principles that have existed for centuries. So as much as we may think we know about how saddles should fit, it may even be that other designs not yet considered will be preferable.
Of course, with all of the variables to consider in the saddle, padding is yet another consideration. English saddles typically rely on cushioning built into the saddle itself, whereas Western saddles typically are cushioned by a heavy pad. Wool flocking is favored by some, but foam flocking can also be effective. Shim pads can help redistribute pressure. Gel pads do not respond quickly to pressure changes, and may not be ideal when the saddle is rapidly loaded. It’s always something.
It’s pretty annoying when saddles start slipping around on a horse’s back. In fact, saddle slipping can contribute to poor performance and even lameness. But here’s the thing: a slipping saddle is not necessarily a saddle problem. Lameness can cause saddles to slip due to gait asymmetries and saddle slip can ultimately cause lameness: it’s a chicken and egg thing. In fact, in one study, horses with lameness of the hind legs appear to be as much as 52 times more likely to have a slipping saddle than do horses that’s aren’t lame. Usually, saddles slip on the side of the horse with the lame leg, and, as might be expected, saddle slip tends to be more pronounced when the horse travels in a circle.
A poorly flocked saddle, where there’s more or less flocking on one side or the other, can can also contribute to a saddle slipping problem. Saddle slipping is reduced when heavier riders ride lame horses, but when the saddle is the problem, heavier riders cause the saddles to slip all by themselves. It’s always something.
THE HORSE’S BACK
Saddle problems are not simply a matter of poorly fitting saddles or lame horses, however. The shape of the horse’s back also contributes to the problems of slipping saddles. For example, a horse with a rounded back may also tendto have a saddle that slips. Somewhat paradoxically, a saddle that fits the horse’s back very well seems to be more likely to slip than is a poor fitting saddle. Apparently, areas that are less well-fitted offer some resistance to slipping, whereas a well-fitted saddle that has even contact with the horse’s back may tend to slide over the muscles.
Of course, a horse’s back shape can change over time. This is probably obvious to anyone who has seen backs drop in older horses, but changes in the shape of the horse’s back can occur when saddle fit is improved, as horses become more fit, and as they gain weight, as well. On the other hand, lameness has negative effects on the shape of the horse’s back. Saddle fit can even change during exercise. For example, sound horses can experience an increase in back width during exercise that can result in a tight saddle, even when saddle fit was good at the start of exercise.
Of course, the rider can influence things, too.
Brief Aside: I think that, in general, the influence of the rider on the horse is underappreciated, especially by some riders. Lots and lots of problems that are usually attributed to some horse problem or tack problem or feed problem or lack of supplement problems are actually rider problems.
As might be expected, riders who exert more pressure on one side of the saddle or another load saddles more on one side or the other. This can contribute to saddle slipping, as well as lameness. Communicating such observations to the rider can is part of the “art” of medicine.
Another brief aside: As a good friend of mine once said, “You can tell a lady that when you look at her, time stands still. Or, you can tell her that she has a face that could stop a clock. Either way, time’s not going anywhere, but depending on how you say it, you’ll likely get a different response.”
If saddle slipping is noted by an observer, or reported as a problem by the rider, it can help to have the horse ridden by a different rider to see if the problem still occurs. If the saddle is still slipping, the problem may be more likely to be related to a primary lameness.
THE IDEAL SADDLE FIT
One of the problems with getting an “ideal” saddle fit – even one that’s been fitted by one of the many people who have opinions in this area – is that saddles are typically fitted when horses are standing still. That’s great – probably inevitable, because it’s hard to measure a horse when you’re chasing him around – but when the horse moves, the shape of the back changes. Furthermore, each gait has its own characteristic pressure pattern. Add in rider movement – for example, at a rising trot, forces are exerted on a relatively small spot (the stirrups) as the rider pushes up – and you’ve got a whole lot of things that make it hard to figure out just what, exactly, is “ideal.”
There’s a pragmatic question here, too. Even if we all agree that a saddle should fit well, how often should you check to see if it’s still fitting well, given that the horse’s back changes? You could fairly convincingly argue that frequent evaluation is best for the horse, but evaluation comes at a cost. The expense of regular evaluation and saddle adjustment (e.g., reflocking) may be a considerable deterrent. So, unless you’re made of money, it’s probably worth some effort to regularly check things out yourself, to see how the saddle fits and how your horse is performing.
All that said, while saddle fitting is important, it’s probably most important in higher level performance horses. While you certainly want to have a saddle that fits your horse well, if your a pleasure or trail rider, or you just like to see if you can win a yellow ribbon at the occasional show, “precise” saddle fitting and custom saddles may not be worth the expense or effort. But you still may want one.
BY THE WAY: You should be comfortable in the saddle, too.
ONE LAST FLY IN THE OINTMENT
Even if you could sort everything else out, there’s still a big problem. The fact is that the tools currently available to veterinarians, trainers, and saddle fitters do not provide adequate objective measures of saddles and saddle fit. Otherwise stated, the “ideal” saddle fit remains as much a matter of opinion as it does fact. There’s a certain amount of trial and error involved, too. That’s certainly not to say saddle fit isn’t important: it is. But there seems to be a good amount of leeway in what “works” for an individual horse, as well.
How saddles and saddle pads affect the horse’s back is a complicated issue. Ultimately, no single tool may be adequate to evaluate the complex interactions between saddle, horse, and rider. In many cases, I’d say it’s a good idea to make sure that a rider is riding to the best of his or her ability before dropping a bunch of money on a new saddle. New solutions to help evaluate horse and rider balance are becoming available. Hopefully, information obtained from such systems can help veterinarians, trainers, and riders record, evaluate, and store valuable information about their horses and themselves.
Lastly, in the UK, they’re apparently really devoting a lot of time and effort to saddle fitting at The Saddle Research Trust. If you’d like to see what they’re up to, please go to www.saddleresearchtrust.com.