Thankfully, it’s a different story nowadays. We have some great saddle designs that can be fitted to both the horse and the rider well and come with some very good advice too.
As a horse owner or even as an occasional rider you want to know (don’t you?) how is your saddle doing on your horse’s back. There is a science to the saddle fitting and saddle check process and I will get back to it very soon but in this post, I would like to draw your attention to the secret language of the sweat marks that your saddle leaves on your horse’s back after you’ve ridden.
A few things you can “read” from sweat marks:
– are sweat marks symmetrical (if not, which way is the saddle sliding as the horse works)
– where are dry patches and are they the same on each side of the spine; does it look like saddle bars come in contact with the spine? (a well-fitted saddle should not put pressure on the area right next to the spine as that’s where the spinal processes are – not to mention the nerves – and where the sensitive supraspinous ligament lies).
If you give your horse little squeezes along the spine like on the photo below (imagine squeezing lemon but be gentle, some horses react strongly) you will see how even small pressure causes the horse to drop their back and lift the neck away from your prods. Imagine a piece of tack interfering in a similar way just as you are working on encouraging your horse to relax and round his back…
– are the patches regular and matching saddle bars or are there areas of dry then wet and again dry which might suggest that the bars don’t sit flat and even. This will mean your weight is not distributed evenly and pressure spots might be a problem.
If you are having problems with tension in the horse’s back or neck always simultaneously check 2 things: your own riding (be cruel) and the saddle (play a detective).
NECK & SHOULDERS
There are horses that sweat profusely whatever they do and those that barely break any sweat whatever they do but observing the muscles that work hardest and therefore sweat more can be a good guide to how correct (biomechanically) the training is.
Repetitive marked presence of sweat alongside the horse’s lower neck muscles could indicate the horse is overusing those muscles in place of engaging the top of the neck musculature that assists in developing better self-carriage.
Sweat patches in front of the wither (base of the neck where many horses has atrophied muscles and a smaller of bigger “dip”) and over the middle and top of the neck could on the other hand point towards the fact that those muscles are the ones undertaking harder work and therefore increase in strength and functionality.
Having no clavicles, horse’s scapulas are suspended in a powerful muscle sling that has an ability to significantly lift the horse’s wither (think of those moments when your horse “grows a hand” when they see something that excites them). This anatomy detail means the front end conformation can appear unrecognizable when a green horse is compared to a more advanced one in their training.
Sweat over the shoulders might at first indicate “forehand driving” but it is also believed to be a sign of that powerful muscle sling being employed, especially in collected work (front end has a significant part in “lifting” the horse in collected work).
Observing the sweat patterns over the barrel (belly, lumbar area/flanks) helps in assessing whether the powerful core muscles are being used. Slight belly sweat and flanks sweat is believed to be a good sign of the right muscle chains being tasked.
Sweat over gluteal muscles and sweaty upper thighs are usually thought to be good indicators of efforts being sustained in the rear engine but it is worth noting that too much-localized sweating around stifles is not so desirable, especially if coupled with a feeling of lack of power from the saddle.
Although many of these observations are of very old origin and quite possibly don’t apply to every horse working well, I personally see a fairly accurate correlation between functional work and sweat patterns, especially over the neck.