A horse that goes around with his head up, ears pinned, and tail swishing could be indicating discomfort or displeasure for any number of reasons. One that’s commonly overlooked, however, is poor saddle fit.
When professional saddlers evaluate a horse’s saddle, they look for telltale signs of a poor fit in the horse’s body, behaviour, and movement. Master saddlers Laurence Pearman, Ian Hastilow, and Annette Gavin described these during the 2015 Society of Master Saddlers North American Introduction to Saddle Fitting course, held May 2-3 in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Keep in mind that many of the signs described can result from issues other than (or along with) saddle fit, and it can be difficult to differentiate poor fit from an unrelated physical issue. This is an important reason to also confer with a veterinarian.
Signs that the presenters said might indicate poor saddle fit include:
1. Lumps, bumps, and skin lesions where the saddle lies
Some horses develop sudden but temporary round fluid swellings under the skin that are no larger than an inch in diameter. They typically appear within 20 minutes of unsaddling after a long ride and disappear (reabsorb) within 12 hours. These standalone lumps aren’t usually painful.
In other cases, horses will develop firmer, less absorbable bumps—typically on both sides of the spine. This is a low-grade inflammatory reaction to excess pressure from the saddle that eventually resolves.
If the saddle pressure is not corrected, these bumps can become chronic palpable knots. While the bump itself is not very uncomfortable for the horse, continuing pressure on it can lead to it’s becoming an open sore that’s painful and prone to infection.
While not visible to the human eye, bruising is evident when the horse shows an obviously painful reaction to pressure from the saddle or someone’s hands. This can result from poor saddle fit over a large area, such as from the cantle panels (at the back of the saddle, under the rider’s seat) on either side of the horse’s spine, as well as from a rider who is uneven and “bumping” in the saddle. Scars can ultimately form from chronic, specific areas of bruising.
3. A lack of flexibility or “looseness” in the back
When you run your hand or fingers along your horse’s back, you should feel some “give.” If the horse instead stiffens or tries to evade pressure, he could be suffering from back pain—saddle-induced or otherwise—and requires veterinary attention. An inability to properly perform “carrot stretches” can also indicate back stiffness.
4. Behavioural or performance issues
If a horse’s performance deteriorates with no other clinical signs of lameness or other issues, he might be reacting to a poorly fitting saddle. In this situation your horse’s stride might be shorter than usual, he might be unable or unwilling to collect, or his jump might become flat. Other signs that can indicate back discomfort if they don’t improve with rider skill include a high head carriage with pinned ears, tense mouth and nostrils, and/or a clamped tail.
When saddle-related pain goes on long enough, horses might begin exhibiting learned disobedience behaviours such as avoiding being caught, aversion to being mounted, refusing to move once mounted, acting “cold backed” or roach backed upon mounting, bolting, tail-swishing, rushing backward, and/or rearing and bucking.
Again, many other physical issues can prompt such behaviour and clinical signs, so include your veterinarian in on the discussion with your saddle fitter before jumping to conclusions.