Western saddle fitting problems

Anne Bondi

Fewer people grow up with horses daily and have limited knowledge of western saddle fitting problems. Many of today’s horse owners do not have a family tradition of handed-down wisdom. This lack of natural horsemanship training has increased the number of horses managed by inexperienced owners. Welfare problems generally occur due to horse owner mismanagement due to ignorance rather than intentional abuse. However, ignorance of good practice is as likely to create welfare concerns as deliberate malpractice. It is, therefore, important that professional equine industry practitioners should identify opportunities to educate their clientele as part of their service. Saddle fitters are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role as key educators. 

Unfortunately, problems due to poor saddle fit, associated back problems and loss of performance in the horse are widely documented. Although saddle fit problems have long been recognized as an essential clinical performance-impairing problem in the equine athlete, methods for objectively evaluating saddle fit and investigating the influences of ill-fitting saddles are lacking. A great deal of money is spent trying to define poor equine performance, but the effects of the saddle are frequently overlooked. The vast majority of saddles are not optimally adjusted for the horse on which they are used; the frequent use of saddles unsuitable for a given animal seems to indicate the rider’s lack of attention to this crucial area. The saddle fitter can help to improve this situation by raising awareness of the issues and discussing the current principles of good practice with their clients.

Horse, Saddle And Rider Interaction

The effects of movements of the saddle and of the rider are undoubtedly of great importance to how the horse moves and performs but remain poorly understood. Saddles don’t “move with the horse” when ridden but instead create complex torque patterns that are instigated by the movements of both horse and rider. Although a saddle may have a relatively small weight or mass, the combined torque applied by both rider and horse can create a very large effect, which has yet to be measured. An ill-fitting saddle disturbs horse/rider communication and impairs the horse’s ability to move in a regular, consistent pattern. Motion instability is further increased when forcing the horse to search for a more comfortable movement pattern. An ill-fitting saddle can make even a skilled rider appear uncoordinated, presenting a further challenge to the saddle fitter.

Effects Of Loading

The weight ratio between horse and rider is an important consideration. Still, there are currently no reliable, evidence-based guidelines to assist the saddle fitter in assessing appropriate loading. Increased rider weight increases the risks associated with poor saddle fit. Rider weight compresses the saddle onto the back, which may alter the saddle balance. Different riders may use the same saddle with a wide range of weights, so the saddle fitter should always check the circumstances under which the saddle is to be used. Saddle fit under different weight ratios should be reviewed, and temporary balance pads may be required to support the saddle and provide sufficient lift. Communication between the saddle fitter and the horse owner is particularly important in these circumstances.

Asymmetry

Recent studies have shown that a disturbingly high proportion (75%) of horses that were in normal work and believed to be sound by their owners were, in fact, lame. Horse owners were found to be able to recognize lameness in only 11% of cases and sore backs in only 4%of cases, thus providing further evidence that horse owners and riders need expert assistance with the early detection of musculoskeletal injury. A saddle fitter who trains to recognize gait irregularities could contribute significantly to preventing the vicious cycle of lameness, back pain and saddle fit issues.

Rider asymmetries are common; several studies have recorded asymmetric posture in 100%of evaluated riders. Rider asymmetry may be caused by gait asymmetry or a crooked saddle – or it can contribute to the asymmetry conundrum. Therefore, the saddle fitter must also have analytical skills in rider performance.

When saddles move asymmetrically, the rider tends to “collapse” to the opposite side e.g.when viewed from behind; if the saddle moves to the right, the rider’s seat slides to the right, and the spine flexes to the left. It has been shown that asymmetric saddle movement often indicates hind limb lameness, occurs most commonly towards the lame side, and increases in circles compared with straight lines but is not related to the degree of lameness. In some cases, the saddle moves one way on one rein and the opposite on the opposite rein as the lameness alters in severity with the changes of direction. The rider can also affect the extent of lameness according to which diagonal they select in the rising trot. This highlights the importance of viewing the horse, saddle and rider from behind, from both directions and at all gaits during saddle fitting evaluations.

Riders are often unaware of the presence of asymmetry in the saddle or how to carry out simple, routine checks for this, providing another valuable opportunity for the saddle fitter to teach basic principles of good practice. A study of saddle asymmetry showed that 45% had asymmetric panels, and all of those were used on horses assessed as lame. Although there is anecdotal evidence of its occurrence, further work is necessary to ascertain how the repeated asymmetric movement of the horse may create asymmetry in the saddle by “self-moulding” it to accommodate the shape and movement of the individual horse and whether or not interventions should be carried out to resolve this. An asymmetric“self-moulded” panel may be more comfortable for the individual horse, and changing the status quo could result in a less comfortable fit. However, the saddle fitter must also consider the potential deleterious effect on the back health of the rider caused by an asymmetric saddle.

Back Shape

Changes in back dimensions occur throughout the year. Recent studies have shown that gait or back asymmetry can reduce back sizes. Improved saddle fit, increased work intensity, season (summer versus winter), and body weight can increase back dimensions. Saddle fit should, therefore, be professionally reviewed several times a year, ideally at least every three months, but especially if there has been a change in work intensity. The back dimensions of horses working correctly increase transiently with work. However, back width only increases with good saddle fit; if a saddle does not fit appropriately before exercise, this increase in size does not occur. It is essential. Therefore, that saddle fit should be assessed before and after training to ensure the correct fit.

Force Measurements

The use of an electronic force sensor placed beneath the saddle is a popular technique for measuring the force applied to the horse’s back; however, used in isolation, it is insufficient to assess saddle performance accurately and may lead to false conclusions. Force sensors register only force that is applied perpendicular to their surface. Therefore, the shear component escapes detection, resulting in under-estimation, mainly where saddles exhibit considerable movement or horses have steeply contoured back shapes. If the sensor indicates asymmetric loading, it cannot identify whether the source of the asymmetry lies in the crookedness of the rider, poor saddle fit or lameness of the horse.

Translating Research Into Practice

Although the dissemination of research is critical to raising industry standards, there is a gap where key messages are not always translated into practice. Another problem is that industry standards do not yet exist in many crucial areas, making it difficult to advise on many aspects of current practice. Therefore, the saddle fitter is crucial in communicating with other professional practitioners, creating a feedback loop that will help educate their valuable clients – the horses and riders that rely on them.