SADDLE FIT AND ASYMMETRIES
Probably the most important thing to consider when protecting your horse’s back is tack fit.
Over time, the pressure points created by a poorly fitting saddle can cause injury or chronic soreness. It’s better to identify these problems early on, but that can require some expertise in saddle fitting.
“If your veterinarian isn’t a rider, or inexperienced in saddle fitting, this may be out of his or her realm of confidence,” says Bruce Connally, DVM, of Wyoming Equine, an equine sports medicine practice in Berthoud, Colorado. “The trainer’s expertise probably does include the saddle and rider, but he or she may not know the anatomy of the back as well as the veterinarian does.” Having your trainer and your veterinarian work together may be your best bet.
Even if your saddle fits your horse well now, you’ll need to keep tabs on it as the years pass. “Horses’ backs change over time as they grow, become more or less muscled, and as they age,” says Jenny Johnson, VMD, of Oakhill Shockwave and Veterinary Chiropractic in Calabasas, California. “Even a saddle custom-built for one horse may not fit in two to five years.”
Johnson often sees the effects of poor saddle fit in her practice, which specializes in performance horses.
“I am amazed at how much horses will do for their riders in spite of ill-fitting saddles and discomfort. If you had to wear a pair of shoes too large or too small and then run a mile and maybe jump some hurdles, you’d refuse to do it. But horses keep trying to do their job,” she says. “I’ve had clients who say it makes a night-and-day difference in the quality of the horse’s movement, how he jumps, etc., when they get a saddle that fits properly.”
Finally, remember that your own imbalances and asymmetries can also create pressure points on a horse’s back. Research shows that asymmetry is common among riders. In a study conducted at the University of Sunderland in England, all 12 of the riders assessed showed a degree of asymmetry, with a difference of up to 27 degrees in the angles of the left and right hips.
“Some saddles push the rider off-center, or horses that are a little lame or have asymmetrical gaits push the rider off-center,” says Connally. “If the stride is uneven the rider may not be centered. It doesn’t take much to be riding off-center, and then you make the horse’s back sore.”
If you’re concerned about imbalances in your riding, enlist a knowledgeable friend to watch you ride—taking videos can help you analyze your posture and position at different gaits. If you find chronic crookedness, you can do exercises to help you straighten out. (To learn more, go to “Straighten Up and Ride Right, EQUUS 447.)