Does your saddle fit?


In this week’s ’emailbag’, there seemed to be a theme so I thought I would share two of my readers’ opinions with you.

Personally, when I used to ride in a saddle I always had someone who claimed to be a professional with saddles come out and do a saddle fitting for my horse. They would come out and check my horses back, the saddle size and width, how it fit with the saddle pad or blanket (as I used both English and Western saddles), and later on actually be able to swap out the saddle tree for one that fit as my horses grew.

I did this because it was what I was told growing up and it had become a natural habit of mine since I also showed a lot. I wanted to make sure that I was not causing my horse any pain or injury due to how I sat in the saddle or in how the saddle fit.

For the last decade or so I have only been riding bareback and bridleless for two reasons. One being that my horses really enjoy it and two because I feel more comfortable. It really is a preference more than anything else. However, if I was going on trails that were far from the ranch, trails I didn’t know, working with jumps, or someplace I wasn’t completely comfortable and confident about, then I would probably use a saddle for safety.

Here are Mary-Ann’s thoughts on the issue of saddle fitting:

“Proper Saddle fitting is necessary for a healthy horse.

I love for people to be more informed and making good choices for their horses. Saddle fitting is tricky and not all saddle fitters are doing a good job. One fitter had wise words stating before you get a saddle fitted get your horse to have a couple massages so they are as relaxed as they can be. Then fitting the saddle to a relaxed horse will give you a better chance of it fitting better.

I sort of figured that you were doing more bridle-less and bareback riding, but others are not and have the mentality that one saddle fits all regardless of the equine discipline one is doing. This can be expensive as horse’s development changes are they mature and become fit for whatever riding style one does. I’m often on the verge of tears when I go to a jumping show and see muscle wasting on a horse’s back which is often. It’s seen in Dressage, reining, and western work as well.

When you look at a horse’s back and can’t tell that a saddle has ever been on them you know they have been treated well. But if you see the saddle shape in the musculature or degeneration of muscle along the spine and shoulder then the saddle fit has been a chronic problem.

This is something I have become more aware of and passionate about as we need to be good stewards of the animals in our care. Some of the issues that you talk about in your presentation of horse behavior and trust is also about not experiencing pain when being ridden. You can do great bonding work on the ground but if tack is a problem then the horse does not feel safe or comfortable when ridden. It changes the relationship and many owners are not aware of this because no one has shown them.

One thing that’s rarely mentioned is the importance of proper fitting tack. As one rides your horse’s body shape changes so saddle adjustments have to be made, sometimes frequently. When saddles and bits don’t fit then it hurts and compromises the horse’s disposition which we often incorrectly interpret as bad behavior rather than pain. (it’s like walking in poorly fitting shoes and being forced to do heavy work).

I’ve seen many hurting horses with wrecked backs because owners and trainers weren’t mindful to make riding a comfortable experience— it’s very sad to see the abuse that happens unintentionally. …. these are just a few of my thoughts.”

I really like how Mary-Ann addressed the issues here and how she is looking at it from the horse’s perspective. She is trying to get the message out there for more horse owners to be aware of possible issues.

Sometimes people don’t think that their horse is acting up out of pain due to the saddle. Nor is the first thing they usually think of when a horse is acting out, that it may be because the saddle doesn’t fit well and is causing skeletal issues.

So, I am thankful for Mary-Ann to have written to me about this so that I could post it and possibly help a few loving horse owners/readers if their horse is acting out.

Here is what Sarah wrote me this week as well on the issue:

“I have a question about riding. Alexander Nevrokov from Russia did extensive testing on horses’ backs after they were ridden and said that they react from soreness from 12 to 15 min of riding and go numb from 20 min. My aunt who is an equine body worker said it is true and that she massages her horse’s back after a ride.

So.. should we actually be riding our horses for more than 10 minutes at a time? I was thinking that if we are really in tune with our horse surely, they would tell us if they are sore. I would love to know your thoughts on this.”

And here was my response to Sarah:

“Hi Sarah. I do feel that our horses can be hurt when we ride, but only if we aren’t in sync with them. For example, if we are too heavy for a smaller horse, if the saddle doesn’t fit right, if we sit too far back over their kidneys, if we overwork them, if so many things. Even if we only ride for 10-15 minutes, if any of these things is wrong it is still going to hurt our horse.

I’ve seen horses that are so numb or conditioned to be ridden that they stop telling their person that they hurt. A buck here and there, an attitude, not wanting to be tacked up, ears pinned back when someone tries to get on, etc…

I personally only ride bareback with a halter and lead. And if I notice any of those signs I mentioned above when riding a new horse, I either don’t get on or I get off right away. I try to listen to my horses very carefully. I have seen a lot of damage done to horses that have been riding horses for kids or lesson horses for adults. I feel very sad for them when they realize they just have to endure because no one is listening to them.

I also do not think that any of this is done intentionally and that if a person knew that their horse was in any kind of pain, that they would stop what they were doing, get off, and try to rectify the issue. So, any of this unnecessary pain would be unintentionally and from a lack of knowledge. I think some people just brush the issues off as behavioral problems and not a simple tack malfunction.

But, even after I ride, I do reiki on my horses to make sure they are ok and healthy. I don’t want my weight on their back to cause them any issues. And they seem to really enjoy the reiki sessions.

Thank you for your questions and I hope my answer helped.”

If this was a question on your mind this past week, then there must have been something in the air. These were just two of the 5 people that asked me about saddle fittings this week.

If you have any subject or question that you think would be interesting or helpful for my readers, please email me and let me know. I am always interested in your thoughts and experiences. Sharing is how we all learn.

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  • Karen Garton says:

    I haven’t ridden my mare since last year… we’ve been concentrating on ground work and lots of walks out in hand but we now have the time to begin ridden work again…very slowly of course. She used to be grumpy when being tacked up and would actually try to bite especially when doing up the girth (l am super gentle!!). I have a lightweight saddle which was fitted, can be adjusted and appears comfortable. Once onboard she is fine. I just wondered if there is anything further I can do to help her with the initial tacking up process. I bought a shaped girth and a sheepskin cover which has helped and reward her to try to make pleasant associations with tacking up. I know some horses are supposed to be ‘cold backed’ but not sure this is not just an ‘excuse’ on the part of the human when a solution is not found! She is an ex- racer but very low mileage and no back issues. On the plus side we began riding bitless last year and she seemed to really take to that!
    Kind regards,

    Ps So so sorry Teddie to hear of the passing of your horse…best wishes x

  • Hi Teddie, when I ride, I ride in a treeless saddle which is made of thick leather with two thick pads underneath which are velcroed on, so my weight is distributed (hopefully) evenly, even when standing in the stirrups. It’s kind of rigid but bendy at the same time.
    However, my horse still puts his ears back when I put pressure in one stirrup or the other, either side, to get on. I’m not getting on, but I am trying to find out if this is still pain, after a year of resting, or whether it’s fear of the pain that used to occur. He’s comfortable with me sitting on his back, so what’s interesting for me is whether his reaction to me getting on is a learned one, or actual pain, so whether to approach it with reassurance and relearning, or something else. He’s been Xrayed, and had some back treatment. Interesting.

    • Maude, the first thing I would do is to have his back checked out to make sure it’s ok and there are no pain points. Even press your hands around to see if he moves or flinches. That will tell you if there’s any pain there too. If that all checks out ok, then it could be a fear memory or a muscle memory of the pain. That just takes time to work through it with your horse and gently get him to realize that it’s ok and there’s no more pain. Let me know what happens and how it goes. 🙂

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