Confession: I’ve slowly been crippling my pony and I had no idea.
I know I sound dramatic and I wish I was overreacting. Sadly, I’m not. I read books, watch videos, and ask questions to do the best exercises for my horse on the ground and in the saddle. His health and welfare is my utmost priority. No one who knows me who doubt that I have the best of intentions. Often we refer to him as my “spoiled prince”. Regularly he receives sports massage, cold laser, chiropractic, and acupuncture sessions. He lives a life of leisure with his friends in the paddock but is regularly ridden. Ferrous is my best friend. Yet his ill-fitting saddle has caused damage to his body and I can’t help but feel it’s my fault. What I thought was a good saddle fit was horribly wrong.
I have a tack shopping problem. I own three saddles: jumping, dressage, and a Western trail saddle. Why? I literally have no idea. In the past year I’ve ridden him mostly in the trail saddle both in the arena and out in the woods. It seems to fit him best and is the most comfortable for me even if it puts me a little behind his balance point.
When I attended the SaddleFit4Life Equine Ergonomics certification course I quickly had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. So many of the signs of poor saddle fit were sending pings through my brain. My pony checks most of these boxes!
- Reluctance to move forward
- Rearing or bucking
- High head and hollow back
- Sore back
- Pinned ears
- Tail swishing
- Hunter’s Bump
Ferrous has always been pokey but often his right hind slips out when he transitions down. He becomes girthy periodically and is always hollow in the trot until he’s had a long warm up. I had no idea that it takes 20 minutes for the nerves in his back to become numb so that he could lift his belly. He also has a Hunter’s Bump, which I thought was a sign of poor muscling and top line but is indicative of severe damage to his vertebrae and pelvis. I mean, how many of these boxes would your horse check? According to Dr. Joanna Robson, DVM, CVSMT, CMP, CVA, CSFT approximately 84% of all horses are lame. The numbers are shocking! Yet as a Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist this would explain so much of what I see from my clients and areas on horses that need to be adjusted.
I could barely wait to return home after the intensive course, which is a full semester credit for the University of Guelph and credit for the USDF as well. I just knew that my saddles were not appropriate. More, I learned the reasons WHY they weren’t fit correctly. But I had no idea it was this egregious!
Upon my return home I mapped out my pony’s saddle support area, the average on a horse is approximately 16-17.5 inches. Ferrous had a 13-inch support area. Ugh oh. I’ve always bought my saddles by seat size. I was so ignorant. An Equine Ergonomist has 36 points of reference to evaluate specific to the saddle only: saddle details, saddle fit to rider, and saddle fit to horse. I was focused only on my seat size. I didn’t have all the information until now. When I placed my so-called adjustable saddle on my pony it was clear that it was more than the panel length that didn’t fit.
It took all I could not to break out in sobs in front of the barn owner. Even now as I write tears fill my eyes and the guilt threatens to overwhelm me. I just didn’t know. I do know and I want to share that information so you and your horse can benefit.
Horse Consideration for Saddle
- Length of the saddle support area. This is determined by the length of the longissimus dorsi, or strong back muscle, that is capable of holding the panels, which also distribute the weight. If you have a long saddle panel and a short support area you WILL damage your horse.
- Wither Clearance. The wither area is the “handbrake” for your horse. This is the area where a stallion will bite a mare to mate, keeping her from moving forward and hollowing her back for penetration. Obviously this is not ideal for riding when we all desire positive tension and impulsion from behind with a lifted back. Yet, most saddles actually inhibit forward motion. Whether your horse has shark-fin or mutton withers will affect your choice of saddle and the clearance needed. However, it is important to note how long or short your horses withers are because they will need to have clearance throughout the entire saddle gullet.
- Shoulder Clearance (Tree Angle). One of the most important points of saddle fitting is the necessity of clearance for the shoulder to lift and rotate backward with the extension of the foreleg. The angle of the panel must be parallel to the shoulder angle and allow the shoulder to move freely underneath. With training (or lack thereof) the shoulder angle will change over time, flatter or steeper, and necessitate an adjustment so when choosing a saddle it is infinitely cheaper to find one that has an adjustable tree angle.(*Note tree angle should not be confused with tree width, which is also important for fit.)
There are many other considerations of importance to saddle fit including balance point and billet placement, however, the above are the most necessary and often under realized.
What About the Rider?
The saddle never really fit me either so I chose not to ride in it often because of the discomfort and lack of contact with my aids. Having the information I do now, I realize it is because the saddle is fitted for a male rider with a narrow waist and wide twist, pulling my hips apart. This is the most likely reason why I’ve needed regular chiropractic work for the last year. More, it put me into a chair seat so my balance was behind my horse and my leg was never effective. I had to literally lean forward into a fetal position to get my leg properly where it belonged. I always felt awkward and off balance. I just didn’t know that wasn’t how it was supposed to feel. All this time I’ve felt like a bad rider and I physically couldn’t force my body into an effective position.
Rider Consideration for Saddle
I always looked at the seat size and whether a saddle was narrow, medium, or wide when choosing a saddle for my horse. It turns out that what is considered a medium tree is different for each saddle manufacturer. There are actually zero regulations or industry standards. In theory my pony might be a medium in X saddle brand but a wide in Z saddles. How is this possible? Regardless, I never looked at how I fit in the saddle. In recent years I’ve had debilitating sciatic pain, realized my hips are repeatedly offset by at least two inches, and often struggle to get out of the dreaded chair seat. My inability to ride in a balanced seat I blamed on my lack of athleticism and it greatly affected my confidence.
There are a number of considerations you should consider for your comfort in the saddle.
- Gender. Saddles have been made for men for thousands of years. The equine industry has been slow to update and take into consideration the different needs of women. But why? It’s not like most women shop in the Men’s Department of the clothing store. Our bodies are entirely different (see infographic above)
- Seat size. Women generally need a wider seat than men as their seat bones are wider apart physically.
- Flap Length. The sweat flap is generally used only to protect the rider’s leg from the the sweat marks of the horse. Length must not interfere and catch the boot or block the leg from properly “feeling” the horse.
- Stirrup bars. In jumping saddles these are often one inch from the D-ring but riders, especially women, who have more than a 5cm difference between the length of the upper and lower leg need to have their stirrup bar extended farther back to prevent the dreaded “chair seat”.
- Waist. The waist of the saddle is often tall and narrow like a mountain, comfortable for most men, but often painful for women who need a wider and flatter waist to avoid pain, discomfort, and even urinary tract infections.
- Twist. Many saddles have a wide twist but I often felt my hips were pulling apart, something which my chiropractor finds very upsetting since riding counteracts all her hard work. Women in general have wider hips and benefit from a narrow twist that allows our legs to hang better from the horse’s sides and increase contact.
- Balance Point. Saddles have one of three balance points: forward, center, or rear. Western saddles, with the exception of perhaps the barrel racing saddle, tend to be rear balanced. However, this sets us back off balance, straining our lumbar and creating recurring SI issues. More, it creates instability in the saddle. Jumping saddles often have forward balance points which are much better for women since our pelvis and natural balance points are more forward as well.
Just like with horses there are more points that are important to the rider such as seat depth and weight-bearing surface. Saddle pads and girths also play a big role in saddle fit. The truth is it can be overwhelming. Not all saddle fitters are the same. When I contacted my clients and asked them to let me provide horse and rider evaluations, most of them jumped at the chance. More than a few indicated they had saddle fitters out before with no luck, and one shockingly told me they wouldn’t give her the measurements to keep on file! Often they are associated with specific saddle brands rather than independent consultants. I want to help Ferrous and as many other horses as I can to live their best lives. Prevention is the best option, always.
I couldn’t bring myself to evaluate my other two saddles yet. I need to digest this information and let my world view level out. I cannot bring myself to ride my horse until I find a saddle that not only fits me but fits him. More, that will continue to fit him or can easily be adjusted as he changes and improves in his training and body condition.
If you have learned anything from my realization it’s to do your due diligence. Make regular saddle fit evaluations part of your horse care routine. Not only will your horse thank you but so will your back, hips, and other sore bits. We’re in this together.
I have to forgive myself and move forward. I’m so glad I now know the difference and what a good fit should look like.