Its incredible how many horses out there experience pain due to poor saddle fit. It is one of the most common reasons for bodywork callout, and also one of the first things that horse owners can address in order to keep their horse pain free and healthy.
Points of pressure are an extremely uncomfortable thing for your horse to have to deal with. Having someone jab their finger into your rib and hold it there while you move around will give you an idea of what your horse has to experience when its saddle is not fitted properly.
The number one cause for poorly fitted saddles is a condition known as subluxated ribs. As far as we are concerned it is less than pointless having a saddle fitted if your horses ribs are subluxated. See our article on it here.
If this is the case, you need to get their ribs seen to before going any further.
1) Start by placing your saddle on your horses back - ungirthed and without pads, or breastplate if you use them. If the saddle tends to slide while you ride, put it where it would usually end up before doing the following steps.
2) Check wither clearance - You need to make sure that there is at least 7.5cm of clearance from the top of the wither to the pommel of your saddle. Remember to check it once seated, you should still have 7.5cm of clearance space available.
3) Now its time to check the panels - the function of the panel is to distribute weight evenly across the surface of the horse. This means they should be at equal pressure along its entire surface, with or without a rider, with or without the use of pads. With one hand hold the saddle still, with the other slide your hand from pommel to cantel (front to back) feeling its weight in your hand. If you come across an area that suddenly sticks, or an empty hollow you will know this saddle does not distribute weight like it should.
4) Whats the gullet space like - The gullet space is the channel that runs the length of your saddle to provide clearance for your horses spine and back muscles to move with riding. Every horse will have its own unique gullet clearance requirements.
To test for gullet clearance observe your horse when it drops its head, watching what happens to the muscles along your horses back. See that area at the end of the withers, your gullet needs to be wide enough to accommodate that shift in muscle. This is usually a minimum of 15cm.
Its extremely important that you have the same width (or very similar) running the full length of your saddle (pommel to cantle). This is because the muscles on your horses back do not narrow off the further down the spine you get. Meaning that most saddles available are damaging to your horses back.
If your saddle has any points of pressure, narrow gullet, or not enough clearance for the wither, it does not fit. Many people turn to pads as a solution, and while its sometimes all you can do initially, pads are not a long term answer.
The reason for this is because pads only shift the points of pressure. So while it may appear that they have solved your saddle fit problem they have done nothing to address the actual shape of the saddle. This can lead to long term problems further down the line.
5) With the previous 4 steps done, its also important to test the saddle once its girthed up and your horse has moved. A saddle is a static piece of equipment, the horse is not. Bones and muscles shift during riding, so its important to check clearance again with your horse in motion and fully tacked up.
6) Now for the final step - how do things go with the rider on? And what happens when you get your horse to stand with a step forward? This will enable you to test whether the scapular is creating a point of pressure once the horse is in motion with a rider in the seat.
When in motion get someone to observe whether or not your saddle tips forwards or back. If this is the case you will be creating intensified points of pressure on those areas, resulting in pain.
Its essential you get a saddle that fits your horse correctly. Failure to do this will create skeletal, joint and muscular conditions damaging to both your horses health and mental well-being. Your saddle should be comfortable for your horse first, and you a close second. Its amazing how many owners use their saddle solely because its comfortable for them!
Remember its worth taking the time to find a saddle suitable for both you and your horse. It might feel like its taking forever to find the right saddle, but the rewards of persistence are well worth the effort. And don't forget to keep an eye on saddle fit - the shape of your horse will change over time (sometimes surprisingly quickly) especially in the cases of young horses or those brought into intense physical work. As change happens, so will your saddle needs.