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Equine Saddle Fit Series: Suspicion of an Ill-Fitting Saddle

Researchers will give insights into saddle fit for horses in this series of articles, starting with why you might suspect problems with saddle fit.
bucking horse from back with rider

Some hints of a saddle-fitting problem are seen with bucking, bracing the back and moving with a decreased range-of-motion, throwing the head, or carrying the head high with a rigid back.

At the 2020 virtual American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, one active discussion session focused on Saddle Fit, primarily for English saddles. Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, from Britain, and Erin Contino, DVM, MS, MCVSMR, assistant professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, addressed many issues that riders face in helping their horses stay comfortable under saddle.

Stable Management will run a series of short articles on saddle fit based on these veterinarians' and researchers' findings.

What Gives Suspicion of an Ill-Fitting Saddle?

A horse that is hypersensitive to back palpation might be reacting to soreness elicited by the saddle. Use of a blunt instrument pressed firmly along the back is more likely to uncover deep-seated muscle pain than just pressing with fingertips along the epaxial muscles beside the spine.

Another tell-tale sign of possible excessive saddle pressure is the presence of white hairs, particularly near the “points” of the tree located near the withers. There could be some muscle atrophy in areas of excess pressure, and if the saddle oscillates from side-to-side, it is likely to see abnormal wear under the rear area of the saddle.

In some cases, placing the saddle on a horse’s back and tightening the girth might elicit abnormal behavior, like biting at the handler, fidgeting the legs, laying back of the ears, or the horse might turn its head to look at the person placing the saddle. These signs are not specific to an ill-fitting saddle, but they are often seen when there is back discomfort from a poor saddle fit.

When ridden, signs of saddle discomfort are variable and horse dependent, said Dyson. Some hints of a saddle-fitting problem are seen with bucking, bracing the back and moving with a decreased range-of-motion, throwing the head, or carrying the head high with a rigid back. 

Occasionally, a horse might present with forelimb lameness induced by point pressure on the withers or back. Rarely is there hindlimb lameness as a consequence of poor saddle fit, said Dyson.

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