Horse Problems DatabaseThe Back – Saddle Fit

The importance of saddle fit

Saddle fit is extremely important. It can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. However, even a dime-sized pressure point can cause your horse to use his back muscles incorrectly. That alone can be the cause of horses with:

  • back pain,
  • cold-backed issues,
  • collection and/or impulsion difficulties,
  • chiropractic subluxations of the back.

Although it seems difficult, it’s actually fairly simple once you know what you’re looking for. You can check your own horse for saddle fit. I explain the simple way to check your saddle for fit below, but I recommend looking at Dr. Joyce Harmon’s Saddle fitting books and DVDs for the full & complete explanation of saddle fit.

BUT First! Check the ribs for subluxations. Then, check the saddle fit.

I have checked many saddles and found they didn’t fit correctly—even custom fitted ones —because the saddle fitter didn’t know rib misalignment changes the horse’s topline. When ribs are out of proper alignment, the first priority of the topline muscles is to guard the ribs from further pain. So the topline muscles “splint”, or tighten, themselves downward along the top of the ribs. This can make the horse’s back appear to have:

  • underdeveloped topline muscles
  • hollow area behind the shoulder blade
  • flat back

In addition, the horse usually cannot use their topline muscles properly.  No matter how much cavaletti, long & low, backing, or hill work you do, the topline does not significantly improve.

You can easily check your horse’s ribs for subluxations using Body Checkups.  The Rib Checkup is available on the how-to videos page.

If your Rib Checkup results are “ouch”, call your certified equine chiropractor to adjust the ribs before you continue to check your saddle. It may turn out that you don’t have any saddle problems at all.

If your Rib Checkup results are “normal”, now you can check your saddle with confidence. The following are basic, simplified saddle checks you can do yourself.

Checking the saddle (the regular way)

Place your saddle on your horse without any pads and without being girthed up (or attached to breast collars or cruppers). If your saddle tends to move forward or backwards when you ride, place the saddle where it ends up.

1) Wither Clearance

Be sure there are at least 3 inches of space from the top of the withers to the underneath of the saddle’s pommel. You can also check this clearance space when you are seated on your horse. The three inches of space should still be there when you seated.

2) Pressure points

The panels of the saddle are the underneath part that touches the horse’s back. They distribute the weight of the saddle and rider across the horse’s back. The panels should have equal pressure at every point along the back —even without the pad, girth, and rider.

To check this, simply slide your hand under your saddle from pommel to cantle (front to back) and feel the weight of the saddle on your hand. It should be equal. You will need to hold the saddle still with your other hand. There should be no changes in pressure such as sudden gaps with no pressure or areas where you can’t get your hand under the panel without serious effort.

3) Gullet space

The gullet is the center channel that runs from pommel to cantle on the underside of the saddle. The gullet of the saddle must have enough space for the horse’s spine and back muscles to move within it. Horse’s bodies vary in the amount of gullet space that they need.

Watch your horse’s back muscles lift as he drops his head to the ground. Look at the area at the end of the withers (towards the midback) and see how wide those muscles get. That is how wide your saddle gullet needs to be. This is usually at least six inches.

In addition, that gullet width should be the same width (or very close) from pommel to cantle. Many saddles tend to narrow the gullet towards the cantle, but because the horse’s back muscles aren’t narrowing, this is a problem.

If your saddle has pressure points, or a gullet too narrow, or a wither clearance too small, it doesn’t fit. Many people try to correct saddle problems with pads. And sometimes that’s all you can do until you get a second job. :)

But, having a poor saddle fit is like having poor fitting shoes on. Putting on more socks —even thick, comfortable socks made by NASA—is not going to help. While a saddle pad change may appear to help initially, it simply shifts the pressure points, making things worse in the long run.

Checking the saddle (the Body Checkup method)

Poor fitting saddles can also cause:

  1. rib misalignments,
  2. wither misalignments,
  3. thoracic misalignments,
  4. lumbar misalignments

So, another way to check your saddle fit is to do Body Checkups. If all four of the above Body Checkups are “normal”, you can be positive that your saddle fits. There is simply no way that a poor fitting saddle will not cause chiropractic issues.

Again, the Body Checkup videos are on the how-to videos page.

Take your time fitting your saddle to both you and your horse. Although sometimes it seems like it will never end, a good fitting saddle to you and your horse makes an amazing difference.

Good luck!