For Your Comfort and Safety

More and more riders are becoming aware of the need to have their horse or pony's saddle fitted properly. It is a task for a skilled professional, but there are some things owners and riders can do to keep their saddles fitting correctly.

One of the first things to do is to get to know your horse. It sounds silly but it is quite surprising how many riders are unaware that their horse is trying to tell them that his or her saddle does not fit and is causing discomfort or even pain.

Every time you groom your horse take a few moments to get to know how his back feels. Most people will run their hands down the legs to check for lumps, bruises, hot spots etc. but many do not do the same for the horse's back. You have to know how the back feels when it is in good condition and the horse is free of tension or discomfort. This way you will be quick to pick up on signs of trouble. There are cases of horses that have had tension in their back for so many years that the owner may never have felt the back in good condition. The soft tissue should not be hard or hot or lumpy. Muscle in good condition will feel firm but elastic, not dead to pressure. The horse should not resent having his back touched and should not react by flinching away, nipping or showing any other sign of discomfort. The owner should not assume that the horse pins his ears or nips just because "he is grumpy by nature."

There are many things a horse can do to try to let us know he is in pain from his back or saddle. He may swish his tail and pin his ears when he sees a rider coming with a saddle. He may bite or kick or he may become fearful or withdrawn. When ridden he may be inclined to stop "often considered to be napping", he may run forward or become tense or spooky. Shying when ridden can be a sign of discomfort or distress as can not being able to bend on a circle or corner, rearing, bucking, refusing to pick up a canter lead, stopping at or rushing at jumps, or a variety of other behaviors.

If a person suddenly experiences pain in their back or neck their reaction is normally to clutch at the sore area or to become absolutely still to avoid further pain. Horses experience pain much the same way humans do. Pain can be mild or intense or anything in between. Some pain can be ignored for a while and some is too extreme and provokes an instant reaction. The difference is that the horse relies on the human to work it out and stop doing whatever it is that caused the pain. He cannot speak so has to find another way to communicate what is wrong. The responsibility is on the human to learn to understand the horse. The horse does not choose to be ridden so it is an obligation on our part to ensure that the horse is comfortable when he is ridden. This applies not only to saddle fit but also to all other aspects of horse management and training. You may have the best saddle fit in the world but if your training methods compromise the horse's welfare then you are still doing a huge amount of damage both physically and mentally.

Other signs of trouble may be visible to us. We can see bald spots, ruffled hair, white hair, broken skin and muscle atrophy. The problem is that we don't always know what to do about them or who to ask for help.

A good place to start is with the vet and depending on what the vet says then a whole range of professionals can be consulted. These may include farrier, saddler, physiotherapist, trainer, nutritionalist and so on. The important thing to do is to research what they do and who they are. Look for professional qualifications and recommendations from other professionals or from other owners who have used them.

If it is the saddler that is required then ask other riders and owners. In some cases the saddler may have qualifications from another country like the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK. In Canada and the States qualifications like this are not common so do get personal and professional recommendations. When you call make sure you have a list of questions you want to ask and all the relevant information about your horse and saddle and the problems you are experiencing. Be honest and don't try to make it sound like it is better or worse than it actually is. The more accurate information you can give the saddler the easier it makes it for all concerned especially the horse.

It may take more than one visit from the saddler initially and it may be that the horse has to take time off to recover physically from any injury or damage that has occurred. You may need to look for a new saddle and try various different ones before the right one is found. All of this takes time and money but it is better than having the horse suffer and you spending money on vets and massage therapists etc only to have to do it again a month later because the saddle keeps undoing all their good work.

Once you have your horse comfortable and happy and back in work in a suitable saddle it is vital that this is maintained by having regular saddle checks. Twice per year is really the minimum requirement but it may need to be more often if the horse is changing shape as he grows and develops or as he ages.

The key to having happy, pain free horses is to be self aware and aware of the horses. You also need to have the right professionals to help you through out the life of the horse to maintain the pain free and happy relationship between the two of you.