When Horses Speak: How Your Horse’s Language Could Indicate a Saddle Fit Problem

Just because horses cannot verbalize their thoughts doesn’t mean that they cannot speak.  In fact, our horses are constantly communicating with us.  From the subtle nicker begging for a treat to the tail-in-the-air kick-up-your-heels romp around the pasture, our horses are excellent at expressing what’s on their minds.   So when misbehavior rears its ugly head, we should pause and listen.  Oftentimes problems under saddle are the horse’s only way they have to convey their discomfort.  Unfortunately, many of us opt for “bigger” bits and spurs, or resort to the use of training “gadgets” rather than take a step back and examine the possible root causes for the behavior we dislike.  It’s a very human thing for us to try to solve the problem with a different (oftentimes harsher) approach rather than attempting to get to the source of the trouble.  We often take for granted that the saddle isn’t an issue (especially if it was custom fit to the horse), so we need to develop the habit of regularly checking to ensure that the saddle is as perfectly fit as possible.

How do we know when the saddle is the culprit?  Here are some cues to consider:

  • Issues with forwardness:  Refusing to move forward, rearing, refusing jumps, and being unruly when going into the canter can be indications that the first half of the saddle is

    Rearing can often be attributed to a restriction or pinching of the shoulder.

    causing problems.  Usually this means that the saddle is somehow constricting the shoulder.  The saddle may be bridging, may be too narrow for the horse, causing pinching around the withers, or the saddle may simply be pushed too far forward on the horse’s back.

    • It is crucial to note that if the saddle is too narrow or pushed too far forward,causing shoulder obstruction, there is a higher risk of front end lameness issues, from suspensory injuries to coffin joint arthritis and more.  This is because if the shoulder does not have the free range of motion, the horse cannot engage the primary thoracic vertebrae (the part of the back under the front of the saddle), causing tension of the back.  With this tension comes greater concussion with every footfall, and that concussion reverberates back up into the leg, with the potential for causing serious problems.
    • Horses that have difficulty maintaining a consistent stride may also be struggling with the fit of their saddle.
  • Issues with bucking: Bucking can often indicate that something is wrong with the back half of the saddle, whether it’s bridging, or the panels are too steep, causing them to dig into the back.  The length of the saddle can often be the culprit as well.
    • Bridging is particularly painful, as the pressure is exclusively located in the very front and the very back of the saddle.  If the saddle’s tree or panels are inappropriate for the shape of the horse’s back, bridging can ensue, making for an unhappy mount.
    • If the shape of the panels are too steep for the horse’s back, there is an unequal distribution of pressure, causing discomfort.  The same is true if the panels aren’t steep enough for a horse with an angular back.
    • With regard to length, you must remember that the saddle cannot extend beyond the 18th Thoracic Vertebrae, which correspond to the last rib.  If this area is obstructed, the horse cannot properly engage his hindquarters, which causes a hollowed out effect.  Like with shoulder obstruction, lumbar obstruction heightens the potential for injury, specifically with the hind end.

      Horses that buck can be experiencing bridging problems or problems with the length or shape of the panels.

  • Issues with hollowness:  It’s no fun riding a horse that seems keen to carry himself in an “upside down” frame.  The hollowed back causes for a bumpy ride, and ends up wreaking havoc on your horse’s joints.  It’s common to become frustrated and opt for a training device such as draw reins, a German Martingale, or other such “gadget” to force the head down.  The truth of the matter is, if the saddle doesn’t fit well, your horse is never going to develop that strong, elegant topline we all crave.  When the saddle is positioned properly on the horse’s back, and when it is fitted properly, the horse will naturally want to lift his back and reach down for the bit. Therefore, when struggling to get a horse properly collected, make sure your saddle is fitting well.
    • Along with hollowness comes head tossing.  The horse, in his desire to move away from the pain in his back, may toss his head and pull at the bit.

      This horse's expression is very clearly demonstrating that there's a saddle fit problem. It's no wonder, considering this jump saddle is so far forward on his shoulder! If this saddle were correctly situated on his back, his expression would become more pleasant, and he probably wouldn't require draw reins.

  • Issues with Spookiness: Believe it or not, your horse’s inexplicable spooking can also be indicative of an ill-fitting saddle.  When a horse is distressed as a result of being physically uncomfortable, it’s not uncommon for them to seek out distractions as a way to evade your aids.  As cool and collected as we try to be, the spooky behavior is bound to create some tension in the rider, which again causes extra concussion in the legs.
  • Tooth Grinding: Tooth grinding is ONLY seen under saddle, and is almost exclusively related to the fit of the saddle.  I’ve yet to see a horse standing on the crossties or out in the pasture grinding his teeth; it is a phenomenon that occurs only when the horse is being ridden.

Surprisingly, it’s not just the behavior under saddle that can illustrate a saddle fitting issues.  A horse’s behavior on the ground can also be a clue that his saddle should be looked at.

Ground Manners That May Be Saddle Related:

  • Hypersensitivity to Grooming:  Horses that object to being groomed, especially where the saddle goes, can be experiencing discomfort related to the saddle’s fit.  Oftentimes the horse’s skin will flinch when touched, and you may feel heat in the affected areas.  Pay special attention to where your horse is sensitive, and look to see that your saddle is not causing undue pressure in that area.
  • Inability to Stand Still: Restlessness when on the crossties can manifest in a horse with saddle issues, as the anxiety experienced when being saddled carries over into other areas, such as standing still for the shoer or the vet.  Horses that walk away from the mounting block may be engaging in evasive behavior because their back hurts.
  • Misbehavior on the Crossties: One of the most common ways horses tell us when the saddle is causing discomfort occurs before it’s even placed on their backs.  Attacking the crossties or being “girthy”, as though they’re saying “Hey! Don’t put that thing on my back!” usually starts before the blatant misbehavior under saddle.

I would venture to say that the vast majority of horses out there are carrying us around in saddles that don’t fit well.  Some of this can be attributed to a lack of knowledge on the part of riders and trainers (and, in some cases, the “saddle fitters” themselves).  Not knowing what to look for in fitting your saddle, and not checking your saddle for proper fit regularly can result in behavior problems.  Horses’ bodies change throughout their lifetimes, and in some cases, seasonally, depending on their work load.  These changes in body shape often alter the saddle’s fit, so a regular check from a professional is essential.

It’s also worth noting that if a horse exhibits some of these behaviors under saddle, that he should have his teeth checked.  A horse that is uncomfortable in the mouth may also be more difficult to ride, so ruling that out as a possibility is very helpful.

And one more thing:  our horse’s comfort is often closely tied in to our emotions.  We don’t want our beloved horses to suffer, and when they do it can be difficult for us to not feel guilty.  When a client begins to become upset at herself when she realizes that her horse’s saddle is causing back pain, my response is uniformly this: “Horses don’t harbor grudges.  They’re just thankful that we’ve found the problem and are working to fix it.”

Ride in health!

Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

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