When it comes to horses, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet. There, I’ve said it. The fact that we’re dealing with a sentient being comprised of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves and NOT a robot means that we’re bound to be faced with issues that arise from time to time that are difficult to pinpoint. It seems as though the relatively recent epiphany that saddle fit is important has brought with it the feeling that any and all issues with the horse can and will be addressed with proper saddle fit. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Yes, the saddle must fit the horse as well as possible, but the perfect saddle fit may not guarantee that your horse will always behave perfectly, or will never be sore, or… What we must realize is that the saddle is just one piece of the puzzle.
When it comes to bad behavior, it has been my experience that oftentimes the horse is reacting to something that’s making him uncomfortable. As far as tack is concerned, this can be from the saddle itself being an ill fit to the saddle pad pulling down onto the spine to the brow band being too small, etc. It can also be related to when the horse last had his teeth floated, the kind of bit being used, as well as the style of riding. Let’s not even mention the horse’s nutrition, the amount of turnout he enjoys, any existing musculoskeletal conditions he has, how well his feet are trimmed/shod, etc. It is thus the duty of the horse owner to systematically go through each and every possible thing that may cause physical discomfort and rule it out. It takes time, and it’s not always an enjoyable experience, but so it goes. Again, we’re not dealing with machines here, and what may work brilliantly for one horse may well have a disastrous effect on another.
Unfortunately, the focus is sometimes so limited to tack that we exclude other possibilities, often until it is too late. When the massage therapist tells you that your horse’s back is sore, the saddle is generally put to blame, but back soreness is often a sign that something is amiss in the hindquarters. It is not uncommon, for example, for a horse with hock arthritis to develop a sore back and sometimes even rub marks in the winter, no matter how well the saddle fits. This is generally due to the stiffness of the horse when being pulled out of its stall and ridden without taking extra time to warm him up and cool him down. Doing things like applying Sore-No-More or Legacy Gel prior to riding, spending a lot of time “on the buckle” at the various paces before asking for collection, as well as stretching and backing exercises can help.
And when it comes to soreness, we need to understand that horses, like humans, will become sore with physical exertion. A horse’s workload, the size and experience of the rider, the kind of footing the horse is ridden on, are just a few of the things that can influence a horse’s level of tenderness. Changes to any of these things can create a great deal of soreness in the horse in general, and may have nothing to do with the saddle at all. The goal is to minimize this soreness by working the horse in a manner that is conducive to its current level of fitness and in tack that fits him properly.
As far as saddle movement goes, the same holds true. Yes, if the saddle is asymmetrical it may shift from side to side, if it is too wide it can slide back, or if it is too narrow it can slide forward. It can also slide about if your horse is asymmetrical or built downhill with well-sprung ribs and a forward girth line, etc. But more often than not, saddle movement is indicative of a hind end lameness – even one that is extremely subtle. When you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense: if the horse isn’t moving as fluidly as he could, his jarring movement is going to affect the saddle as well. This movement does not mean that the saddle doesn’t fit, but may require some creative thinking on the part of your saddle fitter.
At the end of the day, we’d be remiss to solely blame tack for issues with our horses without looking at any and all possible mitigating factors. To do so means you may well be investing a fair bit of money on various saddles, bridles, saddle pads, etc., only to have the same problems crop up. Having a highly trained saddle fitter out to assess the fit of your tack can help you rule out problems that may be arising from the tack itself, but even then there may be other variables at play that are contributing to issues you may be having with your horse. Each horse is an individual, and the process of uncovering what may be causing trouble for that horse may be lengthy, and may not have anything to do with your saddle at all. My advice is to go ahead and start with the saddle. Get it fitted properly. If you’re still having issues, you’ll likely want to come up with a plan B, or C, or D, or… Such are the joys and pains of horse ownership.