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See where you seat! Part 1. Konniy Mir (Horse World), #1-2005

Lidia Nevzorova.

Quite often I visit different stables and give consultations to horsemen on questions that cannot be answered by their vets. These questions concern horse care, training and preventive measures to keep horses safe and sound. My specialization is computer thermography and I deal first and foremost with horse’s locomotor system as it’s the first thing that is damaged strongly when a horse works under a saddle. Certainly I can’t say it about all horses, but I have my own statistics and unfortunately I must admit that among hundreds of sport horses that I’ve examined there are only two that have absolutely no problems with the locomotor system.

The most common ones are injuries happened due to people’s ignorance (and that’s 99 percent of all injuries). It means that all those horses would be sound if they had received due care and had been trained properly! The most common causes of horses’ injuries (lameness, arrhythmia, sore back, injured shoulders, muscle atrophy, etc.) are incorrect work, hoof trimming and shoeing (damaging of the hoof balance) and incorrect saddling.

All these injuries are so common that I have to repeat hundreds of times to every other horse owner what the problem is about and how it should be treated. However I am glad that people begin to listen to my advice and many horse’s injuries were cured and some horses even fully recovered due to my help. All horses, of course, are different and a magazine article won’t give the same results as a personal consultation, nevertheless I decided to publish a series of educational articles that will cover in details all these problems and the ways of solving them. We will discuss the main reasons that provoke horses’ injuries and their connection to horse care and training - asutoria, laminitis, things that causes sore backs, lameness and other.

Let’s start from what any horse owner may change right at this moment.

Then, it’s saddling.

According to statistics only one of all sport and hobby-class horses that I’ve examined had a saddle of a proper size! 99 percent of horses have sore backs. 70 percent of horses work under expensive saddles manufactured in Europe), 30 percent – under saddles made in Byelorussia. But on the whole the injuries from the imported saddles do not very much differ from those from Byelorussian ones. In general we may say that saddles for 2000$ and for 200$ have quite the same effect.

Fitting a saddle

A friend of mine, a horse equipment shop owner, confessed that saddles haven’t been sold out quickly till she installed a prop in the form of a horseback. Now saddles for 1500-2000 $ are sold quite well as they look so nice, they’re of good quality and it’s prestigious. So choosing a saddle, remember that a saddle must fit not only you but as well your horse. There’s no sense in saddling a special prop at the shop, sit on it, rock on it, swing your legs and admire yourself in that saddle in the looking-glass.

Some buyers wishing to look clever ones try to ask for a saddle size and its type, others know several numbers: 16, 17, 17,5. Unfortunately people often buy saddles on recommendations of sellers that with rare exception have no idea how a saddle must be chosen properly but nonetheless are always ready to render a “professional” assistance to the buyers and inform them about this in multiple ads.

The saddles that are brought to Russia for selling are usually very narrow, they often have been ordered abroad for a particular horse but then for some reason hadn’t been bought there. Small horses that need a narrow saddle-tree are quite rare, and finally almost all narrow saddles come to Russia. By the way in Europe, for example, you may return a saddle to the shop in a period of two weeks if it doesn’t fit your horse. It’s time to start this practice here in Russia.

Choosing a saddle is an important and difficult task. Its high cost does not guarantee that it’s a top-quality saddle and that it won’t cause any problems with your horse. Even in the countries of “educated” Europe and North America only five percent of horsemen saddle their horses correctly according to statistics. However they always have experts that can come to them, help to reveal a problem, take all necessary measurements and give recommendations on ordering a personal saddle for a particular horse. Yes, every horse should have a saddle ordered specially for it. There’s almost no chance you will find a saddle that would fit your horse perfectly in a shop.

When God created the horse, He as if left out of account that the man would ride it. The horse’s back is not made to carry weight on it. Every time we saddle a horse we test its back for strength. And an ill-fitting saddle can cause an irreversible damage to a horse’s back practically in two weeks of using it.

Choosing a saddle for a horse is like choosing shoes for a person. Just remember how uncomfortable sometimes a pair of new shoes can be even if they’re of a proper size. And what size of shoes do you wear? 38, for example. Then imagine that someone bought you a pair of shoes of size 36 and you will wear them for the next five-ten years. At the same time you’ll have to go in for sport, no matter what sport particularly - high jumping or calisthenics. What will happen to your feet? To your physical and mental state? Multiple damages of tissues from squeezing, compression and blood supply disturbance will be soon followed by some pathological changes up to the bone deformation. Horses that suffer from incorrect saddling look sad and miserable but people used to ignore this. The only way a suffering horse can defend itself - and that is usually called ‘bad behavior’ – is to resist the pain, try to get rid of it. In the horsemen language this is called ‘bad habits’. But look closely at your horse, maybe you’ll notice some of the following signs.


Signs of suffering from incorrect saddling (sore back):

External visual examination

  • Sores and bald spots on back;
  • Cornification of skin;


Multiple injuries seen on a thermographic shot (left picture) are typical when a saddle doesn’t fit the horse. The areas of inflammation are indicated by red, yellow and white spots. For comparison see the back of a sound horse (right picture)

The correct position of a saddle on horseback.
An incorrect position of a saddle: the saddle-tree pinches the scapula and hinders it from moving backwards. 

Pic.1 Shows how the limbs and back are acting when the horse is moving. Pay attention to how much the scapula is drawn backward (see the arrow).
  • Change of color (white hairs appear under the pressure points where excessive pressure caused blood supply disturbance for a long time or where the withers was rubbed sore by saddle);
  • Solid knobs 1-3 cm in diameter;
  • Soft blisters and wounds in saddle and girth area; 
  • Hot painful intumescences;
  • Muscle underdevelopment (croup muscles hypoplasia, shoulder and neck muscles hypertrophy);
  • Muscle dystrophy in the “saddle area” (trapezius and latissimus dorsi);
  • Muscle asymmetry (muscles on one side of the body are underdeveloped and less supple);
  • Upthrust range of spinous processes of vertebra, underdevelopment of the “line of the top”;
  • hard muscles, spasms in muscles;
  • Sag in the back, big belly;
  • Manipulations with tail are painful.

When you saddle your horse it behaves as follows:

  • turns its head sharply towards you, probably shows its teeth;
  • pins its ears, swishes the tail;
  • bites (tries to bite) or kicks;
  • bends its back (tries to “press itself to the floor”);
  • stiffens its back
  • tries to move aside, draws back from the man who is saddling it;
  • tries to escape from being saddled;
  • tosses its head;
  • puts the tail between the legs;
  • strains the whole body;
  • inflates its belly;
  • groans.

When you try to mount your horse it behaves as follows:

  • tries to escape the moment of mounting;
  • doesn’t stand calmly;
  • starts moving when you put your leg in the stirrup;
  • bends its back;
  • tries to bite the person which is mounting it;
  • strains and presses its tail to the croup;
  • starts walking in circles;
  • pins its ears.

At exercise:

  • the horse doesn’t want to go forward with a rider on its back;
  • rushes forward and moves too fast when you just mounted it;
  • moves unwillingly and is too constrained for the first 10-20 minutes, becomes less tense only after a warm-up;
  • stumbles;
  • doesn’t “take a rider on the back”, doesn’t collect;
  • fidgets when on the move, quickens its steps;
  • works good in the beginning of a lesson but starts behave itself badly 15-20 minutes later;
  • rises high its head straining the neck and bending the back;
  • on a trail ride refuses to go uphill or downhill;
  • unwillingly moves on a rough ground, refuses to work on a hard or boggy ground;
  • rears, bucks, backs, goes sideways etc.;
  • refuses cantering;
  • has a stiff and short stride;
  • has an arrhythmia in movements;
  • is constantly bent to one side;
  • tilts head (sore back is as well often caused by incorrect using of the bit);
  • refuses to perform dressage elements;
  • has problems with transitions, especially from trot to canter;
  • refuses to jump in show-jumping;
  • doesn’t go straight, constantly keeps its rear turned aside;
  • has its tail constantly pressed to the croup or turned aside;
  • groans or makes some strange noises when performing some physically difficult elements;
  • the saddle doesn’t stay at one place, shifts from side to side or up and down;
  • the rider feels that one stirrup is longer than another, that he is shifted too much forward or backward.

Certainly some of the above-listed facts are true regarding your horse. And there’s no doubt that even when a saddle fits the horse perfectly some of these signs may be present - in case of incorrect or abusive work, for example. However usually the problems of training, care and saddling come together.

Then I must say that horses which do not show any signs of suffering and discomfort do not necessarily have sound backs. Horses are used to endure the pain to the uttermost, especially in the presence of their enemy – the predator, so was the Nature’s intention. And in our situation the enemy is the rider, as it’s he who hurts it. Moreover many horses are punished for any signs of disobedience so cruelly – with bits, whips, spurs - that they prefer to put up with it.

Pic. 2 Saddle pressure on the back.

Variant : Correct even pressure of saddle panels.

Variant : Bridge. Saddle doesn’t repeat an outline of the horse’s back. The load is distributed irregularly which causes a small, painful pressure point.

Variant : Rocking. That saddle may be rocked along the back when you put pressure alternately on the pommel and cantle. It presses only two points - a very small area carries too high a load.

Variant D: Twist. A distorted saddle creates as well an uneven pressure. The load is distributed asymmetrically. ________________________________________________

Errors and consequences
  • When the area of a saddle that contacts the horse’s back is too small (leads to overpressure on a tiny area) it causes arrhythmia, muscle fatigue, saddle sores, back sagging.
  • Placing a saddle too far forward on the withers is a widely spread mistake that leads to some very sad consequences. Put on the back this way the saddle lies on scapulas and pinches them what in its turn causes blood supply disturbance, affects locomotive functions, hinders scapulas from moving along the thorax - so scapulas can’t move backwards properly and the horse’s step becomes stiff and short. As a result the horse is feeling pain and strains the shoulder muscles blocking the work of the scapula. Such limited movements of scapulas along the thorax and muscle spasms cause constrained gaits (the horse can’t move its front legs forward freely, minces), what results in pathological changes in the whole locomotor apparatus in general. Besides when the saddle is placed this way the girth is situated right behind the shoulder (elbow), what hinders the front limb from moving backwards on the whole. Moreover the girth pinches and rubs sore a very sensitive skin in that area (see photo on the left).

On the thermographic shot on the left you may see a trauma of a horse’s back. These inflammation and muscle spasm were caused by incorrect choosing of a saddle and incorrect saddling. The thermographic shot on the right shows a saddle under which this horse is trained. The shot was taken right after the horse was unsaddled. See the difference in color of the right and the left panels of the saddle: this saddle had an uneven pressure on the horse’s back what resulted in an asymmetry of infrared lights. The problem in this case is in the saddle poor contact with the back. It doesn’t repeat an outline of the back and its size doesn’t conform to the size of the horse’s back. See also pic.2 (variant ) and pic.3 (variant ).

The back of this horse is damaged severely by an unfit saddle: here we can see muscle atrophy and multiple injuries in the spine area. 

Pic.3 Sketchy placement of the saddle-tree front arch

Variant : Saddle-tree is too wide, the upper part of the pommel lies on the withers, there’s no clearance. The pommel pinches the withers.

Variant : Saddle-tree is too narrow. The lower part of the front arch of the tree pinches the withers.

Variant : Saddle-tree is chosen properly. The size of the saddle-tree is correct, there’s necessary clearance between the pommel and the withers. The saddle-tree on the whole conforms to the size and form of the horse’s back and is parallel to it.

  • If a saddle-tree form doesn’t repeat an outline of the horseback the saddle can’t have a full contact with the back. So the rider’s weight is distributed irregularly and this results in painful scarring that shows up in the places of pressure. (see pic.2) 
  • A narrow saddle. It’s the most common problem. If the front arch of the saddle-tree is more narrow then necessary (See pic.3, variant ), then the saddle pinches the trapezius muscle and digs into tissues with the lower part of the saddle-tree. This impedes the scapula from moving backwards, causes blood supply disturbance and results in muscle atrophy. Muscle dystrophy may be developed for a period of one-three months, but it takes much more time to cure it and there’re cases when full recuperation is already impossible.  
  • An extremely wide saddle-tree (See Pic.3, Variant C) lies on the withers, hurting it and digging into muscles with its front part.  
  • A narrow space between saddle panels squeezes the spinous processes of vertebra , causing a terrible pain.
  • If a saddle shifts from side to side or up and down it may result in sores (often only on one side), muscle spasms and bald spots on horse’s skin. Horses can’t work properly when they feel pain (saddle is constantly touching the spine) and they rise their heads – with all grave consequences.
  • Saddle pressure often causes blood supply disturbance with the following back muscles dystrophy. The horses that usually have this kind of problem are those that are used on trail rides, horseback tours and cross-country events, i.e. where a horse is ridden for more than an hour a day. First a horse feels that the muscles are numb, then it feels a strong pain and in a short period of time the tissues begin to “mortify”. The pressure may cause painful edemas that can be seen right after the saddle is removed.
  • Too stiff panels can’t cushion the shakings of the rider’s weight. The pillows that are stiffed excessively don’t distribute the shock wave, but cut in the muscles of the back, causing a great pain.
  • Asymmetrical (twisted) saddle (See pic.2, Variant D) hurts the horse much, causes muscle spasms and changes in muscles that have a bad effect on the horse’s development in general and on its locomotor apparatus.
  • Traumas from the quantity of saddle pads. Quite often horsemen who wish to protect their horse’s back put different shims, gel and fur saddle pads under the saddle. However this won’t solve the problem, you shouldn’t do this. If a saddle fits a horse, there’s no need in gels and pads. Just imagine whether you’re able to move comfortably when you put on your legs two pairs of thick socks and then your shoes? It is possible to put something under the saddle only when you’re sure that the saddle is too big for your horse. But the quantity of this “something” must be carefully thought of. A correctly chosen saddle requires only one thin pad!
  • Sores from saddle pads show up when riders put pads flatly (when they’re touching spine and withers) and pull the girth too tight. A pad pressed to the horse’s back may rub sore the back with its seam and hurt the spine. That’s why a pad must be tuck into the space between the saddle panels.
  • Uneven stiffing can result in disbalance and cause injuries in the soft tissues and sores due to irregularly distributed pressure.
  • An unbalanced saddle may hurt not only a horse but as well a rider as his balance and seat are affected and his weight is shifted either forward or backward. Every saddle must be balanced for a particular horse.

So the problem is evident now. In the next article we’ll continue talking about saddling. I will tell you how you should saddle your horse correctly, what saddles cannot be used at all and many other things.

Meanwhile you’ll have time to think it over and to make the first step towards your horses’ well-being and happiness.

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