If you’ve taken some time off from riding, be sure to reassess the fit of your horse’s saddle before climbing back into it!
Our lives, including our lives with horses, took a profound detour last spring when efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus prompted the closure of equestrian facilities across North America. Whether you were fortunate enough to continue riding on a restricted schedule, keep your horse in an exercise program with your trainer, or had no choice but to give your horse time off, your training routine was likely disrupted for weeks or even months during this unprecedented time.
Back shape changes require saddle fit changes
For most of us, the barn, where we’re surrounded by our beloved horses, is our comfort zone – our happy place. Once equestrian facility restrictions subsided, we were all eager to return to some form of normalcy in the stables with our horses. But a sudden, drastic change in a horse’s routine can affect his three-dimensional back shape — and thus the fit of the saddle.
No matter what discipline you ride, the saddle, as the interface between you and your horse, plays a vital role in your ability to communicate and perform together as a team. The fit of the saddle to you and your horse is of absolute importance and allows for freedom of movement, clear and pain-free communication, and protection for both of you against long-term, irreparable musculoskeletal and psychological damage.
Saddle fitting experts recommend that caretakers schedule a saddle fit evaluation at least once annually, with more frequent assessments for developing youngsters, or horses that are advancing in their respective disciplines. Saddle fit should also always be assessed after time off, whether due to injury or illness – or to pandemic restrictions.
When your horse’s exercise regime has changed, it is important to confirm the fit of your saddle before returning to your normal riding routine. Your horse’s body, just like your own, changes with and without exercise. The same way your favorite jeans may feel a little bit snugger after spending countless hours watching Netflix during lockdown, your horse’s physique has changed after weeks or months of limited to no physical exercise. Conversely, if your horse was ridden by your trainer for the last few weeks or months, he may have been practicing more advanced movements, jumping higher fences, or improving his time running barrels. Regardless how your horse spent the equestrian facility lockdown, if his routine changed, his three-dimensional back shape will have changed too.
The art of observation
Horses are flight animals. In the wild, where only the strongest and fittest survive, showing weakness is a death sentence, which means that horses are experts at hiding pain. Your horse may only display signs of discomfort when his suffering has become intolerable. As his guardian, it is your duty to be observant and proactive to ensure problems are recognized well before they have the potential to cause serious damage, possibly ending your horse’s career.
But how do we become more observant? And what should we be paying attention to?
Taking a little bit of extra time during grooming can go a long way towards this goal. Try to get in the habit of taking a close look at your horse’s back each time you groom. Has his back shape changed? Do you notice any muscle atrophy (Figure 1)? Are there any new lumps or bumps along the spine, around the withers (Figure 2), or in the saddle support area?
While paying attention to the subtle changes you can see, make sure to observe your horse’s demeanor as well. How does he react when you start tacking up? Does he flinch, grind his teeth, pin his ears, and threaten to bite you? How does he behave when you tighten the girth? Does he stand well at the mounting block or does he give you a hard time getting on? How is your warm-up? How does your horse behave while riding? Does he buck or rear (Figure 3)? And most importantly, does he exhibit several of these behaviors? Do you notice a trend?
Ensuring the right fit
Identifying a saddle fitting issue early on can protect your horse from prolonged discomfort, and save you a fortune in chiropractic treatments, equine massages, or even veterinary bills. Understanding equine anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics in relation to saddle fit, is important and will help you maintain your horse’s back health.
Unfortunately, saddle fitting and manufacturing is a largely unregulated industry in North America, and equestrians are confronted with a myriad of saddle fitting philosophies claiming to be the best of the best. It can be incredibly difficult to make a welfare conscious selection when looking for a saddle fitting expert or resources.
It’s extremely beneficial to follow evidence-based approaches and philosophies based on the anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics of horse and rider. A great example of an organization that does this is Saddlefit 4 Life®. This global collective of equine professionals has come together to provide research and evidence-based education, with the goal of protecting both horse and rider from damage caused by ill-fitting and inappropriate tack. With constantly evolving demands placed on both horse and rider, Saddlefit 4 Life courses provide in-depth knowledge, insight, and solutions to the challenges and issues within the equine world. This education is available to everyone, regardless of riding level, show career, or discipline, and offers various levels of learning so students can customize their education to their needs. Take a look at their free resources and consider their courses if you would like to further your saddle fitting knowledge. On the Saddlefit 4 Life website, you can also find certified professionals who are not necessarily affiliated with a specific saddle brand, but rather assess saddle fit with the horse’s anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics in mind.
Once the fit of your saddle has been confirmed by a knowledgeable professional, it is finally time to get back in the saddle. Take it slow and keep in mind that both you and your horse are not at the same level of fitness as you were before lockdown. Slowly increase the duration and intensity of exercise and don’t be discouraged if you or your horse struggle at times. A slow and steady return to work will significantly decrease the risk of injury and acute muscle soreness. and will let you both enjoy your riding time together, rather than making it a strenuous ordeal.
As someone who is involved with horses, it is your duty to be observant and to listen to them. When a significant shift occurs in your horse’s life, such as the lockdown of equestrian facilities and the resulting changes to his routine, be a step ahead and have the fit of your saddle assessed before you return to riding. And again, when you are able to get back in the saddle, take it slow! Horses don’t consciously behave badly — they react to outside stimuli, whether it’s a poorly fitting saddle or an incompetent or untrained rider. If your horse is communicating with you through an unwanted behavior, don’t meet him with punishment. Instead, investigate the cause of his behavior – after all, he is trusting you with his physical and mental health!