Poorly fitted tack can cause your horse pain, along with a range of performance problems.
Correct tack fitting is as important to the equine athlete as correct shoe fitting is to the human athlete. In the last 30 years, great strides have been made in the athletic shoe industry, but while the saddle and tack industry has made advances it is still steeped in tradition. Most tack is made in factories by people who have never been near a horse, much less ridden on one competitively.
Pain associated with poor tack fit usually shows up as performance problems, rather than overt sores. These performance problems range from a mildly “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between those two extremes is a whole host of symptoms most of us consider training problems, such as resisting, jumping poorly, being slow to warm up, or not paying attention to the rider.
PERFORMANCE ISSUES RELATED TO PAIN
These can be grouped into several basic categories. Think of behaviors your horse exhibits that you see as training problems, and consider the possibility that they may arise from pain.
- Physical signs of tack-related fitting problems include obvious sores, white hairs under the saddle (or occasionally bridle), scars, and muscle atrophy.
- Behavioral problems usually related to saddle fit and back pain include an objection to being saddled, hypersensitivity to brushing, difficulty shoeing, constantly rearranging stall bedding, and fidgeting.
- Training problems that may indicate pain from many locations include being “cold-backed” during mounting, a slowness to warm up, resistance to work or aids, obscure lameness, excessive shying, tail swishing, ear pinning, teeth grinding, head tossing, bucking or rearing, and decreased speed in timed sport.
Dealing with Pain
As you work towards improving your tack fitting, and finding out where your horse hurts and why, it’s important to deal with his discomfort. The damage done by poorly-fitting tack does not always just go away with new equipment. Residual pain and stiffness may be present. Your horse may also be uncomfortable while you go through the process of finding tack that works well. There are several ways to help your horse during this transition:
1. Bodywork of various types is excellent. Find a veterinarian trained in acupuncture, chiropractic, or both. Look for a massage therapist or learn some massage and stretching exercises yourself.
2. Supplements can help with pain — and the stress caused by being in pain. One of my favorite all-round supplements is CBD for horses. Hemp-derived CBD improves your horse’s comfort and calms his mind as you work through finding tack solutions. Joint supplements can also be useful.
Saddle design has primarily focused on the rider’s comfort, with some innovations for the horse. New innovations can improve the fit, but in many cases are based on false information and don’t work for most horses. Riders then may try various pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit better, but in doing so the fit is usually lost. The basic principles of saddle fit should help you evaluate saddles and the technology being advertised.
When evaluating a horse for a performance problem, examine the saddle both on and off the horse. Saddle fit should be considered as important as, and similar to, shoe fit in a person. Here are the basic factors to consider when examining a saddle:
• The structure of the saddle must be symmetrical from the horse’s side and the rider’s side. Flaws are very common, even in high-priced saddles of all types.
• The position of the saddle on the horse’s back is the most critical aspect of saddle fit. The most common mistake is to place the saddle too far forward. This places the rigid tree over the top of the shoulder blade, which significantly restricts the movement of the horse’s front legs. Conversely, moving a long western saddle back off the shoulders often places it too far back for the rider, and over the weaker lumbar part of the horse’s back.
• The bars or panels need to follow the contours of the horse’s back without a bridging gap in the middle.
• The saddle must have enough rocker and twist to the bars to conform to the horse’s back (western).
• The tree needs to conform to the shape of the horse’s back, especially across the angle of the withers.
• The girth needs to drop perpendicularly into the narrowest place on the chest behind the elbows.
• The rider needs to fit the saddle well and be able to do the desired sport without having to worry about finding the right place to sit.
• The position of the stirrup bars, or stirrup placement, should allow the rider’s leg to be secure and not drift forward or backwards as the ride continues.
• The seat needs to be level, allowing the rider to sit in the center without fighting to stay in place.
The rider, by virtue of the fact that she is sitting on top of the horse and guiding him through complex movements, has enormous influence on the horse’s back. The integral relationship between horse and rider has been brought to light in recent years thanks to a much greater understanding of this relationship.
Most riders have some degree of back pain and stiffness; this is transferred directly to the horse. Many riders sit off to one side or the other due to skill problems or body pain. Over time, uneven pressure is created on the horse’s back and can mimic a saddle problem.
Therapeutic pads are often used as a way to try and solve saddle-fit problems. Much of the time, the pads provide only temporary relief and may cause more problems than they solve in the long run. The addition of a pad to a saddle is like a person adding an extra sock under his shoe. If the tree of the saddle is wide enough, the pad may help. If the tree is already too narrow, and this is the most common scenario, the addition of the pad causes more pressure on the withers.
Bridles are an often overlooked aspect of tack fitting. An uncomfortable bridle can create head pain, causing the horse to throw his head up in the air and hollow his back, just as a poorly- fitting saddle can. Bridles that have been allowed to get dirty or stiff can rub and irritate the skin. Nosebands with a strap under the chin are very likely to get stiff and rough. Clean your bridle frequently to keep the leather smooth and supple.
Be sure the browband is loose enough across the forehead for two fingers to fit comfortably underneath it all the way around. Many small horses have surprisingly broad foreheads, especially Quarter Horses or Arabians.
Nosebands utilized to keep the mouth shut cause more problems than any other part of the bridle, except perhaps the browband. Because many horses are uncomfortable from a bit or saddle and are trying to evade pain, riders often resort to tighter and tighter nosebands, trying to force acceptance of tack that doesn’t fit. When you overtighten the noseband, the jaw becomes tight and free movement is lost though the rest of the spine. Flexibility and suppleness disappear and the stage is set for a fight rather than a harmonious ride. Comfort from bridles and saddles leads to less need for a tight noseband.
Bitting can be another challenge. In the old days, if your horse wasn’t running away with you, you figured the bit was probably fine.
The subject of bitting is steeped in tradition. Some equine dentists and veterinarians interested in bits and teeth are currently examining the shape of the equine mouth in relation to the bit and the horse’s comfort. Bit manufacturers are finding new ideas, so it is possible to try different bit types to find the right one.
The key to finding the correct bit is to develop an understanding and acceptance of the “dance of the bits.” This describes the give and take, ebb and flow, and the grace and movement involved in the art of bitting. No longer do we pull one bit out and assign it to a horse for life. Dancing with the bits allows you to adjust to your horse’s and riding needs as both of you learn and change.
The traditional single-jointed snaffle mouthpiece drives down into the tongue, prevents proper swallowing, and is painful to the horse. A bit with a shape that relieves the tongue from pressure is more comfortable.
The position of the bit in a horse’s mouth is important to both comfort and effectiveness. Too high and it pushes the hard metal against the lips; too low means the horse must constantly tighten her tongue to try to pull the bit up to a comfortable location well above the canine teeth. Take care to clean your bit regularly. Some riders only wash their bits occasionally. Saliva and food particles dry hard on the bit and can cause sores or cuts on the horse’s mouth.
Correctly-fitting tack can make all the difference between a happy, quality performance and one that is miserable. When your horse is comfortable, it brings joy to your ride.