Oh No! I can hear you say!
Not something else to do before I ride!
I will never find time!
This check is not very onerous at all and will become second nature! A lot of it is about safety and all of it is to prevent your horse being uncomfortable and perhaps not working well or becoming sore.
Every day when grooming your horse, you should check for any soreness. Does your horse react to the curry comb or brush? Are there any swellings, white hairs or rub marks anywhere on his/her saddle platform area?
Look at your horse’s posture, not just when you have them tied up but how are they standing in the paddock when you go to bring them in. Are they square? Are their hindlegs out behind them or too far underneath them? Or perhaps their front legs are stretched out in front of them? All these pieces of information may alert you to something not being quite right before it is an actual problem.
Stand back and look at their topline. Is it developing as you would like or are there areas that still need developing? Are there areas that have dropped off? Important areas are anywhere along the spine and particularly where the saddle sits. Atrophy (muscle wastage) in this area points to pressure and needs to be addressed ASAP. A good idea is to take a photo of your horse standing square monthly so you can notice any differences. Perhaps every pony club rally could be a good day or maybe the 1st of the month.
Then when you go to put the saddle on your horse what is his/her behaviour like? Also when you do up the girth. If your horse shows any signs of being grumpy or uncomfortable this needs to be investigated and not ignored.
When your saddle is on and before it is girthed up it is useful to check for rocking or bridging. If you place one hand on the pommel and one hand on the cantle and lightly press each alternatively there should not be any rocking of the saddle. It should stay stable. Then slide a flat hand underneath the panel from front to back by coming underneath the flap. It should make even contact the whole way along and not just contact at the front near the shoulders and then at the back which would indicate bridging.
Once girthed up, the saddle should be balanced so the deepest part of the saddle is in the middle. This is important as if it is not, you will be fighting your balance the entire ride. If the deepest part is too far forward the rider will feel like they are continually tipping forward. This can happen quite quickly if the horse drops condition and may require a pad or riser until your fitter can revisit. If the deepest part is too far back the rider may sit in a chair seat and put too much pressure on the horse’s back. This can happen if the horse builds up and needs a wider gullet/saddle and if not addressed quickly will result in atrophy at the back of the saddle platform area, making the balance even worse.
After riding, take your saddle and saddle blanket off in a way that you don’t affect the way the horse’s coat lies. It can tell us a lot about saddle stability. Look for any signs of ruffling or rubbing and make note of any excessive sweat or dry patches. Take a photo to show your fitter if you see any. Then when washing or brushing check for any soreness, both immediately after untacking and again when your horse has cooled off – perhaps when you change rugs.
So all of the above actually only takes a few minutes, if that, and can make all the difference between a good ride and a disastrous one, not to mention being able to address a problem before it happens!
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Western Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.