Some horses will show their dislike to the saddle as soon as their rider walks towards them with it to tack up. Others may not show anything until the saddle is being placed on their back or become grumpy when it is being adjusted. Girthiness is something all riders notice and fortunately now, usually always get it investigated.
What does your horse do when you saddle up?
Does he start to fidget or move away?
Put his ears back or head up?
These may all be ways he is trying to communicate with you.
Do they all mean your saddle doesn’t fit? Probably not. But they may all mean that the horse is associating the saddle with some form of discomfort, be that directly from the saddle, from the rider’s body or from what the rider is asking him to do in the work session. See if you can work out what your horse is trying to tell you rather than just ignore it.
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 be minimal 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.
Check also for wither and spine clearance, not just directly above the withers but also on each side. This is a place where a lot of saddles are too tight. Remember to recheck this when the rider is on board as the clearance will be further reduced when the rider’s weight is in the saddle.
Pay attention to any behavioural changes that develop when mounting. These may be one of the first signs a horse will give that the saddle is not ideal. They may refuse to stand, rush off, dip their backs, collapse or hump as soon as they feel the rider’s weight. What they do can give an indication as to what it is that they are not liking such as gullet pressure, girth pain or pain from the back gussets.
Major resistances and gait abnormalities attributable to suboptimal saddle fit are easy to recognise and get investigated quickly for safety reasons. Bucking, refusing to go forward, lateral walks, disunited canters and stumbling are a few that come to mind, as well as horses that struggle to go downhill.
Other ridden signs often creep in slowly. Maybe your horse used to do great transitions but now resists or perhaps once he was easy to sit to but is now like a board! Watch out for horses that are heavy in the hand – this can be due to inadequate wither and spinal clearance – it hurts them to come up in front. Horses that have difficulty turning and bending can be from a range of saddle issues such as too long and putting pressure over the loins or incorrect gullet width putting uneven pressure at the tree points.
Some ridden signs don’t really develop but show as the horse hitting a plateau in training. They can cope at lower levels or when not so much is being asked of their bodies but then it gets to the point that it is just not possible for them to perform as asked. This may also be partly due to the training resulting in the horse changing shape. Riders often don’t think their saddle could be a contributing factor to their horse’s late flying changes, poor lateral work, running out or refusing in combinations or whatever the problem may be, especially as the horse may not present as sore in its back. However, most horses at these levels in their training, will be honest enough to work to the best they can in a way that won’t make them sore. Riders would need to try other correctly fitted saddles to know if this is the reason. Having another rider ride their horse in their saddle does not help the detective work in this situation as the other rider will have a different weight distribution in the saddle. It is all about the horse/rider/saddle combination.
Never become paranoid about your saddle and your gear but do always consider it if you are not happy with your horse’s progress or demeanor. There are many people available to help you so you can have peace of mind and do what you love doing most – riding!
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.