When you go to buy a new pair of shoes, a salesperson typically assists in selecting a good quality, functional shoe. First you select a size, then try both of the shoes on, walk around, and finally you check for fit. The salesperson looks for pressure points that may cause calluses, pain, or injury due to an improper fit. The major deciding factor rests on your verbal approval about the fit, the style, and other practical considerations of your shoe purchase. When you go to buy a saddle for your horse a salesperson may assist you but without the input of the one wearing the saddle. If your horse could talk it might say something like, “yes it looks good, great colors it matches my coat, but it hurts here, here, and here. Can we try something else please?”
Since your horse can’t talk, pay close attention to its body language. To help you determine whether or not your animal is in pain due to an improper saddle fit, consider the following three areas:
1. Behavior Problems – Is it the Saddle?
Did you know that most of the people who make saddles have never ridden a horse? Yes, it’s true. Manufacturers do not require that its employees know anything about horses or saddles. Imagine that. Manufacturers make saddles with the rider or customer in mind – not the horse. Horses do not buy their own saddles. Why does it really matter if a saddle fits properly anyway? The answer is pain. Have you ever had back pain? It is simply miserable. Think about it. If horses were free they would not be wearing saddles? But since we have domesticated these lovely creatures and we saddle and ride them, it is imperative that we take care of them as they take care of us while riding.
You do not have to be a horse whisperer or psychic to sense your horse’s pain. You might want to try watching out for “animal body language”. Pay close attention to the following behaviorisms and this will allow you to develop your intuition and animal behavior awareness skills.
- Does your horse object to being saddled?
- Is he hypersensitive to being brushed?
- Are you having a difficult time shoeing him?
- Is he not moving or bucking more than usual?
- Does he roll excessively in the field?
- Have you noticed your horse constantly rearranging the stall bedding?
- Is he unable to stand still?
2. Physical Evidence of an Injury
If your horse has one or more of these symptoms I doubt he (she) is simply lazy or ornery. He is probably in pain related to an improper saddle fit. Have you ever owned a shoe that did not fit properly? Ouch! You probably had obvious sores on your feet - not to mention swelling and pain. What about the corn or blister that developed after continuous rubbing on the same spot? Physical evidence of stress or trauma on your horse is another hint when observing “animal body language”.
- Does your horse have obvious sores?
- Does he have white hairs underneath the saddle?
- Do you notice short term swelling after you remove the saddle?
- Are there scars or hard spots on the muscle or on the skin?
- Any atrophy of the muscles on the sides of the withers (between the shoulder blades)?
Correct saddle fitting is essential to the well-being of your animal. Modern designs are primarily for the comfort of the rider. English riders want to be closer to their horse so manufacturers have removed most of the support the horse needs for protection from injury. Western riders often want a particular style for the show ring, but have forgotten to change the tree to fit the horse. A rider then tries varies pads in an attempt to make the saddle fit. Please remember, a horse cannot protect itself from its equipment. Only the rider can properly and effectively equip a horse with its gear and a proper fitting saddle. Extra padding does not address the problem.
3. Training/Performance Problems - It might be the saddle fit!
What if you cannot see any sores or obvious signs of discomfort? That’s how it is with human back pain. It hurts, it’s miserable and you can’t always see it. Back pain can take weeks to recover from an injury or soreness. Can you imagine someone putting a saddle on your sore back with every intention of sitting on it and then asking you to cut a cow, jump, trot, race, or just walk? Many trainers ignore a horse’s resistance or feisty behavior towards performance activities. If you’re animal exudes unusual behavior it may be because of pain.
In horses, skin or muscle damage and the pain associated with it are often times hidden and undetectable. You may not see any obvious sores that would tell you something is wrong. Performance problems range from mild “cold back” to severe bucking and rearing episodes. In between these two extremes are 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. The following symptoms can be clear signals that something is wrong with your horse and needs immediate attention. Consider the strong possibility that it could be as simple as the saddle fit.
- Is your horse “cold-backed” during mounting? Does he dip his back trying to avoid the saddle (trying to avoid pain?)
- Is he slow to warm up or relax?
- Does he resist work?
- Is there resistance to training aids?
- Hock, stifle, and obscure hind limb lameness?
- Have you noticed front leg lameness, stumbling, and tripping?
- Does he shy excessively? (normal horse term for looking at stuff
- Is there a lack of concentration on the rider and aids, varying from mild to unrideable?
- Does he rush to or from fences and/or refuse jumps?
- What about rushing downhill or pulling uphill with the front end – unable to use the back or hindquarters properly?
- He is unable to travel straight?
- Unwilling or unable to round the back and/or neck?
- Have you noticed a swishing of the tail, pinning of the ears, grinding of the teeth, or tossing of the head?
- Does he just seem to have a "bad attitude"?
- Difficult to collect, find a soft feel or maintain impulsion?
- He is twisting over fences?
- Does he buck or rear regularly?
- Have you noticed a decrease in speed on the racetrack or any other timed sport?
- Is your horse slower than normal getting out of the starting gate?
- Is he ducking out of turns, turning wide?
- Does he start out riding well and then gets more resistant later?
These symptoms are clear communication indicators that something is wrong. Consider the possibility that the horse is not resistant to training but resistant to pain.