Panels and Bars – More good things to know!
Moving the saddle back off the shoulder blade also increases the contact area between the panels (underside) and the horse's back. When saddles are too far forward a bridge is created with pressure on the shoulders and the back of the saddle. Instead of evenly distributing the riders weight along the horse’s back, the rider's weight becomes distributed on four pressure points. One point is located on each side of the withers and another on each side of the back at the rear of the saddle. Known as bridging, this causes the horse to stiffen its back. Many saddles, both English and Western, have this bridge between the front and the back due to poor construction or poor fit even when the saddle is in the correct position. Many new flexible paneled endurance saddles are too long for the horse's back and cannot follow the contour; this creates pressure points on the shoulder and loins. When this happens, the flexible center of the panels does not offer support thus creating the same type of bridging. Bridging can cause potential back problems for your horse. Avoid bridging!
English panels need to be wide enough to offer good support without losing the contour needed to fit the horses back. Be certain the gullet is wide enough (2-1/2 to 3 inches) to allow the spine complete freedom from pressure, and to allow the spine to bend slightly laterally during movement. The angle of the panels needs to follow the angle of the horse’s back under the cantle. Many saddles have too sharp of an angle, which puts pressure on the outer corner of the panel and creates pain at the center of the longissimus dorsi (back muscle). Also, many saddles have a wide gullet for part of the length of the saddle, then a narrow gullet for the rest. Where the gullet becomes narrow, whether it is near the withers or the cantle, the movement of the horse’s spine is compromised.
English saddles need to be reflocked (restuffed) every year or even more frequently to maintain good contact with the horse’s back. Finding a saddler who really knows how to reflock a saddle can be a challenge. Wool stuffing is resilient and offers a smooth surface to horse’s back. Foam-stuffed panels can loose some of their resilience and are difficult to replace. If the panel is correct for the horse’s back, foams can be excellent. They do not change shape and do not need to be restuffed. Many panels are stuffed with hard material, whether it is wool, synthetic material or foam; hard panels can be very painful against the soft muscle of the back.
Western bars need to have enough rocker (curve to the bottom) and flair (curve at the ends) so the bar shape conforms to the shape of the horse’s back. Very few trees have enough rocker and flair. Bridging occurs when treesare too straight putting pressure on the shoulders, the loins and even the gluteal muscle when the bars are too long. The skirting needs to be short and flared so it does not interfere with the shoulders and loins. The bars should only put pressure on the rib cage; any part of the saddle extending past the rib cage should not put any pressure on the loins.
The spine is not designed to carry weight directly on it; therefore, the saddle must sit squarely down the middle of the back supported by the bars or panels. The bone along the top of the spine known as spinous process provides a point of attachment for ligaments and muscles. It does not have a muscle to protect it and nothing to cushion the hardness of the saddle pressed upon it. This pressure can lead to bone pain and to degeneration of the ligament that runs along the top of the spine. Diagnostic ultrasound data indicate that damage to this ligament may be common and may be an important factor in back pain.
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