This is a paper I prepared for a course some years ago and have decided to share. Hopefully you find it informative if not helpful!
- The Saddle: History and Function
- Understanding the Horse’s Back and Effects of the Saddle
- Saddle Fitting and the Horse in Motion
- Innovative Saddle Designs
- The Ideal Saddle
Copyright to author Sheri Spencer. Duplication in whole or in part is strictly forbidden without prior written consent by author.
1. The Saddle: History and Function
Since the beginning of domestication of the horse, there have been methods of control for the horse which utilize the power and energy whether as mounts in the hunt, transportation, and now, recreation and art. Many of the early cultures that used the horse used little more than a leather thong tied around the lower jaw of the horse as means of mechanical communication, and a patch of animal hide or cloth as the first saddle. The early riders were able to observe and ride the movements well enough that a saddle was not always necessary except for comfort and added stability. These ideas grew, and to lengthen the longevity of the working horse, saddle trees were designed to spread the rider’s weight beyond a few pressure points and keep the spine and withers clear of rubbing. No matter how much science and mechanics are behind the design, the saddle is and remains to be the link between the two bodies. The saddle can only do its job to its best when it is comfortably and correctly fitted to both horse and rider.
The saddle, according to most resources, was designed with the protection of the horse’s back in mind to increase the animal’s working life for his rider, and for the comfort and stability of the rider. The saddle, however, has evolved in many ways and now certain models can be made available for any discipline, from calf-roping to dressage. These saddles position the rider appropriately for the tasks to be performed. For example, the dressage saddle encourages an upright posture from the rider, allowing for a long leg, and deep seat to keep the rider closer to the horse’s back for most effective body to body communication, whereas a jumping saddle has a shallow seat, and shorter, more curved leg flaps to encourage a shorter leg length, allowing the rider to easily assume jumping position. These characteristics certainly are useful for the rider, but the design on the underside, that which is supposed to fit the horse’s back varies only slightly between English style saddles.
The Western saddle covers a wider surface area on the horse’s back, presumably to better spread out the weight of his rider who, in the days of its creation, would spend long days in the saddle. Although it distributes the weight of the rider over a much larger area, it can also pose a risk to restrict full potential of the horse’s movement due its size. However, a well-fitted Western saddle that is an appropriate length for the length of the horse and that does not come too far onto the shoulder will allow more from the horse. Unlike the English saddle, the Western saddle tends to be quite heavy, but new synthetic designs are becoming lighter.
It is unfortunate that most riders do not begin their equestrian pursuits with education pertaining to the function, design and, especially, fit of the saddle. A rider who understands and ensures the components that makes a well-fitting saddle for both horse and rider will inevitably have a more comfortable ride and a happier horse.
To fully understand the benefits and risks of saddles, however, it is important to be knowledgeable of the horse’s spine and back muscles.
2. Understanding the Horse’s Back and Effects of the Saddle
The horse’s spine consists of four sections from the base of the head to the connection of the tail: the cervical vertebrae, from the base of the head to the base of the neck, consisting of seven vertebrae; the thoracic vertebrae, consisting of 18 vertebrae, identifiable due to 18 pairs of ribs attached, begins between the scapulas (shoulder blades); the lumbar vertebrae consists of usually 6 vertebrae, but occasionally only 5 are present. This is the weakest part of the horse’s back and thus loading weight beyond the last set of ribs is compromising to the horse due to serious risk of injury (Nedrow-Wigmore, The Nine Points of Saddle Fitting). The last section is the sacrum, which consists of 5 vertebrae that support the hind limbs (UC Davis Book of Horses).
The horse’s back is largely supported by a muscular system as well as other connective tissues. Towards the shoulder, spreading across the upper part of the rib cage is the Latissimus dorsi muscle. Among other functions involving motility of the neck, this muscle aids in the motion of the foreleg by contracting and thus pulling the foreleg backward during locomotion. This muscle, along with the Lumbodorsal fascia, which “is a thick layer of connective tissue that covers the rear of the neck and back” (UC Davis Book of Horses), and protects and supports other muscles of that region, seem to make up the greater part of the horse’s back that is affected by the saddle.
It is important to respect the mechanics of the horse’s structures. Ill-fitting saddles can largely interfere with these muscles and cause painful presser points. A saddle that is too tight could pinch the muscles behind the shoulder. Between potentially interfering with the motion of the scapula and creating pressure points on the Latissimus dorsi, the movement of the forehand is compromised. A loose-fitting saddle slides on the horse’s back, creating friction, bruising, and again, creates pressure points. Depending on the conformation of the horse, the loose saddle can put the pressure points along the Lumbodorsal fascia which then not only compromises the integrity of the strength of the back, but can actually damage the muscles. The horse is then more likely to drop his back (“hollowing out”) and, in turn, be unable to properly engage his hindquarters simple because he is trying to escape the pressure. These, among many others, are examples of some interference caused by saddles.
The back of the horse is a sensitive, and crucially important structure that, when in discomfort or pain, affects the horse’s entire physical abilities and mood. The most common cause of back pain is caused by ill-fitting saddles, and it’s amazing how few people are aware of the effects of unsuitable tack.
The saddle should contour smoothly and evenly, so that the weight is equally distributed. The centre of balance of the saddle should be towards the front of the saddle where the horse’s back is strongest, and the rider should fit comfortably with the weight directed towards the centre of balance so that the saddle is not “levered” into the horse’s withers or back, especially not toward the lumbar vertebrae! By directing the weight onto the centre of balance of a well-fitting saddle, the rider’s weight is distributed evenly across the entire under-side of the saddle for maximum comfort for the horse.
3. Saddle Fitting and the Horse in Motion
It is easy enough to appropriately stuff saddle panels when a horse is standing squarely on level ground, but as soon as he starts to walk, the shape on which the fitted saddle rests soon changes with every step. When the rider’s weight is added, the stakes are higher as the back muscles flex, stretch and contract, and then the once fitted saddle soon disrupts the moving parts.
An article by Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore, “The Nine Points of Saddle Fitting,” briefly shares the important elements to saddle fitting. The idea behind fitting the saddle is to make sure that the saddle rests as evenly as possible over each individual’s back and comfortably contours to the shape. Uneven horses (horses with differing muscle mass or conformation on each side) require extra consideration for padding so that, rather than gaps, the saddle fits flush against the horse.
Saddle fitting has become more of a fashion than an art, as many manufacturers are beginning to claim the horse’s comfort with little proof available. The art is in compensating for the moving structures beneath the saddle by providing soft, flexible materials against the horse’s body: an art which can be considered a science due to the extensive research that can be done to analyze and conclude the moving structures. However, if one is able to design a saddle able to “go with the flow,” then it need not be as complicated as a scientific approach might assume.
A comfortable, fit horse will have a bit of a swing to his step, and even just walking bareback, a rider can feel the muscles engaging and the back flexing with each step. Irregular pressure from the saddle can cause pinching on the horse’s back which can debilitate the horse’s movement, and cause back pain along the delicate spinal cord and spinal nerves. If the saddle is not shaped properly on the horse (designed for a broader back, for example), pressure will be more centralized onto the areas that have greater contact with the horse and can interfere and cause discomfort. Prolonged use of ill-fitting tack can lead to saddle/girth-sour horses that more often than not, get blamed for being cranky, moody or poorly trained all because of the saddle.
Broken trees are particularly hazardous for the horse’s spine because they can twist and dangerously interfere with the spinal column. Testing the tree of an English saddle is a simple thing to do and should be done if the saddle is dropped or involved in any riding accidents where a horse may have fallen on it. To test the tree, place your foot on a secure, elevated surface to create a ledge with your leg, and brace the pommel on your knee. Holding the cantle with one hand, use your free hand to press has hard as you can against various places along the seat and slightly off-centre. If you hear any creaking or notice any motion in this area, the tree could be broken. If you are unsure, have a saddle fitter or experienced professional check it for you. In the event that the tree is broken, it’s time for a new saddle.
4. Innovative Saddle Designs
With increasing interest in the horse’s back brought on by increased study and interest in equine locomotion, a new English saddle has emerged. Several models for dressage and one for jumping are provided by Ansur, the treeless saddle. The makers of the Ansur saddle claim that it is a comfortable alternative to rigid-tree saddles, as these saddles have no tree and are designed solely from leather and foam. Aside from the rider’s measurements, the only fitting necessary seems to be the gullet width. Because the saddle has no tree, it is very flexible and can fit a variety of horse shapes and sizes. (http://www.ansursaddle.com)
Due to the nature of the product, it seems as though it would be soft and flexible on the horse’s back, acting as a catalyst for increased movement from the horse and allowing the horse to move more freely than a “regular” saddle would allow. However, the tree was designed to disperse the weight of the rider so that it would not be centralized in one location. Even with the provided padding, the rider’s weight will be more focused. The billets (girth straps) are fastened one below the pommel, and the other closer to the seat on the flaps of the saddle (dressage models). It would be interesting to establish where the majority of the weight from both girth pressure and the rider is situated.
An alternative to the treeless saddle, is the relatively new design called Cair, where the padding of the saddle is actually pillows of air. This design caters to the movement of the horse’s muscles and spine while maintaining a sure structure and equal distribution via the tree and seat of the saddle. This design seems to compensate for and balance the pros and cons of the conventional saddle structure. (http://www.cairpanelsystem.com)
5. The Ideal Saddle
The ideal saddle would be as unobtrusive as possible for the horse, yet comfortable and supportive for the rider. Most saddles cater largely to the rider’s comfort, as finding the “happy medium” seems to be a challenge for designers. The materials would be flexible lengthwise to compensate for the stretching and flexing of the back muscles, but stable width-wise, so that the saddle would not twist and interfere with the horse’s spinal column.
The padding of the panels should be soft and “squishy” to allow muscle movement on the horse’s back with less resistance from the saddle’s structure, but firm enough to maintain depth so that the panels are not flattened, jeopardizing wither/back clearance along the gullet.
It would be beneficial for all horses if their owners took interest in horse anatomy and saddle fitting so that they wouldn’t unnecessarily have to endure saddle pain and can perform to their full potential, whatever it may be. Fortunately, most horse owners are beginning to take an interest in holistic health so that the horse’s behaviour and health are treated as a single entity, rather than merely targeting symptoms and by-products of pain.