Are You Sitting on a Problem?
Would it surprise you if I said that over 90% of health and lameness problems in ridden horses can often be linked to the effects of their saddles?
Would it alarm you to know that the traditionally designed
and fitted saddle can be responsible for or contribute to all of the following
Lack of balance and co-ordination, being on the forehand, being disengaged in hind legs, stumbling, hollowing the back, having difficulty maintaining a round outline, resisting the bit, crookedness, tension, apparent laziness, spookiness, inability to bend, difficulty in lateral work, difficulty in the canter, difficulty with flying changes, difficulty with collection etc. etc. etc. this list could go on and on!
Saddles contribute to untold misery in the lives of far too many horses, and it doesn't need to be this way. Unfortunately, those of you who have taken the time, trouble and money to have custom made saddles are not let off the hook; in fact, your horses may be in a worse boat than many others who wear 'off the peg' saddles.
This is not meant to alarm, but it is meant to make you sit up and take notice, because I am going to share with you some information that could make a very big, positive difference to the lives of many horses.
The bottom line is, that in order to provide the horse with the kind of saddles that don't create physical damage, discomfort and restriction, we have to let go of the way we think about what constitutes a well-fitted saddle!
Why do I believe this? Because I have spent the past ten years of my life studying the effects of saddles on the ridden horse and, having realised the problems they were (are) causing, started doing something about it.
I am one of the co-founders of an English-based organisation called BALANCE. Carol Brett, the other co-founder, made the connection between poor movement and saddles even before BALANCE was formed. It was she who started the research into this important topic and started prodding the UK saddle industry to make some changes.
Carol's background is that of a trainer and instructor as is mine. We were not saddlers, and as such, were able to look at the whole thing from the point of view of the horse, rather than getting caught up in the very traditional and restrictive attitude that prevailed (and unfortunately still prevails) within much of the saddle industry.
The story about how we got from there to where we are now is a long one, and when we got involved in this work, we couldn't have imagined where it would lead. We had no intention of developing our own saddles, because we imagined (somewhat naively) that the saddle industry would want to do the best thing for horses, even if that meant making some radical changes. However, when push came to shove, we had to be willing to lead the way.
So, in this article, I am giving you a rather potted
idea of what we discovered and how we addressed these issues.
Let's look at why getting a saddle to fit the horse's body shape - which has been our guide for choosing a saddle for so many years - could create a problem.
If we agree that for something to 'fit', it has to match the shape of another 'thing', then we can begin to understand the problem when it comes to using this idea for saddling.
Making or choosing a saddle to match the contours of the stationary horse's back certainly makes it possible to fit it to the horse, but in doing so, you are condemning that horse to stay fixed by its saddle into its static posture whether it is moving or not. The static posture is with the back dropped a little and therefore narrower in the saddle area. In a saddle fitted to match this shape, the horse cannot engage in normal patterns of movement, because that would require an engaged, flatter and wider back profile than the tree in the saddle will allow.
Any saddle tree that is narrower than the horse (98% of saddles currently available) is training your horse to be disengaged and on its forehand all the time you are riding. The reason for this? Right under the 'points' (which are the ends of the rigid front arch of the tree) and stirrup bars are reflex points on the horse's back. When stimulated by pressure, the normal healthy response is for the horse's long back muscles to contract, which pulls the back into a hollow posture (dorsi-flexion) and this is not a desirable state.
Even when the tree is wide enough, there needs to be sufficient protection (padding) between the points and the horse to avoid problems every time the rider takes her weight into the stirrup bars, i.e. every other beat of posting trot, jumping position or in half seat. How frustrating to know that no matter how talented you and your horse are, your saddle is often stimulating the exact opposite of everything you know that you want!
Totally treeless saddles or constant bareback riding may sound like solutions but can, in our experience, lead to other problems over time. However, these options can certainly provide the horse with tremendous relief from many saddle related problems, and they also make it necessary for the riders to address some of their own shortcomings in regard to their own balance and co-ordination which is never a bad thing!
By the time most horses have been ridden for as little
as 6 months, in traditionally fitted saddles, they are already showing
Muscle wastage (hollows behind withers and easily defined shoulder blades, lack of top-line)
Postural changes (dropped back, big belly, straight shoulders, upright hind-legs, pigeon toed, over at the knee)
Bio-mechanically inefficient and unnatural movement patterns (horse stuck on forehand, difficult to bend, tripping, hanging legs over fences, reluctant to go down hill)
Behavioural/training problems such as napping (horse refusing to move), rushing at fences, inability or reluctance to collect, lack of engagement, lateral work difficult, cold-backed symptoms)
So common are all of these symptoms in the ridden horse
that they are often just accepted as common equine behaviour, until they
create enough of a problem to affect the actual soundness or ride-ability
of the horse. Even then, it is rare for a rider to put two and two together
and realise that the saddle is the culprit.
Once you get muscle wastage but carry on having saddles fitted to the horse's shape, which, remember is the main emphasis in traditional or custom saddle fitting, you are on a slippery slope to nowhere. You are now choosing saddles to fit the damaged and unnatural shape that a previous saddle has created!
In reality, the situation is even worse, because conventional saddle widths are so much narrower than the natural, healthy shape of even the static posture of the horse. They have become these widths because they create a feel that riders like when riding astride. However, if your horse appears to match the shape of a conventional width of saddle (extra wide, wide, medium wide, medium or even narrow), you need to start recognising this as a danger signal! It breaks my heart to see messages posted on Internet Forums looking for narrow fit saddles. I know the trauma the horse has endured to reach a stage where it looks like it needs a narrow saddle and the future discomfort it will have to endure if its owner ever gets hold of a narrow saddle.
With regard to the saddle related damage, fortunately, many horses seem to be able to recover most if not all of their natural patterns of movement and musculature once the offending saddle has been removed. This obviously depends on their owners/riders being willing to help them with some supportive action, but how much better it would be if horses could be ridden from day one in saddles that are designed and fitted in ways that do not compromise their comfort, movement and behaviour so much.
Figure 1 shows three back profiles which were taken over a 7-month period.
The first (middle) profile was taken after the horse had had six months without being ridden.
The next profile (nearest bottom of picture and the narrowest) was taken just 8 weeks after the horse had been ridden quietly in his own saddle. You can see that in even this short time, the shape looks considerably narrower. This is partly due to muscle wastage and partly due to the fact that the old saddle had stimulated the postural habit of pulling the back down, which creates a narrower profile.
The third profile (nearest the top of picture and widest) was taken after the horse had been ridden for 18 weeks in a BALANCE saddle. You can see that not only has he recovered from the muscle loss and the postural damage that his old saddle (which had been fitted professionally, by the way) had caused but, as the amount of work increased, his new saddle had allowed a natural increase in muscle mass. This horse was 20 years old when this happened.
An increase in muscle mass is what one would logically expect when increasing effort and fitness. However, somehow in the horse world we have accepted the idea that the horse gets narrower (less muscle) in the saddle area and along its back as it gets fitter. Well, I am suggesting that it is not acceptable and that it is a warning sign that all is not well.
One interesting exercise that you can try is to purchase a Flexible Curve as used by people doing graphics and technical drawing. Take a profile of your horse just before riding when he/she is relaxed and comfortable. Commit that profile to paper. Next, ride in your own saddle for no more than fifteen minutes. Get off, remove the saddle and quickly take another profile in the same place as before. Commit that to paper. What you will usually see is that the second profile is narrower. This is through compression of the tissues by the saddle and this is after only a short time in the saddle.
If this process happens day after day, the body doesn't have enough time to repair damaged, oxygen-starved tissue between riding sessions. This is the process by which horses get muscle atrophy and look narrower and narrower as seen in the diagram. When you repeat this exercise with a saddle that is wide enough and fitted to allow for proper movement, the second profile will be at least as wide and usually wider than the first. This shows the increase in apparent muscle mass through the temporary increase in capillary blood flow to the muscles.
The knowledge and experience that we gained through our research prompted us to look to the saddle industry for improvements in saddle design and in the practice used to fit them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, despite much time and effort on our part, every manufacturer that we talked to dismissed what we were telling them as nonsense and made it clear that they had no intention of making any changes to their products
It wasn't until we went public with our findings and unwittingly stirred the British horse owning public into demanding a better deal for their horses that things gradually started to change. (The saddle industry has never forgiven us for this and still tries to either ignore or rubbish what we do!)
We were lucky to have met Frank Baines who was the first saddle manufacturer to see beyond the fact that what we were saying was in conflict with everything he had believed about saddle fitting, and dare to consider that we might know what we were talking about! The rest is history, and with his help and support we have been able to develop and continually improve a range of BALANCE saddles and have helped countless numbers of horses.
There are currently 3 and soon to be 4 different kinds of BALANCE saddles. Some have full trees, some have full trees with shorter points, some have full trees with no points and some have half trees and are totally flexible at the back. This is because horses like/need different things in their saddles, however all BALANCE saddles contain a particular combination of horse friendly design features and come in a range of widths and styles that accommodate the natural healthy body shapes of all horses as well as the riders' needs.
The saddles are always 'fitted' a little wider than the current static shape of the horse and used in conjunction with a padding system which provides protection and comfort to support the horse in its natural patterns of movement. If the horse is very damaged (muscle wasted) we try to work with the owner through a supportive remedial programme to enable the horse to start to recover. Then, once the horse is ready to go into his BALANCE saddle, the padding system allows the owner to maintain saddle balance and comfort through ongoing changes in the horse's shape.
The BALANCE Saddling System has often been used as a last resort where a lame or 'difficult' horse has been through veterinarians, therapists and trainers to no avail. The results are often profound and humbling.
The BALANCE Saddling System is very simple in its concept. It creates the potential for the rider to constantly monitor the ongoing comfort of the saddle and use the padding system to make subtle adjustments where necessary. A horse's saddle requirements can sometimes change throughout a year, and having the flexibility to fine-tune the feel/balance of the saddle for the horse can make a real difference to his comfort, confidence, and therefore, performance.
Figure 2 is a diagram of the back profiles taken from a horse called Ocean King (OK), a 16.1 Irish Draft/Thoroughbred cross who has done show jumping, dressage, eventing, hunter trials, team chasing and his favourite - drag hunting. You can see from this simple diagram how much difference there is in OK's body shape having had the benefit of the BALANCE Saddling System. The original black profile shows the result of a traditional saddle fitting approach, which just kept moving him into progressively narrower saddles as the muscle in the saddle area reduced in mass through compression and non-use. The white and then grey profiles show what happened when he was ridden in a saddle that respected his natural body shape and natural bio-mechanics. This is the shape that nature designed him to be and this is the width of saddle that he has always needed.
This is OK's story as told in his owner's words:
"He is a quality, middleweight hunter type who was bought in 1992, aged 7yrs., having been imported from Ireland. He was fitted, by a trained saddle fitter, in a medium width saddle. The following spring, his saddle was barely clearing his withers unless a very thick saddle pad was used. He was then fitted with narrow width dressage, and later an extra narrow jump saddle!
By this time, he was making it very clear that he didn't like his saddles. He pulled horrible faces and tried to bite the saddles when they were put on him, although in every other way he was a kind and gentle horse."
Fortunately, OK's owner came to hear about the BALANCE Saddling System and had a consultation. During this, she found answers to why OK had progressively moved into narrower and narrower saddles, and how this linked to deterioration in his performance and behaviour. She goes on to say:
"The whole approach to providing OK with an appropriate
saddle was almost the opposite of everything that had been done till this
point! He went straight into a 4X BALANCE saddle which is narrow in BALANCE
terms, but much wider than OK had had before. It was used in conjunction
with a padding system that provided balance, comfort and adjustability.
The difference in his movement was immediately noticeable. His stride lengthened and became freer and he stopped objecting so seriously to his saddle.
Within a few months, the wasted area below his withers had recovered and filled out with healthy muscle. Progress continued and after two years, the recovery in his body shape was enormous and he had to move up into a wider BALANCE saddle to provide him with the same level of comfort and freedom. He started to regularly win dressage competitions and to this day continues to be happy in his work."
Not all horses have such obvious saddle related damage as OK, but in our experience, all horses fitted in traditional widths of saddle and in the traditional way of fitting, have various degrees of saddle related 'dis-ability'. There are several interesting case studies posted on our website.
The BALANCE Saddling System is not rocket science. It is simple and it works. It doesn't even demand that a BALANCE Saddle is always used, and as informed horse owners insist that more saddle manufacturers produce horse friendly equipment, it may be possible to use the System with a greater variety of saddles.
However, right now, there isn't a lot of choice. The BALANCE saddles have the right combination of design features and widths to provide horses with what they need. They have evolved specifically to do this work, with the co-operation and feedback of real experts in the field (no pun intended) horses.
Those of you who consider that your horse has the right to a healthy, comfortable body and a long active life might want to look a little closer at the BALANCE Saddling System. Once you understand the way it can support you and you horse to achieve a mutually beneficial and dynamic partnership, you probably won't ever want anything else to come between you and your horse. There are several well established and a couple of more recently introduced 'alternative' saddling approaches that have become available in the USA in the last year which are worth looking at as well. These have also come about through a determination to address the problems that traditional saddles and saddle fitting methods create. So, we would suggest that you do some of your own research and make a commitment to make it possible for your horse to try one, some or all of these alternatives in the coming year. In this way, you can enable your horse to guide you towards a more enlightened way of choosing and using a saddle.
For more information about the saddles and listings
of planned trips to the USA you can look up www.BALANCEinternational.com
or contact our main office in England on
Tel: 011 44 1296 658333 or leave a voice mail message on our USA line which gets picked up every day. This number is 706-692-4261 and is based in Georgia.
© BALANCE 24/11/2000