The Saddle and the Fit

“It is essential that the correct saddle fit is achieved for each horse and rider combination in order to optimise the horse-rider system and reduce the risk of back-related problems or loss of performance that may occur as a result of incorrect saddle fit.”

Getting it Right: the power of the saddle should never be underestimated! We know that rider ability vastly impacts the horse, but so too can poorly fitted tack and training equipment. Scientific evidence illustrates the detrimental effects of poor saddle fit on the welfare and performance of ridden horses/ponies: cartilage chipping, nerve pinching, muscle atrophy, symptomatic lameness, SI problems, subluxated (partial dislocation of) vertebrae, tongue problems, tension in the jaw and poll, toe-dragging, head bobbing, tail swishing, resistance to move forward, inability to engage hind-end, hollow back – to mention only a few! – making it virtually impossible for the horse and rider to find harmony together. And the biomechanics are such that any pain / tension can interrupt the circle or chain of otherwise freely moving muscles, drastically reducing power, propulsion and the ability to engage the hind-end.

When fitting the saddle, what looks fine on the horse when standing still, can change as soon as the horse starts to move and, then again with the rider onboard.  Cartilage protects the scapula as it moves between the deep muscles of the Rhomboidus and Trapezius during movement – these muscles assist the forward, back and upwards motion of the scapula (shoulder blade) – and the Spinalis (assists with extending the back) but if the tree points are forward or too narrow, over a period of time, the cartilage will become irreparably and severely damaged. A freely moving scapula can lift as much as 2-3cms. Poorly adjusted tree points / pressure in this area will make the horse not want to move forward.  Point pressure doubles at the trot and triples at the canter.  The length of the saddle should also be assessed: if it is too long for the saddle support area, the most commonly affected vertebrae are the last two thoracic vertebraes (T17-T18) and the first two lumbar vertebraes (L1-L2). 

Different saddles suit different riders and horses; one size does not fit all.  And you cannot buy an ‘off the peg’ saddle and immediately expect it to fit you and your horse and this is where a good saddle FITTER comes into play! If the saddle does not allow you the rider, to obtain a centred position and you are constantly striving for a centred and balanced one, then your horse cannot possibly find his balance either; he will rescue himself in any way he can. 

Your pain may become his pain and vice-versa; you are a mirror image of each-other

There are various influencing factors that change an equines shape: age; workload; seasons; environment and likewise, an older equine may show signs of muscle wastage.  Having yearly or bi-yearly saddle checks will [hopefully] pre-empt any possible imbalances.  Let us look at some of the approximate expenses an ill-fitting saddle may cost:

Non-fitted Saddle – anywhere from £200 to £2,000+
Extra pads / risers / gimmick girths / miscellaneous tack to “make it fit” – £200 +
Vet to diagnose mystery lameness – £200 ++
Injections – £100+
Rehabilitation and additional therapies – ??????

‘Tension is counterproductive to effective balance and the harmony of free movement.’


Bridle fit and the neck

Want freedom of movement?  Give your horse the freedom of his neck and head! 

The horses’ neck is highly innervated with locomotory nerves; contains the oesophagus, windpipe and spinal cord, as well as superficial and deep muscles, fascia and ligaments; the neck is his balancer and he will rescue himself in any way he can in order to maintain that balance, loading limbs unevenly. 

This horse (pictured above) will be under stress physiologically and mentally; experiencing neck and poll pain, his stride/ forward motion and overall freedom of movement hindered with the potential for limb, pelvis and back issues etc., and here is why:

Behind the vertical, over-flexed and under strain:

Poll tension; sensitive bursa – little fluid filled sacs – are found between the nuchal ligament and the first two cervical vertebrae and they prevent the ligament from rubbing on the vertebrae and getting damaged.   Due to their sensitivity, they cannot withstand a lot of pressure and therefore, a tightly buckled or poorly fitted bridle will cause the bursa to swell due to fluid increase

Pressure on nuchal ligament all the way to the withers

Compression on the lower cervical vertebrae

Reduced airflow due to very tight flash and position of head

Grooves in sinus cavities due to tight flash

Nasal cartilage damage tight noseband / poorly positioned noseband

Nerve pain and discomfort due to tight flash – inability to move jaw therefore creating jaw tension which travels all the way up to the poll, to the neck, to the shoulders and so on and so forth

Saliva glands under stress (can create bleeding and contusions in the saliva glands)

Lower jaw, TMJ and hyoid tension and one of the key nerves exits here, close to the horses mouth; extra care should be taken if using, for example, a chain on a Pelham bit, and not have the chain too tight

Line of vision is compromised

Flexing at the wrong vertebraemisaligned between axis and 3rd vertebrae causing inflammation and over time possible arthritis

Fixed neckburning muscles contracted muscles tight [and hindered] shoulder movement, hindered forward motion and hindered engagement; repetitive strain.

“Tension is counterproductive to effective balance and the harmony of free movement.”