First Choice Treeless saddles
 Riding Problems Created by Saddles

Don't Blame the Horse Check Your Saddle!

The following article first appeared in the 1993 edition of GaitWay / CELEBRATION magazine and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. Credit for the article is attributed to Victoria Varley, President of the Tiger Horse Registry. Please visit the website for photos and a detailed description of the Tiger horse breed.

The Tiger Horse Registry
Victoria & Mark Varley
39 Crazy Rabbit Road
Sante Fe, NM 87505

Tel: (505)438-2827
Fax: (505)438-2828

Email to: The Tiger Horse Registry

Victoria’s article is based largely on her expertise as a horse breeder and as a dedicated competitive endurance riding enthusiast.

The views expressed are Victoria’s independent opinion regarding saddle fit and should not be taken as an endorsement of the Sports Saddles or any other product.

Our intent is to provide horse lovers with essential information that deals with saddle problems. In this way, owners or riders can properly evaluate their horse’s signs and behavior as it relates to certain kinds of problems. As a result, you will know better what is causing your horse's problems and what you can do to improve riding comfort for both horse and rider.

Don't Blame the Horse Check Your Saddle!
Victoria Varley

Is your horse exhibiting any of the following problem signs?

1. Lameness, especially when being ridden?

2. Stubbornness or reluctance to ‘move out' especially at first?

3. Early fatigue or sweating too soon during a workout?

4. Stumbling on the trail even though the hooves are trimmed?

5. Consistently changing leads without permission?

6. Breaking into a lope or gallop especially when tired?

7. Colic, during or soon after a ride?

8. ‘Tying up' during a ride?

9. Bucking at the start of a ride or when going down a hill?

10. White spots (hairs) appear on either side of withers?

11. Traveling crooked as though looking behind or to one side?

12. Saddle role or slips to the side when you mount or dismount?

13. Horse walks off as rider mounts or dismounts?

14. A worried look, frowning or snarling, tight wrinkled lips?

15. Works happily alone not only if accompanied by another?

16. Stretches the neck and head down often while out riding?

17. Objects in some way or tries to bite you when cinching up?

18. Feels as though he’s stepped in a hole on a hind leg.

The list goes on and on. Of all the things that could be responsible for any or more of these signs, one of the first places I check is my saddle fit. Amazingly, most or all of these problems have been fixed on a variety of horses once the correct saddle is fitted.

As a distance rider, I know that this sport has been a great educator to the horse industry, directly contributing to the knowledge and understanding of equine metabolic functions and problems, hydration and energy needs, and equally important; the significance of a properly fitted saddle.

This very popular sport has gained international acclaim, enjoys participation from gifted competitors, scientifically minded veterinarians and equine sports medicine and tack enthusiasts as well as feed distributors from many, different countries around the world. I hazard a guess that no other horse event is as closely monitored as is endurance riding. Be it a professional or competitive person or animal rights activist, the study of the distance horse is internationally intense.

Competitors whose success and safety depends directly on the soundness, comfort and athletic ability of their beloved horses, cannot and do not, expect their horses to do well until all angles of the problem horse have been examined, discussed, prodded, trotted out and watered. This includes a great amount of anguishing until the perfect saddle has been strapped in place and, as if by magic, a total reversal in the horse's attitude and way of going can be observed.

Horses that have truly tested the theory of a good saddle fit, are those tough guys who travel up to 100 miles in one day under all sorts of rigorous and demanding conditions, or who participate in multi-day rides of 50 miles per day for up to 250 miles or more, carrying riders in three weight divisions with no maximum weight restrictions and who finish the event in sound condition, and then are pronounced by a qualified veterinarian, to be "fit to continue".

Most of these successful horses would not be able to complete these mammoth feats time after time, if they did not have proper fitting saddles on their backs, nor would they stay sound.

If there was ever any doubt that a saddle could be blamed for anything from lameness to colic, distance riders have put that doubt to rest. Individually, they probably purchase more saddles than most riders put together and literally spend thousands of dollars in search of the perfect fit.

There's no doubt about it. The saddle makers who come up with new and improved models year after year are answering a very necessary call for help. Sad to say, however lots of them are still using the old ill-fitting saddle trees which were intended for different horses; yesterday's horses, not today's well fed and better bred individuals.

The more I know about "saddles", the more convinced I am that "What's in a name?" is revealing indeed.

That is, I am sad to say that bad saddle fit can be blamed for a variety of problems with your horse, not to mention your own aches and pains after a ride. However, I am happy to assure you that help is at hand.

Not only is proper fit important, proper rider balance, which puts the rider automatically over the center of balance on the horse's back, is vitally important. An out of balance rider becomes quickly tired and then puts undue stress on a working horse forcing him to carry twice the load (dead weight) than he would if all things were equal.

These noble animals can't talk, or can they? Horses use sign language amongst each other and if you take the time to learn it you will be ahead of the game.

Sign 1: Horse goes lame. Problem appears to be in the shoulder.

Reason: Saddle too wide, interfering with shoulder movement causing muscle fatigue and eventual lameness.

Sign 2: Horse refuses to trot or gait for any length of time, preferring or insisting on breaking to lope, canter or pace in order to throw the rider off the correct lead, time and time again, then swishing or ringing his tail and ear swiveling.

Reason: Ill-fitting saddles cause discomfort. Horses try to move riders into more comfortable positions by changing gaits or leads and so shift the point of painful contact to a less irritated spot. Tail ringing/swishing is a definite sign of unhappiness or irritation. Laying back or swiveling his ears constantly could not be speaking more clearly. "Warning Please stop, this hurts".

Sign 3: Horse appears tired too soon or sweats too early into workout. If nervous by nature, acts more nervous under saddle than usual and perhaps shies for any excuse.

riding problems solved by using treeless saddles Reason: Look at the drawing accompanying this article then ask a friend to experiment with you in order to experience something of what your horse has to go through with an ill-fitting saddle.

Lightly but firmly lay your hands on either side of your friend's 'withers' and have him 'walk' forward. No problem right? Now put heavy pressure on at the same time digging your thumbs into your friend's back. "Ouch!" is the first thing you will hear.

Ask him to 'walk' forwards. If he can move his arms out from underneath him, it will be surprising. If he does manage to make any progress he will definitely complain loudly, swish his tail, lay back his ears, and possibly even buck you of. Try it for yourself. It is stressful trying to move, is it not?

Sign 4: Stumbling on the trail.

Reason: Saddle too tight across withers causing pinching or too wide causing interference with freedom of shoulder movement. Also, check your breast collar. It might be riding too high, cutting your horse's oxygen supply and the stumbling is an early warning that your horse is about to faint. Some horses pass out in these situations giving everyone a dreadful fright and possibly a nasty injury.

Sign 5: Consistently changing leads without permission.

Reason: The horse is uncomfortable at some point of contact from the saddle. Here again, the horse is trying to shift the pain to a less irritated area.

Sign 6: Breaking into a lope or gallop especially when tired. Refuses to gait for any definite of time.

Reason: Saddle fit not good. Lots of gaited horses won’t gait if they are uncomfortable. Saddle fit is just one area to blame. There could be lots of other reasons, but check the saddle first.

Sign 7: Colic during or soon after a ride,

Reason: When a horse experiences prolonged periods of discomfort he becomes stressed. We have tested the pulse of horses wearing ill-fitting saddles, then switched to comfortable saddles and found a remarkable drop in heart rate. Stressed horses may colic because of some factor other than bad saddle fit, but discomfort could well be the precursor that sets off the colicky episode.

Sign 8: Tying up during a ride.

Reason: Exactly the same as colic. A stressed horse tenses up. A tense horse is prone to tying up sooner than a relaxed horse.

Sign 9: Bucking at the start of a ride or when gong down hill.

Reason: Saddles that poke horses in the loin area cause them to buck. If the rider is lightweight, the horse may not object to the pressure point until he is asked to go down hill. At this point, not only is the saddle poking into his back but it is also sweeping from side to side across his loin causing irritating friction.

Sign 10: White hairs start appearing on your horse's back.

Reason: This is the absolute proof that your saddle does not fit properly. White spots usually appear because saddles are too narrow or not correctly shaped to your horse's back. If you do not change saddles for a better fit, the nerves in those areas will eventually die and the white unsightly marks will become permanent proof that your horse endures pain every time you ride.

Sign 11: Horse travels crooked, as if watching riders from behind.

Reason: A number of reasons could be responsible for this, but once again, the first place I look is at saddle fit. Usually if a saddle is ill fitting to begin, all you need is to have stirrup leathers unmatched in length to put undue pressure on one side of your horse's back. When you ride with uneven stirrups, even though your saddle might fit perfectly, you are shifting the points of even contact to an uneven weight distribution and therefore putting too much pressure on one spot instead of spreading the load.

The horse will always turn away from the pain. You can tell if he inclines his head and neck to the right that the painful area is on the left side of his spine and vice versa. Sometimes a horse refuses to travel straight looking or leaning sometimes to the right and at others to the left. This means he has pain on both sides or is objecting by trying to move away from the pain in both directions. A happy horse travels straight between your hands and your legs, as if between rails. This is his guide and a form of riding that helps build confidence in your horse. Experiment and see if I'm right.

Sign 12: Saddle rolls or slips to the side when you mount of dismount.

Reason: Horses with low or no withers have been blamed for slipping saddles but a saddle that fits properly will not slide on any horse, withers or no withers. Don't buy into the '"Your horse doesn't have any withers, so what do you expect?" excuse. Of course, if you haven't cinched or girthed up properly, your saddle may slip too.

Sign 13: Horse walks off as rider mounts and before rider is seated.

Reason: As you mount you put all your pressure in the stirrup on one side of your horses back. If the saddle is too narrow your horse will really feel the pressure point as it will dig in and he will be forced to walk out from under it because it hurts. Usually this is an indication that the saddle tree is angled incorrectly for your horse and a whole line of pressure pointing takes place during mounting. But, a single pressure point can cause this. Notice how once you are seated, he settles down. Unless of course the saddle continues to poke him in the back the whole time, in which case he will exhibit some of the signs already mentioned.

Sign 14: Your horse has a very expressive face, and if you observe closely, you will notice his displeasure or concern because he will frown, or wrinkle the skin around his mouth in a tight pressing together of the lips. Read and listen to these signs, they are there for good reason.

Sign 15: Does your horse work happily for you all of the time, moving out just as enthusiastically when you are alone on the trail, as he does when you are riding with friends.

Reason: If he does not, he is unhappy about something and its not necessarily because he doesn't have a friend along for the ride. Horses who are anxious because their friends turn around and leave without them usually settle down after a short while. However, a horse who is experiencing pain or discomfort will have to be kicked, prodded, smacked and any other forceful trick riders often resort to in order to get their mounts to go. When the horse realizes he is nearing home, he will gleefully work well, knowing the pain is going to stop soon.

Sign 16: When a horse stretches his neck and head down during a ride, he is trying to give his back muscles a rest, After a good workout, it is excellent to allow your horse to carry his head and neck in this way before putting him away. If your horse has a habit of doing this during a ride, he is talking to you again about his discomfort.

Sign 17: Does your horse try to bite you when cinching or girthing up? Does he object in some way by perhaps pinning his ears, pursing and wrinkling his lips and giving you the evil eye?

Reason: Try squeezing your own foot into a shoe that is too tight. Then tie the laces really snug and see what that feels like…need I say anymore on the subject? Here are some tests you can perform to see how your horse really feels about his saddle and rider: After a long ride, strip the saddle from your horse and allow him to cool out and dry off. Do not wash him down before the test, as wet horses sometimes act 'goosey' or ticklish when you examine them and you may not get an accurate reaction. Now run your fingertips gently but firmly down the horse's back. Use two hands so you can work all the way down either side of his spine. If he gives or buckles, or arches and squirms to the pressure at any point along the way, he is demonstrating an 'ouchy' spot even if his reaction is mild.

Now gently walk your fingers over his loin area where the saddle ends at the back. He is much more likely to show you a sensitive loin reaction if you are gentle than if you are too firm in the area. Usually, a sore loin is directly attributed to a poor saddle fit, basically in the length of the bars. Bars are the strips of wood inside the saddle, which run down either side of the horse's back. However, lots of down hill work will sore a horse as well, especially if the saddle doesn't fit, because it rocks from side to side, causing a rubbing movement. If the bars are too long they work back and forth over the horse's loin and it becomes very sensitive to the touch.

Try rubbing one spot on your tough old sun-hardened arm and see how quickly this irritates you. The same thing is happening to your horse's back. If he gives to heavy or too firm tickling pressure, this does not necessarily mean he has a sore back. You would buckle too, if tickled or poked hard enough down the muscles in your back. However, this can be an indicator that something is about to become sore, both in horse and rider. If you feel your saddle fits properly, the pad may be the problem. Change pads between rides and see if he is happier with downhill work. I like to use pads of varying length so the same spot is not consistently rubbed ride after ride.

Sign 18: Sometimes your horse may give on a hind leg, as if he stepped in a hole. This could be a problem in the patella ligament area (back leg knee tendons) but more often than not, the saddle poked him in the loin causing him to buckle for an instant. This can set up a trigger reaction and cause the medial patella ligament to actually get hung momentarily on those large rear 'knees' because of the way he dipped his back at that moment. I am just guessing on this point, but I have had lots of experience in this department and when my horses are fitted out with a properly fitted saddle, they don't "step in anymore holes".

OK! All of the above problems could be caused from lots of other reasons, but 'I’ll lay London to a brick", as they say in London, if any or most of these problems are not in some way related to an ill-fitting saddle and an unbalanced rider.

None of us intentionally sore or want to cause our horses pain. But, until your horse has been fitted with a comfortable saddle you may never know what a truly marvelous horse you own. If he is uncomfortable, he will not gait consistently or work happily for you. Instead, he will identify being caught in the field with a sore or uncomfortable experience and run or try to avoid being caught.

He may sour his ears during a ride, especially when moving into the lope or when you are sitting the extended trot, or when 'two, point' riding, as in endurance when riders actually stand up in the stirrups for better balance during a flying trot.

Stress and the ailing horse: Because our horses are so very strong and so patient, they put up with discomfort much longer than we can, but the discomfort will eventually result in a highly stressed horse. Stress in turn leads to a variety of ills and ailments, including colic, tying up, and all of the above.

You have only to take note of what happens to your own body after stress. Muscles bind up in the strangest places, from your legs to your shoulders, not to mention the headaches and the soreness you feel in your neck muscles, all because you felt unhappy or stressed. Feeling stressed or unhappy was all it took for your body to start developing resistance. Imagine if you were also carrying a heavy load and your shoes were too small. How would you react? You'd be unpleasant to be around to say the least. You'd probably run away, kick, or bite somebody too!

In 1986, when I represented the USA and competed in the first World Championships 100 Miles In One Day Endurance Race, I was using a famous brand-name dressage saddle. My wonderful 14.3 hands Arabian mare "Miss Lexa' traveled all those miles without really letting me know she was in pain. Or perhaps, I was too stupid in those days to recognize the symptoms, or lacked the ability to read the body language. When I took her saddle off each time we stopped at a veterinarian checkpoint, she had two mysterious circles or patches of dry hair on either side of the withers. I didn't realize that these were signals that my saddle did not fit. Nor, did I know that in time, those two circles would eventually become white spots where the nerves had died, numbing the area and enabling her to travel without feeling the pain.

After purchasing just about every well-known name brand saddle, and a few others to boot, I finally gave up trying to find the perfect fit. Now I own 18 horses and help others to fit saddles to today's healthier, bigger, fitter and better fed horses. The saddle trees I came across during my search for the perfect fit were archaic to say the least, and belonged in a museum, but not on today's bigger boned animals. Of course there are a lot of very good trees on the market and lots of people are very happy with their saddles. I am trying to help those of you, who like myself, have experienced one or more of the aforementioned problems.

Fix the problem! Ride and smile! Mile after mile after mile!

Victoria Varley