Many people do not think about how important their horse's saddle is when it comes to the horse's ability to move correctly. The saddle may feel comfortable to you while you're riding, but is it comfortable for your horse?
As a horse moves when wearing a saddle, their scapula (shoulder) bone needs to be able to rotate back. When the saddle is too tight over the withers, it will prevent the scapula from achieving its full range of motion. The horse then needs to compensate by short stepping in the front and modifying their neck position. When the saddle is too wide, it can put pressure over the withers and will also cause pain in the lower thoracic and lumbar spine. Over time this will lead to body tightness, pain and discomfort, similar to a person wearing shoes that do not fit correctly.
Horses that are forced to work in a saddle that doesn't fit optimally will often develop attitude problems including pinning their ears back and biting when being saddled, reluctancy to move forward when saddled, atrophied top line (due to a reduction in blood flow along the back when saddled) and uncharacteristic grumpiness when being worked.
So, what can you do?
If you ride in an english saddle, you can have a saddle fitter come out and evaluate your saddle. Most english saddle can be modified by reducing or increasing the flocking. If you ride western, you should also have your horse evaluated by a professional who can help you determine the type of saddle and padding that will work best for your horse.
Horses who are experiencing discomfort from wearing an ill fitting saddle should have bodywork along with correcting the saddle fit. Massage therapy and body alignment can improve range of motion and allow the horse to begin moving correctly with their new saddle. Many horses who have been worked for years in a saddle that doesn't fit will take time to realize that they do not have to modify their movement any longer. Working closely with an equine bodyworker can help your horse reduce their pain and improve their performance quicker.
Dr. Angelique Barbara is the founder of Angel's Animals LLC, a company that has developed online animal bodywork courses for both owners and professionals. Dr. Barbara's unique teaching style along with the dynamic layout of the courses allows people of different educational backgrounds from all over the world to benefit from her knowledge.