The Silent "Ouch"

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When we see a horse with a stack of pads between the saddle and his back, it seems amazing to recall pictures from decades back when English horses didn’t wear pads at all. But back then, they were more of one consistent “type,” a slender Thoroughbred.

Today, a hunter/jumper trainer will go from a warmblood built like a table top to a Thoroughbred built like a fence rail to a crossbred built somewhere in between. He may use the same saddle on each one.

Western saddles have a high gullet that will fit a wide range of toplines, but the outline of an English saddle follows the contours of the horse’s back more closely. A dressage rider will drive herself nuts trying to find a saddle that will be perfectly comfortable for her horse, even if it doesn’t feel so wonderful for herself. Dressage riders consider the horse’s comfort more important than their own, but this is purely pragmatic. If the horse’s back is sore, they’re quickly forced to become pedestrians. Most dressage riders with more than one horse have a saddle for each one.

Hunter/jumper riders, on the other hand, usually have one saddle that fits the rider perfectly and that goes from horse to horse, often with an elaborate arrangement of protective pads to fill in the gaps.

This doesn’t always make sense. Yes, the rider must have a saddle that helps him feel secure over fences. But we’ve seen too many horses in forward-seat saddles with withers problems, more so than with other riding styles. A saddle used on warmbloods may eventually spread too wide for many Thoroughbreds.

These horses would be screaming “ouch,” if they could. Instead, they sink down if you touch their backs. When ridden, their heads go up or they twist their necks when the rider posts. They won’t do clean changes and they often start stopping in front of jumps.

The analogy to a pair of tight shoes is often made, but it bears repeating. If shoes are too tight, adding thick socks makes them hurt more, not less.

Take a look at your horse. If he’s constantly twisting his head, then his withers may be sore from a tight saddle. Look at your saddle. If there’s more than a thin pad for dirt/sweat plus a moderate-sized pad for protection, then the saddle isn’t really designed to be on your horse’s back. If your horse isn’t hurting now, he will be later.

-Margaret Freeman