Book Excerpt: Recognizing Saddle Problems

What are the signs of pain caused by the saddle? A horse's physical symptoms, behavior problems and performance issues can all give clues.
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What are the signs of pain caused by the saddle? A horse's physical symptoms, behavior problems and performance issues can all give clues.

Editor's Note: In the July 2008 issue of Horse & Rider, we offered an exclusive excerpt from The Western Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book that helped readers evaluate saddle fit with a test ride. Here, Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS, offers a comprehensive list of indicators that a saddle is causing pain.

Physical Symptoms
The following symptoms provide direct evidence that a saddle has caused or is causing problems for your horse.

A sore under the saddle. Open sores are usually seen on endurance or trail horses, ranch horses, and other horses that are ridden for extended periods of time. Sores should always be considered serious and should be investigated promptly.

If you have used a saddle for a long time and suddenly discover an open sore, carefully check the bottom of the saddle. Sores can be caused by a broken tree, or perhaps a nail or staple that has worked its way loose and is digging into your horse's back. Also check your saddle pad for wrinkles or foreign objects, such as burrs.

White hairs in the saddle area appear as a result of inappropriate pressure from a saddle, and sometimes may be the only visual sign that a problem exists. The pressure alters the hair follicle, which then produces a white hair. White hairs can be subtle and often do not appear until a coat change occurs, either in spring or fall.

If the damage is limited and you correct the saddle-fit problem, the white hairs may disappear at the next coat change. However, if the white hairs reappear, it means you have most likely failed in correcting the problem. Be aware that if you buy a horse with permanent white hairs in the saddle area, he may have residual back pain originating from a poorly-fitting saddle.

Heat bumps. Temporary swellings that appear immediately after a saddle is removed, commonly referred to as "heat bumps," are often seen on endurance horses. They result from pressure created either by the saddle or the rider.

Scars or hard spots can occur on the skin surface or deep in the muscles on either side of the withers. Skin surface scars are most commonly seen on trail horses, but can occur on any horse in conjunction with any type of saddle. The scars deep within the muscle may not be apparent unless you feel into the muscle. The skin and sweat glands at these scars are often so damaged that even when the saddle fit is corrected, they may be areas that cannot sweat.

Saddle fit affects not only your balance and effectiveness as a rider, but can also lead to behavior and performance issues for your horse. | Photo by Cappy Jackson

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Muscle atrophy. Deep pockets or depressions on either side of the withers, or poor muscling over the entire back can indicate muscle atrophy. The pockets bordering the withers are frequently caused by saddles that are too narrow or by unnecessarily thick saddle pads that compress the withers. When a correctly fitted saddle is used, the atrophy process is reversed and these hollow areas will generally fill out. Sometimes muscle regeneration occurs quickly; other times it requires several weeks or months. In some cases, treatment for back pain and changes in training techniques are necessary before muscle atrophy will improve.

Friction rubs on the horse's hair are apparent when you remove your saddle after riding. Friction rubs can be sore, but are not always. They occur when the saddle moves too much from side-to-side, usually from incorrect cinch placement or uneven bars.

Behavior Or Performance Issues
Behavior or performance issues related to saddle-caused back pain are often assumed to be training problems. Due to this misunderstanding, the horse is usually "disciplined," trained more intensely, or even sold. When, and if, saddle fit is addressed and the source of pain is removed, these "training problems" are quickly resolved.

Behavioral Signs Of Back Pain
Resistance to saddling or cinching. If a horse objects to being saddled or cinched-up, he may be experiencing back pain. Most performance horses have sore backs to some degree, and many have pain originating from poor saddle fit. Often, when a properly fitting saddle is used, the protests desist.

Fidgeting. Many horses are unable to stand still or are fidgety when mounted. They will paw the ground when tied and dance around on the cross-ties. If your horse fidgets at mounting time, or in other situations, it might be because every time you mount, the shifting saddle jams him at the base or sides of his withers. (High-withered horses suffer the most often from this.)

Resistance to touch. A horse with sore back muscles is often hypersensitive to brushing. When a person has the flu and her whole body aches, she does not want anything to touch her skin--even clothes. Similarly, this horse will not want to be brushed or touched. A horse that is considered uncooperative or said to have a bad attitude about being handled or ridden, is often simply reacting to pain.

Resistance during shoeing. A horse with back pain has trouble standing with one leg up in the air and his back twisted, and is therefore often difficult to shoe. Misbehavior in this situation is often unfairly disciplined.

Bucking or rolling excessively. Some horses may try to relieve pain by bucking or rolling excessively in his field or stall.

Inactivity. Some horses are too sore to move at all in the pasture, and may indicate pain by inactivity and reluctance to move.

Unusual posture. A horse may consistently rearrange the bedding in his stall in order to stand in a particular way that lessens or alleviates pain, usually with either his front legs higher than his hind, or vice versa. He may even "sit" on his water bucket or feed tub.

Repetitive behaviors. A horse with back pain may exhibit annoying repetitive behaviors like pinning his ears, swishing or wringing his tail, grinding his teeth, or tossing his head.

Performance Problems Indicating Back Pain
Performance problems can range from a mild protest when mounted, to an episode as an unmanageable bucking bronco. Many, if not most, of the difficulties encountered when training challenging horses can be traced to back pain, and training becomes much more productive when the problem is resolved. You can learn a great deal about saddle fit by observing how the horse reacts when you ask for different movements and exercises.

Cold-back behavior. Some horses either sink down when being mounted or tighten and "hump" their backs during the first few minutes of riding. Others may actually buck early in the ride, then settle down after warming up. This is known as being cold-backed, however, it is always related to pain.

Stiffness. Some horses are very tense or stiff for the first part of the ride and appear to be slow to warm up or relax. Certainly, this may be due to arthritis or some other bone or joint pain, but often when back pain is discovered and the saddle fitted correctly, the problem disappears and the horse warms up easily.

Resistance. Many riders and trainers believe that all horses resist work at different stages in training and that some horses are just resistant by nature. This is simply not true. There are times when the horse may not know how to respond correctly when the messages or aids given by the rider are not clear--or when the horse is so sore that he refuses to move forward when asked, but it isn't the nature of horses to resist constantly. To be able to do as their riders or trainers wish, they must be unimpeded by pain.

If the front third of the saddle restricts the horse's shoulders or withers, he will be reluctant to stride out.

Lameness. Frequently, obscure rear leg lameness or stiffness originates in the back. Such lameness occurs because the hind legs cannot engage or come underneath the body with normal, strong movement. Instead, the hind legs tend to trail behind the horse. This causes excessive stress and concussion on the hind leg joints. Reluctance to use the back and hindquarters properly is caused by too much pressure from the back third of the saddle.

A horse that travels in a hollow-backed position from a back dysfunction hits the ground harder than a horse traveling with a free and loose back. Consequently, a hollow back can lead to heel pain, commonly assumed to be navicular. Conditions such as front leg lameness, and frequent stumbling or tripping can be the result of shoulder movement inhibited by the weight of the saddle and rider on the shoulder blades.

Spooking or lack of focus. A horse that shies excessively or displays a general lack of concentration on the rider and the aids is often in pain. This source of distraction manifests itself as a shortened attention span or as shying at every little thing.

Imbalanced movement. Many horses with back pain rush downhill in an unbalanced manner, usually on the forehand with a hollow back, a high head, and ewe neck, which stresses the front legs--particularly the suspensory ligaments. In addition, horses that pull themselves uphill with their front legs are generally unable to properly use their backs or hind legs. A hollow back leaves the hind legs trailing behind the horse, making a strong, upward push with the hind legs correctly underneath him impossible. When back pain is relieved, however, the horse will naturally balance himself on hills with his hind legs engaged, thereby decreasing the amount of stress on his front legs.

Traveling crooked. Some horses seem incapable of traveling in a straight line, even on flat ground, and are often much worse going downhill. A poorly fitting saddle, or a saddle with a twisted or broken tree, can cause this problem.

Inability to round. The horse that tends to travel on his forehand or is unwilling to become round and engage his hindquarters generally has back pain. If your horse is pinched or compressed somewhere in the front two-thirds of the saddle, he will be reluctant to lift his back and stretch his neck and head out and down.

When the horse's back is stiff or painful, he has difficulty maintaining a forward stride due to an inability to engage his hindquarters.

Transition problems. Faltering or resisting during transitions from jog to lope, and walk to jog, is a common symptom of back pain. Transition problems indicate pressure toward the back third of the saddle.

Bucking or rearing. A horse that bucks or rears regularly is often directly reacting to a painful saddle. Rearing, in particular, commonly results from pain near the withers that is caused, or aggravated by poorly fitted tack.

Many promising horses start their careers showing a great deal of speed, only to slow down as time goes by. Decreased speed turning barrels or in other timed events can sometimes be remedied by replacing a poorly fitting saddle and providing treatment for chronic back pain.

Turning issues. Horses with back pain are reluctant to start, stop and turn quickly, or may turn one way well but poorly the other way. Turning issues are due to discomfort, poor balance, or poor riding. Crooked saddles or riders cause horses to duck out of, or become unbalanced in turns.

Increasing resistance. Most horses will improve as they warm up, so a horse that increases resistance as the ride progresses usually has a saddle-fitting problem.

This article is excerpted from the book The Western Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book, in which Dr. Joyce Harman educates the reader about how several variables must be considered in order to keep the horse comfortable. To order, call 800-952-5813 or visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com.