Question: I have a purebred Arabian with a very upright neck. He has a very low back that goes down about seven inches at the lowest point. To make it worse, he also has a short back. He has been a national champion and has several other national titles and is worth the time and effort to figure out what to use to fix the problem. When I brought him home from the trainer's about two months ago his withers, neck and back were so sore he would pin his ears even if you touched him in those areas. I have been getting him weekly massages, and he has made vast improvement. Under saddle, he tries to be good, but pins his ears and wrings his tail. I need to find a saddle pad that is built up in the middle to take the pressure off his withers and point of his back. I have also heard you can have air, pump-up panels put on the saddle (he uses a wide tree cutback saddle). Any suggestions? I have included a picture of him in the show ring so you can get a visual. --Taylor Thompson
Answer: Here you have an extreme version of a fairly common problem. Your horse was telling you that he was very sore, and you correctly got him some massage to help alleviate the pain. This confirms that he is in pain and will be happier when he is better. Many horses get very grumpy or sour when they hurt--massage, acupuncture, chiropractic and stretching can all help correct the pain part of the equation.
Now we need to fix the cause of the problem, which is a bit more complex. The most important stretch you can do is lots of belly lifts. Here you tickle or put pressure on the midline where the girth goes and ask him to raise his back. Be careful, many horses find this painful and will kick or bite. If this is painful, you need a chiropractor who knows how to work on the rib cage. You can go to www.animalchiropractic.org or www.thehealingoasis.com and look for a practitioner in your area and ask if they work on the rib cage.
You are correct in thinking that you need to fill in the center of the saddle to give him some more support. However, his back has dropped down in large part due to his pain; he is trying to get away from the pressure of the saddle as well as pain in his muscles. The cutback saddles have several problems that are hard to get away from. I cannot see from the picture exactly what the panels of the saddle look like, but most have a very thin panel (photo 1).
Photo 2 shows an ideal panel with plenty of space in the gullet for the spine to sit without any pressure. Thin panels allow the hard parts of the tree to contact the horse's spine (the hard part of bone down the middle of the back). This area has no padding, so even a little tapping of the saddle will hurt a lot. Very often the weight of the rider just moving in the saddle a little bit will cause this pressure or contact. The horse then starts to drop his back down. As time goes by the back drops further.
The next issue is at the front end. Since the panels are very thin, there is little cushion on each side of his withers to protect him from the hard tree (photo 3). Many cutback saddles either pinch on the sides of the withers or, even though they are supposed to miss the withers, they contact the withers at the back of the cutback part of the tree where it is hard to see (photo 4). As the back drops down more, the pressure increases at each end, which makes the back drop more. Many Arabians and Saddlebreds have a back that seems to be genetically weaker and tends to drop easily, even with minimal pain, and if pain is present, the back drops even more.
The next difficulty is that the trees and panels tend to be very flat in shape, and most horses have some degree of curve to their back. Your horse has a more extreme downward curve, but finding a show saddle that will follow his shape will be difficult. My book on English saddle fit applies to saddle seat saddles 100 percent, the pictures are just not what you are used to looking at.