Question: I have a 6-year-old Oldenburg mare. During a trailer loading experience she fell over backwards after slipping on a patch of ice. She broke five of her sinuous processes (basically her withers were crushed). After eight months of rest she should be ready to go back to work. I have looked for various solutions to getting my dressage saddle to fit well when that time comes. What is the best option besides having a saddle custom fit? If my current saddle is custom fit it will have to be refit after a few months when her muscle starts to rebuild; in remote areas it is hard to find a good dressage saddle fitter. I have read some about treeless saddles, but I need more information about my options given her lack of withers to hold the saddle in place. The rest of her back is okay and has a good shape to it with good shoulders. Is it possible to use different saddle pad options?
Answer: Broken withers are actually a fairly common injury with horses and generally do not cause long-term issues with performance or saddle fit.
The withers are bony processes that stick up from the top of the actual spine. The skeleton photo shows this, and by chance the withers were cropped out of the photo, in a similar fashion to seeing what broken withers might look like from the inside. Since the withers themselves do not have joints, breaking off the tips does not cause joint pain or inhibit movement. However, due to the trauma involved with breaking the bones, it is advisable to have a trained veterinary chiropractor check the movement between these processes (see links page for locating one near you). After the withers have broken, there can be scar tissue or nearby areas affected that make it hard for a horse to lift his back and move through the withers (the goal many of us try to achieve by our riding). The chiropractor can loosen the area and restore motion to all the joints of the spine that might be secondarily impacted. Occasionally a piece of bone may fill the spaces between the processes rubbing on the next ones in line and cause a long-term problem, but this is quite rare.
When it comes to fitting the saddle, here is the anatomy so you can understand what has happened. The pieces of the bones usually are pushed or crushed to one side or the other, leaving one side slightly or significantly thicker than the other. However, most wither fractures occur at the highest points, which are at numbers T3 to T5 or T6--the horse has 18 ribs with 18 processes numbered T1-T18. We cannot see the first 2 to 3 processes, and the shoulder blades cover the next 4-6 processes. You can see in the photo of the horse with the skeleton drawn on that the 4 withers processes (T3-T6) are over the shoulder blade. The saddle (and all saddles, no matter what type) should sit behind the shoulder blades (see my books on saddle fit and new saddle website www.saddlefitinfo.com).
Your horse broke 5 processes so she may have some thickening behind the shoulder blade, but in all except the worst cases, a saddle with a decently wide gullet or center should miss the thick area. If the thickened area goes into the muscle on one side of the back and causes the saddle to slide a bit to one side, it is possible to cut a small area out of the front of the saddle pad (if you use a felt or closed cell foam pad) to give some relief of pressure. My books show how this can work with a bulging shoulder, but the same principles apply.
Your concern is that there are no withers to "hold" the saddle on. If you have placed the saddle in the correct position behind the shoulder blade you find very little effect in most cases, since the saddle will sit in its natural spot and the shape of the back will hold it in place. Generally a well-fitted saddle will stay in place with a loose girth (even on 100-mile rides up and down mountains--but I do not recommend you try this). Once you know the saddle fits correctly, and you still have a problem with it slipping, you can add a thin, sticky, non-slip pad of which there are many on the market. With an English saddle, you want a very thin pad so as to not interfere with the fit, while a Western pad can be a bit thicker (usually wool felt with a thin non-slip is my preference). In extreme cases, a breastplate may be needed to help stabilize the saddle. This should be adjusted just tight enough to give support to the saddle, but still allow the horse freedom in his shoulders.