Question: I have six horses and cannot afford a saddle for each horse. To compensate for the different backs and the limited saddles I have I use different saddle pads or even double them to allow the saddles to fit to each specific horse. Is the use of various saddle pads a practical and appropriate approach to using my current saddles?
Answer: This is an excellent question and many readers, both Western and English, should find the answer useful. Most of us cannot afford multiple saddles so each horse can have its own. In my Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit books there is a chapter on the multiple horse issue. Hopefully you have at least two saddles that fit differently, three might be even better--a narrow, medium and wide fit. You will also want several pads, and ideally an adjustable set of shims with a pad. Shims are small pieces of pad material placed under different areas of the saddle.
Give each saddle and pad a number. Write the number on it, add a dog tag, sew it on the pad or whatever means of identification works for you. Then each horse gets a saddle and pad number, which can be changed as the horse changes.
Next take some time to figure out what saddle fits each horse the best. For those who have riding schools or different-sized people riding one horse, find a small and larger saddle for each horse. Now you can move to the pads and shims.
No pad will fix a poorly-fitting saddle, especially one that has pressure points or is much too wide. A too-narrow saddle cannot be fixed with any pad scheme. A Western saddle that is too long and places the rider's weight back onto the loins is difficult to fix, though occasionally you can make a pad shorter than the saddle to end at the last rib if you can do that without creating a pressure point.
Look at each horse's back for uneven muscling to see if you need a shim on just one side or part of one side. Western riders can find a useful shim system with the Equilizer/Skito pads or Thinline Western shims (sold by many tack shops). English riders can try the Mattes pad or the Thinline systems (both sold widely in tack stores). If you make or buy shims, be sure that the edges of the shims are beveled so you do not make new pressure points, and add them with care.
If the saddle is little bit too wide, shims can be added to the front 1/3 of the saddle. If the saddle bridges a bit, add something to the middle 1/3, and if it tilts down toward the back add a bit there (but be sure it is not tilting down at the rear due to it being too narrow in front).
For Western saddles, the most forgiving pad is a 1-inch thick all wool felt pad. This has qualities that no other pad has because it will absorb pressure points into the material. When you see the shape of the saddle coming through to the horse side, retire the pad and make it a dog bed, then get a new pad. This does not work as well with an English saddle.
If you pay attention to the details and remember that horses change shape with seasons of the year and work level, you can be quite successful at managing a group of horses. You may need to change saddles or pad combinations during the year. Some of your saddle selections may not be ideal, so be ready to adapt if behavior problems, lameness or back pain occur.
Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop, blog and Facebook page.
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