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Saddle Pressure and Performance

Unlocking the connection between saddle pressure and your horse’s physical response is vital. Saddle fitting expert PAULA JEFFERY explains how pressure can adversely impact performance.

Horse owners are becoming more aware of the importance of correct saddle fit, and even recognise some of the elements of fitting that professional saddle fitters look for. Most understand the gullet angle of the saddle should match the horse’s trapezius area, that it’s important the saddle doesn’t go beyond T18 (the last rib), and may recognise a saddle that’s bouncing at the back when the horse moves.

But just because your saddle doesn’t cause soreness, and your horse doesn’t buck, refuse to be caught, or try to bite you when you girth up, doesn’t necessarily mean that your saddle is a good fit!

Saddle fit is critical, and there are some important concepts to understand surrounding saddle design, pressure on muscles and joints, and the influence they have on the way the horse moves – his biomechanics. Let’s look at some examples:

The Lazy Horse 

This horse is hard to get moving forward. He doesn’t listen well to the leg, takes a long time to warm up, seems to have a poor work ethic, and may even drag his back feet. If he does dressage, comments might include ‘needs to go more forward’ or ‘not tracking up’.

He may not be well muscled over his hindquarters but has overbuilt muscle on his loin behind the saddle. He tends to rest a hind leg frequently, might drop his back when hosed after working, or be sensitive to a brush over his back. And getting him to strike off into canter? That’s a labour of love!

But is he really lazy? We know that a horse’s ‘engine’ is in his hindquarters. This is where the impulsion comes from. The hind legs have two primary actions: they can push forward, or they can bend to carry more weight, or do both when jumping.

For him to execute either of these actions with maximum force and energy, he must be able to lift and round through his lower back, engage his core and bring his hind legs underneath him. The impulsion created behind is transferred along his lifted back and forehand and out the front, into our reins.

Moving with impulsion: the horse lifts and rounds the lower back, engages the core and brings their hind legs underneath them, transferring energy along the lifted back and forehand and out into the reins.

However, if the saddle balance is rearward and puts pressure under the cantle, or the panel shape is too angular, or the channel too narrow, the horse will experience heavy pressure and his reaction will be to dip away from it, dropping his back and tilting his pelvis forward. In this position his hind legs are disengaged. They’re further out behind him and don’t have the same pushing power (impulsion). Neither can he bend his joints properly, causing him to drag his hind feet and be difficult to collect. His back needs to lift under the rider to push energy forwards, which cannot happen if there’s extreme pressure under the cantle.

A forward tilting pelvis causes the back to drop and the hind legs to disengage.

It’s not that our ‘lazy’ horse does not want to go forward, he actually cannot – and sadly, we often treat this behaviour as a training issue, rather than considering saddle fit.

The Puller 

This horse is difficult to get on the bit, or they pull. They’re inconsistent in rein contact, throw their head up in canter transitions, or run into downward transitions. Halt can be a pain, with them either falling on the forehand, or opening their mouth against the rein aid and lifting their heads. This may be the horse that drops jumping rails with his front legs, frequently refuses or runs out, and will often be on the receiving end of a tighter noseband or stronger bit.

But let’s think about the mechanics of how a horse goes on the bit. He has a series of tendons, muscles and ligaments between his front legs, the thoracic sling, that help him lift his torso up. His whole rib cage, with all those heavy internal organs, is lifted and supported by the thoracic sling.

The horse’s torso is lifted and supported by the thoracic sling.

Horses carry more weight on their front limbs than their hind, and if he sinks his torso down away from saddle pressure on his wither pockets or shoulders, he’s even more on the forehand.

With his weight and yours travelling onto his front legs, he has two options to prevent himself from falling on his face: He can either transfer more weight to his hindquarters, which requires him to lift and round through his back so he can bend more in the joints of his hind legs and ‘sit’ more behind. Or, he can lift his head and neck to try and re-balance himself, which throws his weight backwards and drops his back – the very things we don’t want!

To avoid pain or injury, all animals’ bodies instinctively move away from pressure. This very reaction is what allows us to train our horses. But the wrong pressure on muscles, ligaments and joints from a saddle, creates a physical reaction in the horse that they cannot easily control.

Under pressure

The front of the saddle includes a lot of the rigid components – the gullet or head plate, the stirrup bar and the first girth point. If these areas aren’t perfectly designed for your horse’s unique skeletal and muscular conformation, they will produce excessive pressure, causing the horse to dip away: contracting through the wither pockets, dropping down through the thoracic sling, being on the forehand, going ‘hollow’ and having to lift his head as a result.

If a horse sinks his torso down to avoid saddle pressure, the tendency to be on the forehand is increased.

This horse cannot easily maintain being on the bit, cannot lift his back and drop his head for smooth upwards and downwards transitions, or properly bascule over jumps. And he becomes anxious when jumping because he knows he’ll experience saddle pressure when he lands.

Take home message 

Once we understand how saddle pressure can affect the way muscles, ligaments and joints function, we unlock a whole new perspective on training and riding.

It’s a very exciting time in saddle design and fitting, and science is leading the way. We now have diagnostic equipment that measures and analyses different saddle design elements, pressure distribution, and the effect increased pressure has on muscle performance and joint rotation. And as we learn more, we can continue to do better for the sake of our horses.

Visit Paula and her team at www.performancesaddlefits.com.au