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Wrangling on the Range #79

Could be the Saddle

                        WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #79


The signs of poor saddle fit can be subtle,
A reader shares her eyeopening experience,

by Shelley Goodwin

As a child, I loved my red rubber boots. They were so
comfortable, I wore them everywhere. One day a blister developed
on my big toe from where it had started to rub against my boots.
I put on a pair of thicker socks. But this made them harder to
put on. They were tighter and not as comfortable. As the weeks
passed they became even tighter until eventually I could no
longer get them on. Yes, I had outgrown my favourite boots. As an
adult, I understand this concept of outgrowing clothes and shoes.
So how did I miss it when my saddle began to stop my
four-year-old mare's development?

Signs of poor saddle fit

Yes, there were signs, lots of them in fact, but I attributed
them to other things. In hindsight I realize I did not know what
to look for, and I have come to learn I am not the only equine
enthusiast who does not know when a saddle truly fits a horse. If
my horse had developed saddle sores, like my toe, I would have
realized the saddle was the culprit. But, no, the clues were more
subtle than that. She did not like to take her right lead but I
thought that was a training limitation of mine. My normally sweet
and curious mare was becoming a bit cranky, and a bit of a snoot
but I thought that was because fall had arrived and we were
riding less with the time change and early nightfall. She did not
like being groomed around her withers and barrel. She even tried
to nip me which she has not done since a youngster learning the
rules. It was very out of character, but I attributed it to less
pasture time. She stopped trotting up to the gate whenever I
approached the field. There was no doubt: over a span of two
months her personality was changing, but none of these changes
suggested to me her saddle was the problem.

The value of an expert opinion

During this time in the late fall, several people I knew were
having a saddle fitting workshop and asked that I join them for
the day. Unfortunately, I could not attend due to other
commitments. After the workshop they spoke of all they had
learned and suggested I might find it educational. So in January
when things had slowed down a bit, I contacted the saddler and
asked if she could assess my saddles and their fit to my mare.
Both were all purpose Stubbens with one being very well used, the
one I usually rode in, while the other was a newer model. Both
were considered wide by Stubben standards.

The saddle fitter checked the saddles for soundness and made
suggestions, where appropriate, but also to educate those
watching. She then moved over to begin her thorough examination
of the horse. She immediately noted the concaveness of my mare's
cervical trapezius muscle (the one that originates on the spine
of the shoulder blade and extends forward up the neck behind the
withers). Subsequently, I have learned that horses that are
trying to pull their shoulders down and away from a pinching
saddle will frequently have atrophy in this area. However, what
can also happen, as in my case, is that a too narrow saddle stops
the muscle from developing as the horse grows and changes.
After a complete assessment it became obvious that I had missed
the signs of a poorly fitting saddle. For the same money as a
visit from the farrier, I now had the information to stop the
pain and suffering my mare was trying to tell me she was

Assessing horse, human and saddle

Unlike my rubber boots that were the garden-variety and purchased
at a local value store, my saddle was a fairly expensive saddle.
I purchased it because I wanted quality. I knew I needed a wide
saddle but did not realize that what is considered wide or extra
wide with one brand of saddles does not mean that it fits a horse
I would consider wide, such as a warmblood, draft/thoroughbred
cross, or more specifically, my Canadian. However, I soon learned
that it is not just the quality or width that is important. In
fact, many aspects of the saddle, horse and rider must be
considered together to make a good fit for all.

Frequently, you can find lists that note the main points of
saddle fitting, however, I struggled to understand how to put all
this information into practical use. It seems that the piece that
is frequently missing from this information, if it does
adequately cover the horse anatomy and the saddle "anatomy", is
the human anatomy. We humans are not all created the same. Pelvis
width (a male pelvis is narrower than a female's), thigh length,
and other physical char ac-teristics are all important
considerations when choosing a  a saddle that will fit the rider
comfortably. And as an "amature rider", I must add that I seem to
be more and more conscious of comfort. Failure to consider all
these points - saddle fitting may mean the saddle fits the horse
but leaves the rider uncomfortable.

Assess the assessor

Like the industry that will give you a university degree in two
or three months of "study" there are programs that provide
"certification" in saddle fitting by providing weekend courses.
So if you are considering having a saddle fitter assess you and
your horse, you need to be aware of his or her credentials. The
Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) is a reputable and highly
recognized British society that ensures all saddlers and fitters
have completed extensive and high quality training before
achieving their certification as a Master Saddler. They are
considered the gold standard of saddlers internationally. In
Canada there are two Master Saddlers who have been certified by
the Society of Master Saddlers in the United Kingdom. In Canada
we also have several saddle fitters who have achieved
certification. You can view the list of certified people at We are fortunate to have a certified
saddle fitter and saddler in Nova Scotia


Canadian SMS members include: Master Saddlers Rachel Argo, of
Aylesford, NS, and David Nangreave, of Chatsworth, ON and
Qualified Saddle Fitters Krysti Ahrens, of Saskatoon, SK, Geoff
Bahr, of Homby, ON and Karen Wong, of Calgary, AB.

Small investment, big reward

Most who own a horse recognize the value of having a professional
farrier come and do their horses fopt every sixto eight weeks.
But how many also recognize the value in having a saddle fitter
come and fit a saddle to a horse? Let's face it, most of us think
nothing of throwing a saddle on a horse, making sure the girth is
tight, adjusting the stirrups and off we go. If it does not quite
fit right then we add a thicker or thinner saddle pad to make it
"fit better". Having been around horses for many years, I have
seen this frequently. What I have not heard frequently is, "this
saddle does not fit, let's call the saddler."

Within two months of using a properly fitted saddle, my mare's
trapezius muscle is beginning to develop. She is beginning to
return to her young, curious self. The change in eight weeks is
remarkable. Yet I cannot help but wonder how many other horses
are out there who are cranky and grumpy because they are in pain
from a poorly fitting saddle. Is your horse one of them? How many
riders stop or ride less frequently because of discomfort? Are
you one of them? Saddle fitting is for both you and your horse.
You are both worth having the pleasure and comfort of pain-free

Shelley Goodwin lives in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. She lives with
her husband and an increasing number of their "Little horses of
iron" - Canada's National heritage horse.

Besides the changes I have already noted in  my horse, here are
some other signs that may suggest your horse saddle fit problems:

Bites or acts up when saddled or girthed 
Bucks or kicks when under saddle
White hair or bumps under the saddle 
Wont stand still when mounted
Improper muscle tone
Trouble with collection or taking the correct lead
Has difficulty with lead changes 
Rushes fences
Cold backed/stiff

Consider how well your saddle fits your body if you are
experiencing any of the following:

Pelvis pain 
Sore knees
Lower back pain

To be continued

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