As riders, we tend to evaluate a horse’s level of fitness by assessing their topline, but what is often misunderstood is that the state of a horse’s topline goes far beyond training alone.
Envision a circle centered around your horse, divided into a minimum of eight equal segments. Each of these segments represents an influence with an interconnected impact on the horse. Any changes by one of these influences, whether positive or negative, will ripple through the others, affecting the three-dimensional back shape of the horse, commonly referred to as the horse’s topline. This is called The Circle of Influence (Figure 1).
Through seamless collaboration among the various influences represented in the circle, the overarching goal of the Circle of Influence should be to maintain the horse’s health long-term, both physically and emotionally.
As riders, most of us long for a harmonious partnership with our horses and good saddle fit plays a crucial role in achieving that. No matter your discipline of choice, your saddle, as the interface between you and your horse, plays a vital role in your ability to communicate and perform together as a team. The fit of the saddle to you and your horse allows for freedom of movement, clear and pain-free communication, and protection for both of you against long-term, irreparable musculoskeletal and psychological damage.
As one segment within the circle, the goal of saddle fitting is to allow horse (and rider) to move free from pain and discomfort. Saddle fitting aims to prevent damage to the horse’s musculoskeletal system, by avoiding pressure on reflex points and ensuring optimal distribution of the rider’s weight on the horse’s back. At it’s core, saddle fitting is quite simple; a saddle should sit on muscle and not interfere with bones, tendons, ligaments and nerve endings.
But because it is supported by muscle, once the horse’s musculature changes, meaning a change in the horse’s top-line occurs, it is imperative that the fit of the saddle is confirmed to maintain comfort during riding.
The fit of your saddle should be evaluated at least once annually, with more frequent assessments for developing youngsters, or horses who’s topline has undergone changes as a result of changes of one or more segments within its Circle of Influence.
But how do I know once it’s time to check the fit of my saddle?
The art of observation – Horses, as flight animals, are adept at concealing pain.
In the wild, where only the strongest and fittest survive, showing weakness is a death sentence, making horses notoriously stoic and experts at hiding their discomfort. Your horse may only display signs of discomfort when his suffering has become intolerable. As his caretaker, it is your duty to be observant and proactive to ensure problems are recognized well before they have the potential to cause serious damage, possibly ending your horse’s riding career.
But how do we become more observant? And what should we be paying attention to?
Taking a little bit of extra time during grooming can go a long way towards this goal. Try to get in the habit of taking a close look at your horse’s back each time you groom. Has his back shape changed? Do you notice any muscle atrophy (Figure 1)? Are there any new lumps or bumps along the spine, around the withers (Figure 2), or in the saddle support area?
While paying attention to the subtle physical changes in your horse’s topline, make sure to observe your horse’s demeanor as well. How does he react when you start tacking up? Does he flinch, grind his teeth, pin his ears, and threaten to bite you? How does he behave when you tighten the girth? Does he stand well at the mounting block or does he give you a hard time getting on? How is your warm-up? How does your horse behave while riding? Does he buck or rear (Figure 3)?
And most importantly, does he exhibit several of these behaviors? Do you notice a trend?
Ensuring the right fit
Early identification of saddle fitting issues can protect your horse from prolonged discomfort and long-term damage. Understanding equine anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics in relation to saddle fit, is important and will help you maintain your horse’s back health.
Unfortunately, saddle fitting and manufacturing is a largely unregulated industry in North America, and equestrians are confronted with a myriad of saddle fitting philosophies claiming to be the best of the best and sales-driven saddle reps that don’t have the horse’s best interest in mind. Navigating this saturated market of saddle fitting experts can be a challenge.
In order to do what is best for your horse, follow the science and look for a saddle fitter who follows an approach rooted in equine- and human anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics.
Regardless of your discipline of choice, your horse’s age, breed or condition of their topline, their anatomy, physiology and biomechanics are fundamentally the same.
Saddlefit 4 Life® exemplifies this approach by providing research-based education, with the goal of protecting both horse and rider from damage caused by ill-fitting saddles through education.
It’s not about brand-specific fitting or promoting a brand. It’s not about overcomplicating saddle fitting and leaving riders more confused than when they started. It’s about learning to identify saddle fit issues early. It’s about being able to identify the horse’s unique needs and the rider’s and being able to look at a saddle and determine whether it is hitting any of the reflex points it should avoid. It’s about preventing avoidable injuries, pain and lameness and advocating for the horse.
Saddlefit 4 Life’s education is available to everyone, regardless of riding level, show career, or discipline, and offers various levels of self-paced learning to allow students to customize their education to their needs.
On the Saddlefit 4 Life website, you can also find certified professionals who are not necessarily affiliated with a specific saddle brand, but rather assess saddle fit with the horse’s anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics in mind and can give you an unbiased assessment of the fit of your saddle.
A horse’s topline will change numerous times throughout its lifetime as a result of factors within the Circle of Influence. As a responsible caretaker of the horse(s) in your life, be observant and most importantly, listen. Early detection of a problem is the key to preserving your horse’s physical and psychological well-being.
Horses don’t consciously behave badly — they react to outside stimuli.
If your horse is communicating with you through unwanted behavior, investigate the cause of his behavior and address it – after all, his physical and psychological well-being is in your hands.
By Julia Alebrand
Julia Alebrand’s journey with horses began at a young age, fueled by a profound love for horses. First as a rider, competitor and horse owner, eventually deciding to pursue her passion academically, through the University of Guelph’s Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management program with a focus on Equine Management.
It was during her undergraduate years that Julia’s path intersected with Saddlefit 4 Life. Engaging in a research project supported by the company, she uncovered a deep-seated passion for equine and rider anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics, particularly in the context of saddle fit. This prompted Julia to delve deeper into this specialized field, eventually attaining certifications as a Certified Equine Ergonomist and a Certified Saddle Ergonomist.
Julia’s professional journey is defined by her genuine commitment to enhancing the well-being of both horses and riders, advocating for a scientific approach to saddle fitting. While Julia derives immense satisfaction from imparting her knowledge to horse owners. Her mission extends beyond individual cases; she aspires to contribute to the global improvement of equine health and welfare through education and a meticulous focus on saddle fit.