A couple of months ago, my part loan, the gorgeous Roo, got a new saddle. He had been suffering from what we can call “back pain”, due to a saddle that didn’t fit him anymore. It can be really difficult to know if your horse is in pain, lazy, or misbehaving… So I thought I’d share with you some of the signs a horse can display when the saddle starts hurting!
There’s many ways that a horse can show you that the saddle doesn’t fit. It is your role, as an owner or a rider, to keep an eye out for those signs. The list below is non-exhaustive, but explains the most common ways a horse can try to show you that the saddle is hurting him. Of course, taken separately, these behaviours can be signs of other issues, including dysfunctions. It’s all about looking at the big picture and making an informed decision, and if in doubt, there are many professionals that you can call for advice. So, let’s start:
Constant loss of rhythm
This is probably the first one you might notice, as a rider. It’s most likely to happen in the trot, but I’ve seen horses doing it in the walk as well, more rarely in canter. The excessive pressure or tightness of the saddle will cause pain by constantly stimulating the nociceptors (pain receptors) within the fascia of the muscles. When you start trotting, the pain makes your horse to constantly try to slow down, no matter what you do. You might use your whip, your legs might constantly be on, or you might be tempted to start using spurs to force your horse to keep the rhythm. It happened to Roo, and I constantly had to keep my leg on, otherwise he would slow right down. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to that one. Once again, this can be caused by several things, but if your horse does that, make sure you take a look at saddle. Better safe than sorry!
Muscle atrophy around the spine.
This is THE sign. If you ride your horse regularly, he shouldn’t start losing muscle mass. A muscle, in general, needs space to contract, and the muscles of the back can rise up to an inch when contracting. What happens with a saddle that doesn’t fit, is that the pressure of the saddle stops the muscle from rising and changing shape, therefore stopping blood from flowing, causing not only a lack in oxygen and nutrient, but also an accumulation of lactic acid and other metabolic wastes. This means that the muscle cannot develop or increase its mass, and will cause atrophy with time, your horse being unable to use its muscles properly! So take a step back, and look at your horse. Can you see the shape of the saddle even if you haven’t ridden yet? Do the muscles behind the shoulder seem to disappear, making your horse look bony? If so, have your saddle checked!
Coughing when you start riding
This is a very common sign, yet it’s pretty rare that people actually put 2 and 2 together. Most of the time, riders will think it’s an allergy or a reaction to the dust in the school. Of course this can be the case, but keep in mind that a horse can also cough from poor saddle fitting. What happens is that the saddle can put pressure on reflex points in the back that start the action of coughing. The tightness around the junction between the ribs and the vertebras will also influence the diaphragm and the breathing, in a more general way.
So what sort of cough is it? Well, it’s a dry cough, and it appears when you first start trotting, and wears off after a few minutes of work. An easy way I found to test if it’s related to your saddle is to ride bare back (as long as it’s safe for you and your horse, of course, no need to put yourself in danger)! Simply sit on your horse without a saddle, and start working. If there’s no coughing, you might want to look into your saddle and the way it suits your horse!