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Signs of Saddle Fit Problems

So how do you know if a saddle fits a horse poorly? What sorts of signs do you see? They can be very obvious or you may have think a bit to recognize that the saddle is the problem. But the first thing to do is check the Position of your saddle. If your saddle is sitting up on the shoulder blades, it will hurt your horse because it doesn't fit there!!

If the saddle is in the right place, here are four basic categories of signs of problems you might see. 

1.)  Physical problems on the horse

From most obvious to least obvious - but how obvious it is doesn't always tell you how severe the problem is:
     - Open sores - Usually caused by rubbing rather than pressure. Don't use the horse till these are healed up, and find out the cause before you saddle this horse again.
     - Pain or sores on top of withers or anywhere down the spine from direct contact with the saddle - This is an emergency condition. Depending on the amount of damage, these may lead to fistulous withers or other career or even life ending conditions. DO NOT put this saddle back on this horse and do not use them until pain is gone and all sores are healed. If sores are not healing normally, please consult a veterinarian sooner rather than later.
     - White hair - This is a sign of high pressure or damage in the past. These may or may not be a sign of ongoing saddle fit problems. They don't show up till new hair grows. A few white hairs or roaning may disappear at the next hair coat change. Solid white patches resulting from hair follicle damage will generally stay for life.
     - Atrophy of muscles - Areas where muscles have shrunken away are so common that people may see this a normal, but it is a result of long term damage, generally from high pressure. Most commonly in the "wither pocket" area, this can occur anywhere there is consistent high pressure and there doesn't have to be white hair, etc. over these areas. 
     - Dry spots - Whether these are always a problem is open for discussion, but they are at least a signal to check for deeper problems. Large dry spots are better than small ones, because large dry spots show a larger area with increased pressure, while small ones show a small area of concentrated, high pressure.
     - Swelling which develops after unsaddling - It is good to check your horse 5, 10, 30, and even 60 minutes after you unsaddle by running your hands over his back where the saddle was. Swelling is a sign of fluid building up, likely in an area of higher pressure where blood supply was impeded by the saddle.
     - Sore muscles on palpation - Check this by feeling both after you ride and before you saddle up. Start with slight pressure and then with stronger and stronger pressure as you run the pads of your fingers together down your horse's back under where the saddle goes. Remember to not just press down, but also check if there is a reaction from to pressure in toward the spine. Muscles can be sore just from work, but if there is a specific spot that gets a consistent reaction while all other areas are fine, this can be a problem.

2.)  Instability of the saddle

When the saddle moves, it shows that the shape of the saddle and the shape of the horse don't match. ie. the saddle doesn't fit. 
     - Constantly rolls side to side - This is more of a problem with rounder horses, but if it is consistent, then the shapes don't match.
     - Consistently rides to one side - Something is asymmetric. Rider, horse, saddle, tree, other tack - could be a lot of things, but something isn't even.
     - Moves forward or back on the horse constantly. - Doesn’t find one place and stay there. Moving back could be because you placed it too far forward to start with. Please check the position of your saddle! But if it starts in the right place and moves, the shapes don't match. (Or you could be dealing with "flare", which is a problem in itself.)
     - Loses blankets easily - This happens because there is movement between the saddle and the horse that "walks blankets out". The saddle is not sitting solidly on the horse, which means the shapes don't match.

3.)  Behavioural problems
These can develop in a horse that anticipates or reacts to pain from being ridden with the saddle.  Behaviour problems can be a problem with how the horse is ridden, a problem with the work the horse is asked to do in that saddle, a problem with the saddle or a problem with the the horse and these causes need to be distinguished.
     - Reacting negatively to being saddled - Ears pinned, moving around constantly or more negative behaviours consistently associated with saddling and only with saddling show a correlation (not necessarily a causation) with the saddle.
     - Behaving badly under saddle, especially with a particular saddle - Any of the above reasons can cause this, but if it is only with, or worse with, one saddle, it is time to check the saddle.
     - Avoiding pressure when rope comes tight or any other specific movement or activity that increases the pressure on the saddle - Horses can tolerate a lot and sometimes they only act up when a threshold is reached. Checking the saddle is one step in figuring out why they are doing this.

4.)  Changes in movement or ability to perform

This could be due to many factors, but consider the saddle especially when compared to other saddles or when unsaddled.
     - Shortened stride - This can be due to problems with the fore or hind limbs. 
     - Poor collection when asked - Often associated more with problems at the back of the saddle, if it is the saddle that is the cause.
     - Not wanting to stop hard, scotching, ducking out when roping - Again, many causes for these things but checking how the saddle fits needs to be on the list as you diagnose it.

The next page in this series is Part One of Reasons for "Saddle Fit" Issues.