Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 


Split Saddles

A post on social media caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. An Australian had put a photo of her saddle up, saying that many people ask her at competitions if her saddle was broken. It wasn’t, but it’s an innovative, modern design that hasn’t made it into the grassroot market.

Obviously this meant that I had to do a bit of research.

Stuebben, of which I’ve not got much experience except for their old saddles which I never seemed very comfortable; have developed alongside Equi-soft, a type of saddle with a split tree.

This design, either as a jump saddle or a dressage saddle, has a divided tree, which facilitates and adapts to a wider range of back movement. Apparently this split tree reduces pressure on the horse’s back, and adjusts well to the movement of the rider. You can see that by having two separate sides to the saddle, a left and a right, the seat aids should be clearer and more precise because the pressure won’t be distributed to the opposite side. Which leads me to wonder if the seat aids could be too much for some horses – those with sensitive backs or heavy riders? 

Having the split in the saddle also improves ventilation to the horse’s back, and helps prevent muscles overheating. I assume Stuebben have done some research using thermography, so it would be interesting to see results from a similar, independent study. 

On a slightly different note, and I’m sure men will identify more with this, the saddle seat relieves pudendal nerve pressure (after a bit of googling I’ve discovered this nerve causes pelvic pain and supplies feeling to that region), which helps prevent injuries to that region – we’ve all winced in sympathy as someone’s crashed down onto the pommel, so surely having some preventative measures is a bonus.

The saddle also has a stirrup bar that can be adjusted to four positions which will mean that those of us outside the range of “normal” won’t have to look at specially made saddles to accommodate long legs (I don’t count myself as one of these people). It also means you can adjust your seat from cross country to showjumping by adjusting the position of the stirrups rather than just adjusting the length of your stirrup leathers. According to their website, the way the stirrup bars attach mean that the rider’s weight would be distributed more evenly and effectively.

The girth straps are also a new design, being attached to elastic rings, which relieves pressure, improves breathing, and allows the ribcage to expand more.

Unfortunately for me, this saddle is priced way out of my price range, probably why I’ve only experienced tired, old Stuebben saddles previously, so I’m unlikely to experience the benefits of these technological advances. Perhaps if anyone is ever running a study on the effects of different saddles, investigating effects on performance, as well as physiological measurements, then they can get in touch and Otis and I will be happy to oblige!

Being Straight

It’s the ultimate aim of all of us; to have a straight, symmetrical horse so that we can ace those centre lines, and not have a weaker rein to throw away marks.

Which means that we spend heaps of time and money into physios, chiropractors, osteopaths and the like. Treating our horses, that is.

But how many of you get yourself treated at the same time your horse is treated? It’s logical really; that if your horse is crooked they will send you out of alignment, and if you’re crooked you will misalign your horse. Like a vicious cycle, it needs breaking.

Frequent checks to monitor both of your crookedness, or straightness, will enable you to treat one or both of you as soon as an issue appears, and before a problem occurs. I always think that riders should consider their own bodies when treating their horse, even if it’s just a sports massage to release the tension carried in the shoulders.

There are other ways to monitor your straightness, as well as your horse’s so you can notice immediately if there’s a change. Firstly, you can use arena mirrors whilst riding to check you are both level and straight. Or a person in the arena, instructor or otherwise, to assess levelness. Then you can check your stirrup length regularly – don’t just assume that because both stirrups are on hole number eight that they are level. Stirrup leathers stretch! It may be that you need to swap your leathers over on the saddle. I know a lot of people mount from a mounting block so don’t think they put as much pressure on the left stirrup leather, so won’t stretch it. However, if you carry more weight in your right leg, or sit to the right, you put more pressure on that stirrup leather so will stretch it regardless of how you mounted.

Working evenly on both reins will help prevent either of you becoming one-sided, after all everybody favours one side of their body, and only by trying to be ambidextrous can you prevent the muscles on your dominant side becoming too strong. I personally have found Pilates really helpful for teaching me proprioception. That is, the awareness of where each part of my body is and the amount of work it is doing, or not doing as the case may be!

Has anyone seen those jackets with lots of horizontal and vertical lines on? They aren’t for fashion, but are a really good tool for identifying collapsed hips, dropped shoulders, and many other asymmetries. I always like teaching riders who wear stripey tops because it helps me identify their weak areas. Also, if they see a photo or video they will better understand your corrections.

You can study your horse to see if they are tending to put more pressure on one side of their body than the other. Do they rest one leg, dropping that hip, more than the other? Does the saddle sit square on their back or is it twisted? Does it shift as you’re riding? Does one side of the saddle panels seem flatter, or squashed, than the other? Does your horse have more sweat on one side of his barrel than the other, does it indicate there may be a pressure point from the saddle? Does he find carrot stretches on one side easier than the other?

A lot of physios will ask when the saddle was last checked, or recommend it is rechecked if the horse is significantly misaligned or has uneven muscle to try to prevent them losing this new straightness and to help them balance out the muscle.

So next time you think, or moan, about your horse being crooked, have a think about yourself to make sure you aren’t causing, or won’t cause, the issue to reoccur after your horse has been treated. After all, a pain-free horse who is straight will work better for you, perform better, and have a lower risk of injury.

Shiver Me Timbers

During one of the pony camps in the summer we instructors witnessed a moment of pure comical genius, which I’m convinced could be used as a sketch.

One of the girls was tacking up her pony by herself. The pony was tied to the trailer quietly munching on his haynet.

The girl took out the gel pad and placed it carefully on his back, checking it was central and perfectly aligned. She turned around to pick up her saddle and saddle cloth, at which point the pony decided to twitch his withers so that the gel pad slid towards his croup.

The girl came back with the saddle, looked in confusion at the gel pad, before putting her saddle down carefully and putting the gel pad back into its original position.

She turned back to the saddle, as the gel pad made it’s way along the pony’s spine. The girl looked at it in dismay, as she held her saddle. 

Before she could put the saddle down to try again one of the instructors, in fits of laughter, got up to help anchor the gel pad whilst the saddle was put on! 

I think the situation was made more the funnier by the demure look on the pony’s face as he upset the tacking up procedure. 

What a Dilemma

I’ve had a frustrating few weeks with my horse, but I think I have solved the problem.

Through the winter I did a lot of schooling on the flat and Otis really improved, but since the middle of March I’ve noticed a bit of tension and resistance. Nothing major, but he hadn’t been as pliable as previously.
I tried varying his workload, as we tried to get fitter for the event season, but his flatwork was deteriorating.

Part of me thought I was the problem: work was very stressful and I was depressed, which usually has a knock on effect on my riding.

At our last event our dressage score was average; we could do much better than that! I was getting very frustrated with both myself and Otis.

I had his back checked, and his teeth had been done in December. I noticed at about this time that my GP saddle was sliding back. So I started using my breastplate. But it still slid, even with an anti slip pad.

This weekend has been revolutionary though, and I’ve solved the mystery of the tension. Firstly, my GP saddle isn’t fitting that well, and I don’t think it has ever. Due to better weather and eventing I’m using my GP saddle four times a week, instead of twice like I was in February.
On Sunday I I schooled in the dressage saddle and Otis took ages to soften and stretch. I had hacked the day before.
On Monday he worked beautifully, so I decided to hack on Tuesday in the dressage saddle. He was beautifully soft and relaxed with a big open movement.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that although Otis isn’t showing signs of pain he must be in discomfort when I use the GP. As a result the next time in the school he anticipates pain and as a result is resistant. As he realises this is his good saddle he returns to his usual self.

I’m in a predicament now, the answer to which is obvious. I need to change the GP saddle. I can’t have it going wrong every couple of months due to him changing shape or the flocking settling- it’s been flocked a couple of times last year. I can’t afford back problems with him so need to work out how to fund a different saddle.

Then I have the time constraints of a be100 in ten days time …

I’ve spoken to the saddler who has ordered a jump saddle with an adjustable gullet. I decided to opt for a jump saddle as we’re jumping bigger and better. The only problem is that the saddle will take four weeks to arrive …

So what to do about the event? I might ask around and see if someone’s got one that will fit or I will have to borrow a riser pad and find an anti slip pad and hopefully we’ll survive!