Please don’t tell me I need a new saddle!

The dreaded words, “You need a new saddle,” strike fear in the hearts of everyone who owns a horse. This advice is usually greeted by protests, “but it has fit her for years,” “I had this saddle custom made, it has to fit,” “my vet says it absolutely fits,” “I can’t afford another saddle!” and on and on.

See inflamed wither left side.

In the film “The Path of the Horse” filmmaker Stormy May cited a study that determined that almost all horses ridden have back soreness.

I treated a young Paso Fino mare recently who was diagnosed with fistulous withers.  Fistulous withers is described as a chronic inflammatory skin disease that can have pus-filled areas and swelling on the horse’s withers. The swelling is called a “fistula” and can also extend beyond the withers, into the shoulder and neck. It is similar to a condition known as “poll evil,” which is located at the poll where the head meets the neck. Symptoms can include:

Wither after first treatment
  1. Wither swelling
  2. Heat in the wither area
  3. Holes and tracts in the withers
  4. Build up of fluid in the withers
  5. A clear or yellow discharge from the wither area
  6. Fever and pain symptoms
  7. Sores
  8. Hair loss
  9. Sinus infection symptoms

Fistulous withers can be caused by infection, parasites, trauma to the withers, badly fitting saddle, overwork, overloading and/or poorly balanced loads. I have seen this condition with horses that have poorly fitting saddles and overwork mostly. Treatment can include a medication to drain the area, but the shoulder area does not have good drainage by itself.

After a long trail ride, this mare’s withers swelled up and did not get better. The wither did not show any discharge but did have fluid build up. The swelling went down after she was given a steroid injection and then came back again three weeks later. I looked at the saddle fit and determined that although the saddle appeared to fit, her owner said she had no sweat pattern in the middle of her back, so it was clearly bridging. It was also tight on the left side. It may have fit her fine before but it is not fitting her now.

Fitting saddles is hard for humans because we can only look and feel for the horse, we can’t actually feel it ourselves. It’s sort of like having someone look at you in a pair of shoes at the shoe store and say those shoes look like they fit. But you are in the shoes and you know they don’t fit because they don’t feel comfortable! The poor horse can’t tell you this verbally; he can only flinch when you go to place the saddle on his back and if he’s lucky, his body will do something visual to make you notice.

I sensed that this condition stemmed from something deeper than just saddle fit, however, that perhaps the body was harboring some residual inflammation and it manifested itself in fistulous wither. When taking a history, I learned the mare had had a mild toxicity about five years prior. We can’t be sure that had any bearing on the present situation, but it is something take note of in the global assessment.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of bodywork in this situation. It can help the body rid itself of toxins and inflammation and infection.

Before second treatment one week later.

After the mare has received some bodywork, we will re-evaluate saddle fit. The saddle may fit after the mare has received some bodywork. The body readjusts, reshapes itself and can be better able to support the weight of a rider, and brings the spine up. Sometimes an owner has been ready to buy a new saddle, only to find that after Ortho their horse’s back has changed and they can use their old saddle! Or maybe all we have to do is change the pad or stirrup placement.

This mare also has a club foot on the alternate side from the fistulous wither. This is common and creates a conformational imbalance that makes saddle fit more challenging. The owner showed me photos from years ago where the left shoulder was overdeveloped, indicating that this imbalance had been with the mare for a long time, most likely since she was a foal. What is curious to me is that the mare went all those years without saddle problems.

After treatment one week later

In this case, after two sessions, the mare’s inflammation had gone down to almost nothing. Her owner began riding her again. After a second ride, the withers erupted in inflammation, giving us a clear indicator that the saddle is the culprit in this situation. Although the owner had said the saddle had fit for many years without any problems, it doesn’t fit now. Something has changed in the mare’s chemistry and shape. Even without the history of toxicity, the issue of saddles suddenly not fitting is also very common! Age, work, chemistry changes, all conspire to change the shape of the horse. Sometimes white spots appear on the withers or spine or the wither area becomes hard, or the horse flinches when you put the saddle on. It’s just like the shoes – one day you wake up and your favorite pair of shoes doesn’t fit comfortably any more.

So determining what is soring the horse, whether or not bodywork will help her wear a saddle comfortably, is a process of discovery between owner, practitioner and horse. The way I do saddle fit is as a holistic process starting with bodywork, examining all these factors, what work the horse is intended for, and what saddles might best suit the horse and rider.

I don’t know everything about all saddles. There are some I’m very familiar with and others not so. My experience comes from fitting saddles for horses who are going to travel 50 miles or more in a day in an endurance ride. For that experience, a saddle has to fit well or the horse will be miserable and other physical problems will come up.

There are options that work well for an asymmetrical horse such as this one. One option is  a flexible tree, that allows us to shape the saddle to accommodate the larger, overdeveloped shoulder so there is no pressure on it. A flexible tree is not a treeless saddle. A flexible tree has some play in it to allow the rider to change it to fit the horse. Some flexible tree saddles must be altered by the manufacturer.  Another more expensive option would be a custom built saddle. I’m not a fan of treeless saddles for this situation because they don’t distribute weight properly and horses with this type of wither will get sore.  I think they may work with tiny riders and horses that have no saddle fit problems. An off-the-shelf saddle that is larger than what the horse would wear if it had symmetrical shoulders might work if you were able to shim up the side that isn’t overdeveloped.

The back needs a chance to recover before trying on various saddles and carrying a rider. Some horses may be able to be ridden bareback during this time. Bodywork can speed up this process by strengthening the entire system, but it is best to wait to ride until the horse stops flinching and eyeballing the saddle like it’s a monster.

(c) Susan Smith, OrthoHorse, Horses at Liberty


2 thoughts on “Please don’t tell me I need a new saddle!

  1. Great blog Susan! I’ve been through saddle hell more times than I care to remember, probably because I care about the horse & look for the signs of it not working. A flexible tree is coming up the best option after years of research for me too. A leather tree is another idea – apparently leather was the first material used to make a ‘tree’, so its not a new idea. It makes a lot of sense to use thick pieces of leather layered up to form a ‘tree’ which flexes somewhat but has more support than treeless. I have a question: What do you think of the research stated in The Path of the Horse about the muscles losing blood supply & feeling after only 10 – 15 minutes of riding? Due to the numbing effect of the weight, which leads to muscle damage. I am wondering how much effect excellent shock absorbing padding, saddles that don’t restrict & excellent ‘light’ riding make a difference. Horses love it if one massages their backs after removing the saddle or bareback pad – that is for sure! (I’ve only ridden lightly for about 10 minutes or so on rare occasions over the last year, but this is due to following the WHR’s & my mare only saying ‘yes’ on few occasions. Especially since yet another saddle hurt her.)

    1. Erica, I am intrigued by the idea of a leather tree, I’ve not heard of this before, at least for use in recent times 🙂 There are always new developments in saddle making and fit which keeps it interesting. I was very troubled by that research in “The Path of the Horse” and I wondered what horses were used in that survey. I do know firsthand that an enormous amount of effort is spent on perfecting saddle fit for horses who travel long distances, such as endurance horses, because they simply can’t perform with back pain. I do have saddles that don’t cause back pain at all, and I think that’s due to my concern about it for endurance combined with bodywork knowledge. The flexible trees and other like technologies have come out of that discipline, and I think dressage has made also made some inroads into the issue of saddle fit. In some cases a pad with closed cell inserts can make a lot of difference, but for long distance such things do not cover for improper saddle fit. What you have done – not riding much – can give you a lot of information about how your horse is feeling about riding, and then hopefully, about the saddle(s) you are trying. Bodywork can also help the spine be better able to support a saddle and rider, and also dispel some of the trauma associated with prior poor saddle fit experiences.
      I feel there is still so much to learn about this topic!

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