Equis ISSN 2398-2977

Saddlery: principles

Contributor(s): Kenneth Marcella, Graham Munroe

Behavioral disorders

Possible indicators of a poorly fitting saddle

  • NOTE: By definition such a saddle does not properly fit a particular horse on that day (or vice versa).
  • Most horses will tolerate a poorly fitting saddle for a short period of time. Problems relating to saddle fit tend to develop slowly over a number of days.
  • Mal-behavior exhibited may be:
    • Sudden onset, progressive and/or cumulative development.
    • Recurrence of an earlier problem, possibly of repeated cause or a memory stimulated reaction to a previous (painful) experience.
  • All are variably related to the (known) temperament of that horse.
  • The overt, clinical apprehension or distress or other altered behavior occurs when:
    • The horse sees the saddle being carried towards it.
    • The horse is being tacked up.
    • The girth is tightened (the fitting on or removal of a rug is usually without mal-effect).
    • The horse is being mounted - frequently form the ground.
  • In these circumstances the signs vary:
    • Fidgeting.
    • "Sinking" - various degrees of back (vertebral) extension, "cold backed" even to the extent of limb collapse.
    • Arching the back, humping upwards, possibly   →   total rigidity and into cataplexia quickly followed by uncontrolled explosive evasion, back (vertebral) flexion or "roaching".
  • The above reflex actions are quite clearly associated with girth tightening especially if this is done too quickly and/or forcibly.
  • When mounting, with or without the above signs, the horse may:
    • Rush backwards in a hollow outline but stop when the rider lightens his seat.
    • Bolt forwards when the leg (and seat) aids are applied.
    • Refuse to move.
  • During exercise the horse may suddenly rear and buck, kicking out behind or shy. All more likely when ridden in small, tight circles, at corners and during transition, especially downwards.
  • During exercise the ill-fitting saddle is more likely to move forward, backwards and even obliquely or to one side or the other, thus creating unacceptable, unused to pressures.
  • It is not always easy to determine the type of misbehavior.
  • It may be true disobedience not associated with coincidental or immediate pain but "learned" during training, associated with a temperament that dislikes being "told what to do" and the incidental "battles which may, in the past, have enabled it to "escape" from the disliked equilation.
  • A well fitting saddle may, in such circumstances, be displaced into pain inducing positions, thus compounding the problem.
  • With or without pain, jumping is frequently involved; training experiences involving misuse of the hand aids and/or whip and coincidental limb and back traumas are further, significant factors.
  • Attempted evasions at an obstacle, especially off a circle include:
    • Fussing.
    • Refusing.
    • Rushing.
    • Failure to bascule.
    • Problems at uprights and combinations, especially in show-jumping.
    • Sudden, violent objection particularly when the rider uses seat and leg aids to "drive" the horse.
  • Pain-induced (recent and on going) - in most cases the "back" is the most usual site of the associated behaviour problems; the saddle may be the primary cause.

Postural differences

  • When pain is experienced, the following is noticed:
    • Tail is tightly clamped between the buttocks and switches distally.
    • Head is up and out.
    • Tenseness shows in nostrils and mouth - facial expressions.
    • There may be sweating just before evasive action, muscular tremor (fasciculations).
    • These are all sudden and often violent in onset.
  • When non-painful disobedience occurs, the following is noticed:
    • Tail carried high and swings loosely.
    • Head is down.
    • Sweating is rare unless the rider forces an issue.
    • No tremors.
    • The misbehavior is primarily threatened before developing relatively slowly and to varying degrees.

Decline in performanace

  • This is mainly associated with pain-induced problems.
  • Misbehavior can be subtle, more of an athletic deficit, eg:
    • Shortening of stride.
    • Inability to "collect" or to maintain a rounded outline.
    • Reluctance to switch leads or the avoidance of a particular lead.
    • Awkward transitions/bucking at transitions of gait.
    • Difficulty in keeping straight.
    • Tendency to jump flat and quick, making combinations difficult.
    • Many times a physical asymmetry or imbalance in the rider will translate into an imbalance in the saddle fit and in the horse.
  • Disobedience can of course produce similar signs, but with good riding, can be overcome, whereas pain behavior is more likely to persist and even worsen on any one occasion.
  • Many signs occur in combination.
  • In pain-induced or associated behavior problem from any cause, there is, sooner or later, a developing muscular asymmetry. This will make even a "good saddle" an ill-fit.
  • Conversely, an asymmetric or an incorrect specification saddle can create local, uneven pressures, which, in turn   →   muscle spasm and, ultimately, muscular asymmetry.
  • Sensory input is also altered to cause unbalanced action with further asymmetry.
  • Be aware of other peripheral factors which can affect locomotor balance and, coincidentally, the fit and security of the saddle, eg:
    • Pain in the mouth or, vertebral column, other than "under the saddle" and limbs.
    • Incorrect training/riding of the horse.
  • Changes in work pattern and/or disciplines involved which should be addressed by a veterinarian and an equitation instructor.
  • There are factors, which can implicate the saddle fit and so necessitate the help of a qualified saddle fitter.
Print off the Owner factsheet on Fitting a saddle - why it's so important  to give to your clients.

Common historical facts

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Physical signs

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Checking the saddle and its fit

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Points to note

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Further Reading


Refereed papers

  • Recent references from PubMed and VetMedResource.
  • Harman J C (1999) Practical use of computerised saddle pressure measuring device re effect of saddle pads. J Equine Vet Sci 14, 601-606.
  • Harman J C (1999) Tack and saddle fit. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 15 (1), 179-194.
  • Marks D (1999) Medical management of back pain. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 15 (1), 179-194.
  • Ridgway K et al (1999) Equine back rehabilitation. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract 15 (1), 263-280.


  • Master Saddlers Association, 2698 Jennings Chapel Road, Woodbine, MD 21797, USA. Tel: +1 (301) 570 3100; Website: http://www.mastersaddlers.com. The Association has a list of certified saddle fitters, who are certified to assess the fit of any saddle on any horse.
  • The Society of Master Saddlers, Kettles Farm, Mickfield, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP14 6BY, UK. Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1449 711642; E-mail: enquiries@mastersaddlers.co.uk; Website: http://www.mastersaddlers.co.uk. The Society has a list of qualified saddle fitters, who are qualified to assess the fit of any saddle on any horse.