Safe tack-fitting is at the root of good horsemanship, and each piece of tack should be fitted properly for unique horses to benefit their health, soundness and comfort over a lifetime. So how can we learn if our saddles are hindering our horses’ movement?
Our partners at Master Saddle Fitters International, UK, have completed an insightful study on the effect that scapula rotation in horses has on the fit of traditional English saddles. In order to help determine if the average horse is outfitted in a saddle properly fitted to his or her gaits, the experts collected and analyzed data from over 200 horses over the course of the study.
“Correct saddle fit is vital to your horse’s overall welfare and many experts would agree that it is the most important aspect to consider for the ridden horse,” said Lisa Fay, Research Director at Master Saddle Fitters International. “A well-fitting saddle should help to spread out the rider’s weight, making it easier for the horse than if you were to ride bareback.”
“An unsuitable saddle can cause pain, discomfort and even long term damage to the horse, making his job much more difficult,” Fay explained. “Open sores, rubs and swellings are easy to see, but there are often less obvious signs of a saddle issue including behavioral problems, poor performance, back pain or kissing spine and some lameness.”
The vast majority of saddles used in the modern world have a firm, internal structure called a tree, which has markers used for fitting called “points” at the front of the tree. Traditionally, English saddles are fitted “with the front of the saddle or points being parallel to the angle of the horses back at the site directly beneath the tree points.”
Scapula rotation is taken into consideration with saddle fitting so that the horse’s natural gait is uninterrupted by the tack and no long-term harm is done to the horse’s way of going and soundness. Typically, saddle fitters position the tree points two inches behind the scapula to account for the “normal” scapular ROM of two inches.
The experts at Master Saddle Fitters International wanted to learn if a ROM of two inches was inclusive to the majority of horses, or if there was a large portion of the population being excluded that did not fit within those parameters. They proceeded to assess the scapular range of motion (ROM) in over 200 horses over the course of six months. Their goal was to find an average range of rotation and determine if horse owners should be taking a more personalized approach to saddle fitting if their horse does not fit within the two-inch ROM criteria.
To assess each horse, they were stood squarely and the caudle edge of the scapula was identified and marked with chalk. They then moved the horse’s leg through a natural ROM by holding the forearm, and marked a second point on the horse at the most caudal point reached by the scapula. The distance between the two points was then measured and recorded.
What the experts found at the conclusion of the study was an overall range in ROM of 1.5 inches to 5 inches, with an average of 3.5 inches being recorded. They noted differences of up to one inch between the right and left limb on 36% of the horses, which may have been caused by an asymmetrical shoulder position while standing.
This large range of ROM in horses may greatly implicate individual saddle fitting when traditional methods are used. Some horses with an exaggerated scapula ROM and shorter backs can be faced with a multitude of difficulties in being fitted properly because of their higher risk of shoulder restriction by treed saddles.
Why is interference of shoulder ROM potentially dangerous? If the points in the saddle’s tree interfere with the scapula, the horse is forced to alter his or her gait. This can lead to an overload on the horse’s joints and tendons, likely to cause lameness and more severe damage in the long term. Similarly, if the saddle does not move and the scapula is forced to move under the tree point, permanent damage may be done to the scapular cartilage.
If the saddle is not in a fixed, safe position on the horse’s back and the natural scapular ROM causes the saddle to be pushed back, undue pressure can then be put on the horse’s weak, vulnerable lumbar region. It is extremely important that weight is not loaded on the lumbar vertebrae, as it may very likely cause permanent damage to the vertebrae.
What could this mean for your horse and his or her health? First, your horse’s scapular ROM should be measured. Depending on the ROM of your particular horse, you may have to re-assess if your saddle fitting methods and consider a more alternative approach to accommodate your horse. If they are found to fit within the standard of a two-inch scapular ROM, you may not have to worry about further assessing your saddle for fit.
Special consideration should be made for horses with an atrophied thoracic trapezius, causing some underdeveloped muscle behind the withers. In these cases, it is extremely important that the weight-bearing points of the tree remain independent of the scapula to avoid damage.