Wednesday, February 25, 2009

From a Veterinarian's Perspective

From time to time, I'd like to feature "guest bloggers" here - people who are interested in saddle fitting from a perspective other than mine. My first guest is Dr. Jennifer Bevilacqua, VMD, VSMT. She and I have consulted on a number of horse and rider combinations, and she has kindly taken the time to share her thoughts (thanks, Jen!):

Do No Harm

The first rule any doctor learns remains consistent throughout every discipline of medicine: Do no harm to your patient. One might consider this statement strange, contemplating why a doctor would desire disservice to her patient. Not the case at all. It’s simply the reminder that you don’t get something for nothing in the world of medicine, and we must all remain aware of the possible side effects of our recommendations. Sometimes that advice comes in the form of prescribed exogenous substances, which carry with them potential side effects. The benefits of consumption can far outweigh the detriments of disease, yet quite often the converse holds true. A similar relationship exists with recommendations given on mechanical devices impeding proper movement of the body such as a bandage, cast, or athletic equipment. Sometimes, it’s something as seemingly innocuous as a saddle placed on the back of a horse.

Why is saddle-fit so important? Similar to our previous example, we could say that a poorly fitted saddle can have a long list of serious side effects, whilst a well-fitted saddle can aid the rider and horse in stability and athletic accomplishment. Over time, compensation for an improperly fitted saddle can cause not only back discomfort, but a decreased range of proper motion to many parts of the body—not just the back. Once in this vicious cycle of compensatory change, it may elude an owner as to why a horse would travel in a particular way, or perhaps behaviorally show discomfort when performing simple tasks. Your equine veterinarian can help to determine the presence of a physical issue and its relation to saddle-fit via physical exam or other diagnostics such as bloodwork or radiographs. A Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapist (VSMT) sometimes referred to as an “animal chiropractor”, can be of great assistance in relieving discomfort and restoring range of motion to a horse’s back. Both practitioners may appropriately note that the saddle and/or girth may play a role in the discomfort of your horse, thus recommending a competent saddle fitter like Kitt. Many times a new saddle is not necessary, and the old saddle can be altered appropriately.

This assessment should be done on a fairly routine schedule, based on factors such as weight gain or loss, level of fitness, or change in riding discipline. We must also not overlook the role a rider plays in how a saddle sets on a back. Always entertain the idea that you may be the issue, and if you are riding in an imbalanced fashion due to habit or injury, you will affect your horse.

This website is an excellent source of information on the particulars of saddle-fit, especially for interactive readers. Kudos to Kitt for taking an assertive role in dispersing quality information to those in need while creating a forum for discussion. For those of you who reserve the right to hold a book in your hand, I recommend The Horses’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book by Joyce Harmon, DVM, MRCVS (2004). Dr. Harmon gives a comprehensive review of various aspects of saddle-fitting, while touching on many related topics ranging from conformation to various therapeutic practices and their role in addressing equine back pain. A list I felt worth repeating, found on page 19, allows us to gain insight to the myriad of physical and behavioral symptoms which indicate back pain. Likely we would notice some obvious signs of a poor saddle-fit such as sores or swelling, usually after more chronic insult. If your horse has one or more of these frustratingly ambiguous symptoms however, you might consider a consultation with your veterinarian or VSMT, remembering that a poorly fitted saddle is one of the many causes of back pain:

• ”Cold-backed” during mounting
• Slow to warm up or relax
• Resists work
• Reluctant to stride out
• Hock, stifle, and obscure hind limb lameness
• Front leg lameness, stumbling, and tripping
• Excessive shying, lack of concentration on rider and aids
• Rushes to or from fences, or refuses jumps
• Rushes downhill, or pulls uphill with the front end (exhibits improper use of back or hindquarters)
• Demonstrates an inability to travel straight
• Is unwilling or unable to round the back or neck
• Displays difficulty maintaining impulsion or collection
• Twists over fences
• Falters or resists when making a transition
• Bucks or rears regularly
• Exhibits sudden, decreased speed on the racetrack or in any other timed sport
• Is slow out of the starting gate
• Ducks out of turns, turns wide
• Increases resistance as a riding session progresses

In summary, it behooves us as horseowners to enlist a team of qualified individuals to ensure the proper fit of saddles to our horses’ backs, assuring comfort, lack of restriction, and balanced movement with proper range of motion. This team includes your general equine practitioner, a VSMT practitioner, and an experienced saddle fitter. Perhaps after gaining a deeper understanding of what leads to our horses’ discomforts, we will turn more slowly to the options of drugs or restrictive tack to solve our problems. After all, our goals are all the same: to improve and maintain the comfort, health, and happiness our friend, the equine athlete. As responsible agents for their health we should be confident that the decision to put a particular saddle on our horse’s back has truly done no harm.

Jennifer Bevilacqua, VMD, VSMT, owns and operates The Integrated Equine, LLC in Arlington, VT. The practice offers Spinal Manipulation and Acupuncture as part of an integrative approach to the improved health of the equine. Professional contact should be made at

Monday, February 23, 2009

I Made It!!

The article to which I contributed appeared in this week's issue of the Chronicle of the Horse! Some examples of my photography are in there, too. I'm just absolutely thrilled. I have to give a huge thank-you to Edie Tschorn, who helped (and footed the bill for) me to learn the art and science of saddle fitting. And BIG thanks to Sara Ineson for the loan of her impeccably-cared-for tack for the photos.

Colleen Meyer of Advanced Saddle Fit was the other contributor to the article. Colleen is a Society of Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitter, and I learned quite a bit from her contributions. And Sara Leiser, wonderful article - thanks so much!

Fitting Horse and Rider

"I'm not concerned about how the saddle feels for me - my horse is really hard to fit, so if a saddle works for him, I'll learn to love it."

If I had a quarter for every time I've heard this, I could retire. In style.

Saddle fitting is sort of like marriage: if one partner is unhappy, it won't be long before the other partner is unhappy, too. The saddle must work for both the horse and the rider - end of story. Here's why.

If the saddle fits the rider well, but not the horse, we know what the outcome will be: miserable horse, who will eventually make riding a most unpleasant experience, which will, in turn, make the rider miserable. But what if the saddle's a great fit for the horse, but not so much for the rider?

First, if you're not comfortable in the saddle, you won't be able to ride affectively. Your balance will be off, which will effect your seat and legs, your timing, and your feel, which will make it hard to communicate well, which will make it hard for your horse to perform properly - and those are just the short term issues.

Let's say the saddle fits your horse well, but the twist is too narrow for your comfort, and you're constantly falling forward. This will concentrate all of your weight under the front of the saddle, creating a lot of pressure in a fairly small area. This will not only make it tough for your horse to get off the forehand, it will cause the flocking in the front of the panels to compress; eventually, the rear of the saddle may cease to make proper contact with your horse's back and the cantle may "pop" at the rising trot. Meanwhile, you're becoming increasingly sore and miserable from being constantly unbalanced ... and so is your horse.

Given the number of saddles out there and the number of fitting options available, there's no reason for horse OR rider to be uncomfortable. Most better-quality saddles can be ordered with fitting options for both: specific panel configuration and tree width/shape for the horse, and flap length/set, seat size and thigh/knee block for the rider. Some compaines charge for these options, and some don't, but there's no reason that both beings in the equation can't be comfortable and happy.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Going Into Detail Revisited

Once again, I'm re-posting one of the first blog entries, in an effort to make this blog more useful to the first-time horse owner. (By the way, if anyone knows how to access the archives, please let me know.)

As promised in my last entry, I'm going to go into more detail on the Heavy Seven, and the other issues that come into play.

First, tree width. Yes, the tree has to be the correct width; the points should lie parallel to the horse's back (as illustrated in the previous post). But in some cases, the tree can be the correct width and still not fit properly, because many other things come into play: tree shape, gullet shape, length of tree points and panel configuration all contribute to how well - or how poorly - a saddle fits. For example, let's say that you have a lean, high-withered Tb like this fellow here:

Here he is in a saddle with the correct tree width, but with the wrong panel configuration (too shallow):

As you can see, the saddle's sitting pommel-high; it will put the rider too far back in the seat and concentrate pressure on the rear half of the saddle rather than distributing weight evenly over the surface of the panels. And though you can't really tell it from the photo, there was also insufficient clearance over the wither, and the rider's weight would have caused the saddle to sit directly on the withers. (NOTE: This is one reason that so many horses with this conformation are labelled as "narrow", because without panel modifications, most saddles with the correct tree width will sit on the wither; hence the need to go to a narrower tree for clearance. This just causes more atrophy in the back and makes the horse even harder to fit properly.)

So what would have to be done to the saddle? The panel would obviouosly need to be thicker in the rear, but it would also need to be modified in front; in this case, a wither gusset:

and a dropped or trapezius panel:

The combination of these two panel options will "fill in the dips" below those big withers and lift the saddle up off the wither. The photo below roughly shows - in red - where the weight bearing surface will be on a "standard" panel; the green lines show the weight bearing area of a saddle with a trapezius panel and wither gusset:

UP NEXT: Channel width and panel contact. Stay tuned!

--Posted By saddlefitter to Saddle Fitting - The Inside Journey at 11/30/2008 04:16:00 PM

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Parts of the Saddle, Terminology

In my ongoing effort to make this blog a little more user-friendly for the first-time horse owner, I'm going to cover the parts of the saddle and terminology regarding knee rolls/thigh blocks, billeting systems, and the like.

First, the parts of the saddle:

Here's a monoflap saddle (has only one flap instead of an outer flap with a sweat flap underneath, knee/thigh/calf blocks will be external) with overlay or external billets:

Next, let's look under the flap of a standard two-flap saddle. First, a dressage saddle:

Thigh block: On dressage saddles, on the front of the sweat flap; often runs the entire length of the front of the sweat flap

Point billet: Billet attaches to the point of the saddle tree; may emerge through the rear or the end of the thigh block.

Swing or sliding rear billet: “Self adjusting” rear billet attached via a ring to a nylon strap; the nylon strap is attached at the middle and rear of the saddle tree, creating a “V”.
Then, on a close contact (or all purpose) saddle:

Knee roll: On cc and ap saddles; runs the length of the front of the sweat flap.

Knee block: On the top of the sweat flap above the knee; usually triangular shape.

Calf block: On the rear of the sweat flap on some cc and ap saddles.

Next, the front of the saddle:

Gullet: The area under the head (front, pommel) of the saddle.

And now the underside:

Channel: The space between the panels.

Flocked panel- wool (or synthetic fiber) is ‘stuffed’ into the panel. These panels are often the softest of all the panels and break in quite quickly and can be adjusted by adding, shifting, or removing wool.

Swiss panel: Wool flocking encased in felt. These panels can be adjusted by flocking, though not to the degree a plain flocked panel can.

French panel: Foam encased in felt. Can only be adjusted with pads and shims.

Foam panel: Plain foam. As with the French panel, these can only be adjusted with pads and shims.

Close contact saddle: In the States, it's a saddle with a flat seat, square cantle and forward flap that's used for jumping. Elsewhere, the term is used to indicate a saddle of any discipline that has a close "feel".

Dressage saddle: Saddle with a long, straight flap and deeper seat used by dressage riders.

All purpose saddle: This saddle is often used by lower-level eventers and trail riders. The seat is usually deeper than that of a close contact saddle, but not as deep as that of a dressage saddle. The flap is usually more forward than that of a dressage saddle, but not as forward as that of a close contact saddle.

Monday, February 2, 2009

"The Heavy Seven" revisited

Since access to the blog archives seems sporadic, I'm going to re-post my entry, "The Heavy Seven", which covers the seven basic points of saddle fitting.

When it comes to saddle fitting, everyone has an opinion, and it can sometimes be tough to get much of a consensus. Theories abound regarding tree shape, panel shape, foam panels vs. wool flock vs. synthetic flock, you name it - and most fitters will happily debate different viewpoints ad nauseum. But there are seven points regarding saddle fitting put forward by the Society of Master Saddlers that are generally accepted as truths. So here are "The Heavy Seven" (how many of you remember that George Carlin riff?) of saddle fitting.

1) The points of the tree must lie parallel (or within 10% of parallel) to the horse's back - not the shoulder, but the back. Points of the tree and angle of the back are highlighted in red:

This means the tree width is correct. Here is a tree that's too narrow (angles highlighted in green):

#2) There must be even pressure under the tree points from top to bottom. In the photo above, there will be more pressure toward the bottom of the points; if the tree's too narrow, the pressure will be greater at the top of the points.
#3) The channel between the panels must clear the spinous process.

#4) There must be adequate clearance between the gullet and the withers. "Adequate" will vary from horse to horse - sometimes it will be 3 fingers, sometimes 1. "Adequate" just means that the saddle is sitting in correct balance and at no time makes contact with the withers.

#5) Balance of the saddle must be correct, with the deepest part of the seat being the lowest point. Here's a saddle with the balance point too far to the rear as a result of a too-narrow tree:

Here's a saddle with correct balance:

#6) The panels must make even contact with the horse's back, with no bridging or rocking.

#7) The tree of the saddle cannot extend past the 18th thoracic vertebrae, which is the location of the last rib and therefore the last part of the back capable of bearing weight.

So there you have the seven basic points. Next entry, I'll go into greater detail on each point.