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 firstname.lastname@example.org.