Q: Are There Any Tips for Fitting a Saddle to a Baroque Horse?
I recently purchased a 5-year-old Andalusian and need to find a saddle that fits him correctly. Is there anything specific to his breed that I need to consider when searching for a new saddle?
Name withheld by request
A: Saddle length has become more of an issue over the past few years, as breeding seems to have concentrated on making somewhat more compact (i.e., shorter) horses. This is especially prevalent in the baroque-style horse—a category that includes the Lusitanos, P.R.E.s, Andalusians, Friesians and, more and more frequently, the modern-type warmbloods who have relatively flat withers and a shorter saddle-support area (the area where the saddle must sit). Riding these horses in a normal saddle with a regular panel can result in behavior that indicates something is off. One common saddle-fitting issue faced by these breeds is that the panels on dressage saddles often are too long for the horses’ backs. In order for a baroque horse to develop to his full potential and work willingly, happily and without pain, it is crucial that he have a saddle with panels that are the correct length for his back and that do not impinge on the kidneys or the ovaries of a mare.
If you are concerned about the saddle being too long for your short-backed horse, you must ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does my horse have a four-beat canter?
2. Does my horse have tense back muscles that impair his movement?
3. Does my horse buck or show resistance to move forward?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be faced with a saddle-length issue.
Many of us are familiar with the term “short-backed” to describe a horse, but few of us are aware that even a horse with a back that appears to be of normal length may actually have a very short saddle-support area. The length of this area is what saddle makers and saddle fitters are concerned with since this will determine how long the panels of this particular horse’s saddle must be.
You can identify your horse’s saddle-support area by doing the following:
1. With a piece of chalk, outline the edge of your horse’s shoulder blade (as shown in pictures 4 and 5 below).
2. Locate your horse’s last floating rib (see picture 3 below). To do this, find where his hairlines come together in the area of his flank and draw a line straight up to his spine.
The saddle must sit behind the shoulder. Particularly at the canter, a saddle that is too long often will get driven forward into the shoulder. Beyond making movement difficult and painful, this can produce a buildup of scar tissue on the scapula. Over time, the scapula may be chipped away by the tree points of the saddle.
The saddle also cannot extend past the last floating rib. If a saddle is too long for a particular horse, the rear of the panels will extend past the horse’s saddle-support area. This is extremely uncomfortable for the horse, as it puts pressure on his lumbar region. A horse ridden in a saddle that is too long will often tighten his lower back muscles. In some cases, you can see the horse hollow and drop his back in an attempt to get away from the pressure of the saddle. He may even buck in extreme cases in an effort to get the weight off his lumbar area. Finally, he may have difficulty moving forward into the canter or may simply be persistently off for no apparent reason.
If these are issues you have been facing and have been unable to attribute them to a specific injury or illness, then perhaps it could be that the saddle is too long for your horse’s back and is making him extremely uncomfortable, which is why this acting out occurs. Think about how you would feel if you had something constantly pounding into your kidneys. An ideal solution is to have a saddle with a shorter panel to accommodate the horse’s back, even if the rider needs a little bigger seat. We always say that the top of the saddle needs to fit the rider, the bottom needs to fit the horse and the tree needs to work as the interface to accommodate the needs of both. Sometimes you have to look past the obvious symptoms to find the cause.
Important Aspects of Saddle Length
1. Here is a skeletal diagram showing the proper saddle support area with respect to a horse’s rib cage.
2. I am pointing to the last supporting rib on a horse with a saddle that fits properly within the boundaries of the saddle-support area for this particular horse.
3. The red lines represent the changing directional pattern of hair on the horse’s body relative to the last supportive vertebra (notice the panel of the saddle does not extend past this point).
4. The first chalk line represents the front of the scapula (shoulder blade), whereas the second chalk line represents the last supportive vertebra.
5. My left hand is pointing to just behind the shoulder blade, where the saddle ideally should be placed and not extend past the last vertebra outlined.
6. I am drawing what I call “pain lines” from pinched nerves that appear on some horses when they have an ill-fitting saddle.
Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE is the author of The Silent Killer and Suffering in Silence–The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses. He helps discover optimal saddle fit for riders and their horse with a diagnostic saddle-fit evaluation (saddlefit4life.com).