A saddle that sits on one of the horse’s specific reflex points can cause many problems. As with humans the equine spinal column has nerve ends which protrude between each of its vertebrae. Some of these are actual reflex points, and depending on the length of the horse’s actual saddle support area, there are between 4 and 6 of these along each side of the backbone.
You can test for yourself where these are on the horse’s back: take a piece of chalk and draw a light line from back to front beside the length of the spinal column, starting at the 18th lumbar vertebrae and ending at a wither. Using even light pressure you will be able to observe a very subtle muscular reaction and ‘flicking of the skin’; using greater pressure to approximate the feel of the saddle under a light rider causes the horse to drop his back. If this horse were able to do this the whole time a saddle is actually on his back, the formation of a condition known as ‘kissing spine’ can result.
If the saddle puts pressure on these reflex points along the spine because, for example, a gullet channel is too narrow or because the saddle twists during movement because of natural asymmetry, the horse will reflexively lower his back to escape the pressure and /or pain. The goal of having the horse engage his back and raise it when he is being ridden is unachievable. Forward impulse and momentum is lost. Defensive behavior, not doing on the bit, and a rider out of balance are just some of the ramifications. This results in a frustrating experience for both horse and rider. The horse would like to respond to the aids the rider gives, but the pressure on his reflex points inhibits his ability to do so. A saddle that consistently puts pressure on the horse’s reflex points will be frustrating and eventually even damaging to the horse. A rider gives the horse the signal to move forward, however, if the tree angle is too wide or the tree width too narrow and the saddle tree is putting too much pressure in Cranial nerve 11, your horse cannot comply. A saddle impinging the reflex point hinders his ability to move. He instinctively drops his back, locks his shoulders and rotates his pelvis. Despite his best intention he cannot move forward. He wants to obey his rider, but his instinct is to ‘stay still’ – a losing proposition for the horse. When the rider thinks this immobility is simply stubbornness and starts using spurs and a whip, this may cause physical and psychological pain for the horse.
Author of ‘Suffering in Silence – The Saddle fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses’ (2013) Jochen Schleese teaches riders and professionals to recognize saddle fit issues in Saddlefit 4 Life lectures and seminars. We help you find answers in a personal 80 point Saddle Fit Diagnostic Evaluation.