Animal Chiropractic | Saddling Page
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It must be fair to say that the Equine Chiropractor can make no major, long-lasting contributions to the horse without a proper fitting saddle. I would like to take this statement one step further and say that without a proper fitting saddle pad, the proper fitting saddle is of no use to the horse. I was taught by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) that it is imperative that the back of the saddle does not rock from side to side when it is fitted on the horse. (This is without the girth tightened up and without a saddle pad on). In other words, the saddle must stick to the horse’s body when the examiner rocks it from side to side.

Some shaped saddle pads make a slight fold in the material at the base of its semi-circular shape. This fold is enough to lift the saddle ever so slightly, resulting in the back of the saddle rocking from side to side. Please check this yourself and confirm that the back of the saddle does does not rock from side to side when pushed at the side of the cantle.

What needs to happen, is that the saddle pad cut must be in reverse: the fold that was always at the back of the pad must be in front under the pommel, and the flatness of the material that was in the front of the pad must be at the back. In other words, must be an upward slant in the front third of the pad, to accommodate the sloped withers. The exception to the rule is sheepskin saddle pads. These shaped ones fit the horse nicely, regardless of the top contour. The artificial sheepskin is a disaster, and should be never used. I see expense beautiful fitting saddles all the time that are made null and void by ill fitting saddle pads.

P.S. An update to the above letter is that there are first class shaped saddle pads on the market that fits the contour of the horses back beautifully.

In the initial letter, it was mentioned that the fold in the base of the saddle pad affects the saddle fit. What must be added is that in these ill fitting pads there is no firm support in the overall shape of the pad, which must be the main contributing factor to their defect.

This lack of support was noted when one of these pads was not washed for several weeks. The sweat and dirt in the pad made it rigid and less flexible, thereby complementing the proper fitting saddle.

(Dirty pads are not recommended – rather get one that fits properly)


    Some clues that the saddle may be causing problems without having the tack and rider present:
  • White hairs on or around withers, or hair loss or worn areas.
  • Abnormal muscles around withers, painful trapezius, stringy feel to muscles, rock hard muscles. Along with this is poor scapular range of motion.
  • Withers from hell i.e. tight, sore, difficult to work with.
  • Abnormal rib soreness.
  • History: Cinchy, “Cold backed”, Attitude changes especially while being saddled.
    Clues while under saddle, with or without rider:
  • Gait analysis: Short choppy gait in front. Normal gait on lunge line, in hand, or in field, but turns into llama neck (inverted neck) when under saddle.
  • Resistance to work. Won’t come out of pen, or chute. Difficulty with lead changes. Will not turn the barrel. Difficulty collecting.
  • Any signs of discomfort, tail swishing, ear pinning, jigging, even head tossing, or sensitivity to being brushed.
  • Again any behaviour changes, resistance to training aids, increased shying, refusing jumps.
    Common sense about saddles:
  • Horses change as they get older. What fits a 3 yr. old may not fit a 7 yr. old. As horses age, body conformation changes. The top line becomes more sway backed, and withers more pronounced.
  • Horses change with work or lack of work. A horse that is well muscled and fit will be a lot different than a horse recovering from surgery, or tendon injury that has been rested for long periods. Endurance horses in the first 20 miles may loose 3-5% hydration, and possibly 50-100 lbs. during a 100-mile event. Three-day event horses may require numerous different saddles due to changes in body condition.
    Basic steps to fitting the saddle:
  • Check the pommel and gullet clearance. Saddles are going to vary, but the general rule is 2 ½ to 3-finger clearance at pommel. Gullet should be wide enough and high enough to clear spinous processes, and wide enough to allow movement in all directions. (about 2 ½ - 3 inches).
  • Check for bridging and rocking. Bridging is one of the most common problems, and occurs when then there is too much contact in the front and rear of the panels, but less contact in the middle. Rocking is just the opposite.
  • Check the fit of the panels by applying pressure on the saddle. Panels should fit snugly and evenly along both sides and on the sides of the withers. There are many different shapes of withers.
  • Girth strap must be one hands breadth away from the elbow – to prevent interference.

Saddle pads:

The function of the pad is to act as an interface and shock absorber between the saddle and horse. In the pressure test (mentioned later), many different types of pads were tested. The results are as follows:

  • Open cell foam-thick type pad is better than cotton quilt, but pressure increased over the duration of the test.
  • Open cell foam-thin pad improved slightly (less pressure).
  • Closed cell foam increased pressure.
  • Gel pads: only one was the same as the cotton quilt, the rest increased pressure, one type dramatically.
  • Mixed open and closed type pad performed slightly better than the cotton quilt.
  • Combination pads increased pressure points.

End conclusion was that 65% of the time different pads or multiple pads increased the problems. Open cell foam and gel pads appeared to cause problems by bottoming-out and increasing pressure.

My thoughts are that most saddles fit on the tight side; if you have a tight pair of shoes, you don’t put on two pairs of socks. Multiple pads act to functionally narrow the tree.

Multiple pads can bunch up, wrinkle and remove space in the gullet. Stay with natural fibres and a single pad designed for that particular saddle, and keep them clean.

The pressure test:

A study of pressure and its effects was done, using 256 sensors under different saddles and pads. The following grading scale was used:

  • Pressure up to 1.93 psi was graded as excellent fit.
  • 2.0 and 3.38 psi without persistent pressure points was graded good.
  • 2.0 to 3.38 psi with moderate pressure points was graded fair.
  • Over 3.4 psi, or persistent pressure points, was graded poor.

Pressure of 0.68 psi for over 2hrs. in humans and canines causes significant tissue damage. Some saddles had pressures up to 4 psi over long periods of time, which caused compression of the capillaries, tissue damage and pain.

In human studies pressures are found to be greater at the bone level than at the surface. The result is subcutaneous necrosis (tissue or cell death), which begins closer to the bone long before cutaneous redness and ulceration are seen. If the same is true for the pressure caused by poorly fitting saddles, we may be causing more trouble than we realise.