Samie Jamieson walks us through the saddle fitting process.
I start by making a full assessment of the horse by checking how their conformation is put together, how their back shape is, how they are standing, hoof balance, how they move their shoulders, their depth of girth where girth sits, and how they are trained. Their musculature can give you an indication of how they are going to move, and what influence that will have over the saddle and then if there is work going on to improve that, you have to take into consideration what the client is going to do.
I continue by checking the horse over, front to back, seeing how they are through the muscles, through the neck, through the shoulder, the pectorals at the front, checking and feeling through their elbow as it has now been discovered via research that the majority of horses have arthritic changes in their elbows by the time they are five, so we need to try and do the best we can with what we are doing, and this is one of the points I have added on to my evaluation, to feel around the elbows to check for pain response.
I then check the shoulders to see if there are any swelling/reactions in that area, particularly if you put the saddle too close to the shoulder then you can chip away the cartilage.
Checking the musculature along their back, the spinalis, the trapezius, then the lumbar area to see if there is any change in muscular feel when palpated, then the girth area to see if there is any tenderness there, as that can be from overtightening of the girth, or can be indicative towards ulcers.
Then the pelvic bounce – does the pelvis ‘bounce’ when pressed, or does it stay in a rigid structure – which can indicate an issue and you would then need to seek professional help.
Checking the gluteal muscles and down the back. Then with one hand on tail and another hand on the spine, rock through the spine from the tail, if there is no movement there it can indicate an issue so again, seek professional help.
Finally, the last check is along the spinal processes, to check there is no reaction and that the horse doesn’t drop away
Taking the template
When taking a template with a flexi-curve, you need to have an allowance for when the shoulder rotates forward, as the scapula comes quite far back. You can lift the front leg up and forward, and although this isn’t an exact replica of the movement when the horse is in motion, it does give you a good idea of how far back the scapula reaches. About 3-4cm back you need to consider that the point of the tree needs to sit behind there. So, when I take my templates I always start at that area, progressing 3-4” back with each subsequent trace, until I reach T18 vertebrae. You then get a really good view on paper of the whole of the back, not just the front, as horses can differ greatly from front to back.
I then take a spinal trace with the flexi-curve, so that you can see the shape of the withers, and the shape along the length of the back, highlighting such things as straight back, sway back etc, which has a great influence on what kind of tree should be used for each individual horse.
Horse in motion
I see each horse walk and trot up and down away and towards me. This allows me to assess their gait, see how they use their back when they are moving, assess straightness, see if there are any problems at all, watch them turn etc. I then ask to see them do four steps backwards to see if they move backwards straight, if this isn’t possible again it can indicate a potential issue and I will advise the client to seek professional help.
Assessing a saddle
When looking at a saddle I check the tree to ensure it doesn’t feel broken. The only way to completely know that a tree isn’t broken is to take the saddle completely apart. I then assess the tree is straight, check the tree points are not broken in any way and that they are level. I check that all the girth straps are attached, that they aren’t worn and that the holes aren’t going to tear, then check the stirrup bars, the underneath of the saddle and the panels to see that they are not hard and will then cause concussion on the horse’s back, that there are no lumps or bumps causing pressure points and that they aren’t overly soft therefore not providing the horse’s back with protection against the tree.
I check symmetry, no general wear and tear, no rips and that the gullet is wide enough. Three inches, is the standard I use but it is very important to assess the horse's width of spine as this may need to be increased, as it is a fixed object on a moving animal, so when the horse turns right, the back of the panel is going to go to the left towards the horse's spine, same when the horse goes left, the left panel is going to go right towards the horse’s spine, so you need an allowance in the gullet. Too narrow and the panel will go onto the horse’s spine, which is what we are trying to avoid.
Assessing saddle fit for the rider
This can be a challenge as everybody’s thigh bone is different, how it is situated in the hip socket, the angle and size. There are lots of different variations with the size, width, depth and shape of each individual pelvis. Research has shown that some female and male pelvis shapes were the same or very different. Conformation of the rider must be considered along with how they can use their body and how they ride, as this can have a huge impact. You quite often hear people exclaim there is something wrong with their saddle because it goes to one side, but often that can be down to either the horse or the rider, especially if they haven’t checked the length of their stirrups as they can sometimes stretch making the rider one-sided, so it is always worth comparing your stirrups against each other to check for this as sometimes the leather may have given more in the stirrup leather. Or the asymmetry of the rider has caused the stirrup leathers to become uneven.
We all have compensations, none of us is truly symmetrical so the aim is to try and become as symmetrical as you can as a rider. That does mean you should go and see a physiotherapist or chiropractor regularly yourself, to in turn benefit your horse’s welfare and not have an influence over your saddle. For example, if you are one-sided, this can squash the flocking in one panel more than the other, then that has an influence on the horse and cause misalignment of your saddle. Horses aren’t symmetrical either, so you need to try and improve the horse’s posture, rendering the saddle the part in the middle where you both come together and meet. This takes dedication, discipline, for us not to be in denial and fully understand we are accountable for our impact on the horse’s body.
Checking the saddle in action
Part of the saddle fitting process involves watching the client ride in their saddle. I often find this becomes a mini-lesson, as I can see little things which can help them improve. Ninety per cent of the time I see riders that are out of balance, and just a simple exercise in trot (which is my favourite exercise) is whilst in rising trot you rise for two strides, sit for one stride and repeat. You will find many riders cannot do this as they are out of balance and they land heavily in the saddle. Obviously, that affects the saddle and the horse, and their gait will be affected, and they will have to compensate for the rider, which of course can cause damage long term. If you do land heavily this is an exercise you can play with, you incline from your hip a little forward and find your personal balance point. This is something you need to find for yourself. Everyone has their own internal balance point, their own posture and yes, you will always try and improve that to benefit yourself and your horse as at the end of the day horses were not designed to be ridden, and we have a compounding effect upon them physically by doing so and we aim to be the best we can be to aid them to carry us as effectively as possible, they are not a sofa we can slump on! However, we minimise this impact upon them as much as possible by using professionals such as myself, to ensure the comfort and safety of your horse, and you.