Evaluate Your Horse

1.  SIGNS OF TROUBLE

Beyond the obvious “white hairs” from saddle pressure points, we may see other indications of saddle problems long before this scarring shows up. Overdeveloped, underdeveloped, or wasted muscles are often the result of poor fitting saddles or unbalanced riders. Look at the overall contours of your horse’s muscles throughout his body. Notice which areas are convex, flat, or concave. Are the shoulder / trapezius muscles healthy and plump, or flat and sloped steeply? Is there a hollow area behind the back edge of the scapula? Are the back muscles rounded lengthwise with the spine, or do they drop away in a concave curve? Is there a dip in front of or behind the withers? Are the muscles on the underside of the neck more pronounced than those of the topside? When you approach to saddle up, do you see signs of disapproval? While being ridden, does your horse show any of the following: overall tightness and tension, a high inverted neck, a hollow back, dropped abdomen, short, choppy strides, lack of shoulder reach, or behavioral and training problems? These could be signs of poor saddle fit. We’re here to help make things better – and solutions are often very simple and inexpensive.

2.   CONFORMATION & POSTURE

Conformation refers to the unchanging structure of your horse – the bones he was born with. Posture, however, can change. It is dictated by the muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and how they hold the bones together as your horse moves throughout his entire body. These soft tissues can align the body in a healthy way, or with unhealthy compensations if your horse has had to adjust himself in an unnatural way due to pain or restriction. A horse with poor posture might have an inverted/ewe neck, a sagging back, drooped belly, stand with hindquarters out behind or rear feet too far underneath. Notice how your horse chooses to stand when loose in his stall or pasture. Conformation doesn’t change, but posture can be improved – and having a saddle that works with your horse instead of against him is a key factor.

The skeleton of your horse determines his conformation. When you compare his withers to the croup, is that skeletal structure uphill, level or downhill? Depending on the saddle, this may influence rider balance point. To get an accurate profile, have your horse stand squarely on level ground with his head and neck in neutral position. Step back about 10 ft., perpendicular to the mid-belly, and take a photo. Keep your camera level – it can help to have a horizontal reference behind your horse, such as a level fence board, roof line, etc. Look at the photo – is the top of the croup higher, lower, or even with the wither?

 3.   HOW MUCH CAN YOUR HORSE’S BACK ELEVATE & EXPAND?

With your horse standing squarely, step back about 10 ft., perpendicular to the mid-belly position. Ask your friend to “tickle” the center of your horse’s midline (the groove under his belly). Use fingertips firmly, or finger nails or a hoof pick gently, stimulating him to contract his abdominal muscles and lift his back. Notice the change and natural elevation potential. Take a photo, and compare this to the photo you took of his neutral standing conformation. It is often quite a dramatic change and lift! You can now visualize how much room your saddle will need to accommodate your horse’s back in motion. (If you have time and something to step up on, take a photo from above, before and during the belly “tickle” – you’ll see the broadening expansion of his back – and again, your saddle needs enough dynamic tolerance to accommodate the changing shapes of your horse’s back in motion.

4.   FIND THE SHOULDER BLADE’S BACK EDGE IN 2 PLACES:

  • Stationary: While your horse is standing squarely, feel gently but firmly with your fingertips to find the back edge of the scapula (shoulder blade). You’ll feel where the firm muscular area drops off. Mark that location with your chalk or washable marker. Do this on both the left and right side. This mark will be used to position your saddle.
  • In Motion (Simulated): Lift your horse’s knee and pull the front leg up and forward. Feel firmly to be sure you locate the furthermost point of the shoulder blade and muscle bulge. Notice how the muscles pull the scapula down and back. This is what happens in full stride. Mark this second location. Do this on the left and the right sides. This second mark shows you the maximum backswing point, and determines placement of shims for optimal shoulder clearance.
  • The difference between these two marks can be truly amazing. When your horse is in full stride, his shoulder blades move much further back then when he is standing still. This process helps us visualize the importance of fitting the saddle for the horse in motion. By making sure he has clearance and freedom for his shoulders, you will maximize his comfort and improve performance.

5.   MEASURE 3 KEY LOCATIONS

It’s a good idea to know if your saddle is narrower than your horse’s body even when standing. Press-mold a flexicurve over your horse’s spine gently but firmly. Stroke it several times to make sure it is smoothly mirroring the shapes in these regions:

  1. The scapula back edge while standing
  2. At the scapula maximum backswing point you marked earlier. Note: it is best to exercise your naked horse for at least 5 minutes to allow the muscles in this region to plump up with good blood circulation so you have an idea of their capacity at this time in your horse’s condition. If these muscles have been squeezed by saddles over time, they might not plump up much at first…but don’t worry. What you’ll be doing in the future to help them will make a big difference. But the exercising prior to flexicurve measurement will give you clues you need to compare with your current saddle.
  3. In the region of his back where you sit
  4. Carefully preserving the molded shape of the flexicurve, place it on a large sheet of paper and trace under the arch (of each of the 3 shapes one at a time).
  5. Press mold the flexicurve on the underside of your saddle in the same relative places where it will intersect with your horse’s body, trace on the paper and compare the shape angles. Which is wider/narrower? Your horse or your saddle?
  6. DON’T WORRY: Versafit Shims in the right place can help tremendously.