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Is your Saddle Hurting your Horse? – Reading Behaviour

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

We all love our horses and the last thing we want to do is see them in pain. We are very quick to whip out the first aid box or call the vet when there is a visible injury (like a cut) but many horse owners overlook a much more sinister injury – the trauma caused by an ill-fitting saddle.

In this article we will look at some of the common behavioural and training symptoms of poor saddle fit.

A saddle which does not fit will not just make your horses’ back sore but can lead to serious problems such as lameness and even kissing spine so it’s important that as horse owners we know the signs that something is not quite right and catch problems early on.

Luckily our horse will tell us when there is a problem and as long as we listen we can usually fix it without too much drama. All we need to do is know how to speak ‘horse’.

We can learn to speak horse by paying attention to his behaviour. The horse will use as much volume (behaviour) as he needs to get his point across. This volume (behaviour) gets louder and louder (worse and worse) until he is either heard or too scared to talk.

By the time your horses’ behaviour has escalated to bucking, rearing and bolting your horse is effectively SCREAMING ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘that hurts!’. It is usually at this point we start to listen.

But what if we could understand our horse before he starts screaming?

The most commonly overlooked symptom of pain is a horse who shuts down. These horses will lose that little sparkle in their eye and tend to stay very quiet (well behaved) no matter how much they are suffering. We will cover this in a separate article.

So, what can we look for? When it comes to saddle fit there are a few subtle behaviours which are typical:

· Moving away from the mounting block

· Turning away from you when you bring the saddle to the stable

· Fidgeting when being tacked up

· Napping

. Refusing to be caught from the field or stable

. White's of eyes showing on sign of tack

. Muscle twitching when touching saddle area

. Girthiness' (aggression when girthing up)

We also see training issues such as:

· A short choppy stride when ridden

· Tripping and stumbling when ridden

· Disunited canter

· Lateral walk/trot

· Struggling with flying changes

All of these may be signs that your saddle is not fitting or that something else is wrong. By reading these signs we can prevent the BIG screams and get the problem solved nice and early.

Louder (more obvious) signs are:

· Pinning back the ears

· Biting or attempting to bite the handler or saddle

· Shooting forwards after the rider has mounted

· Tail swishing

· Bucking after a jump

· Reluctance to go forwards

· Refusing jumps

All of these signs are fairly loud protests that there is something wrong. The longer we overlook these signs the more damage we could potentially be doing if they are caused by a saddle related issue.

We spoke to Certified Horse Behaviour Consultant and Accredited Animal Behaviourist Alex Le Grand (FdSc CHBC ABTC-AAB IASF-A. ABTC, IAABC) who said:

"It is very common that as an equine behaviourist I see behavioural issues that have developed as a result of an ill fitting saddle. The problem really starts when these behavioural issues become conditioned (learned) and the horse starts to anticipate pain or discomfort at the mere sight of the saddle (regardless of whether there is pain there in the present moment or not). This can present us with a difficult issue, the saddle has been resolved, the pain is gone but the problem behaviour is persisting.
At this time, it is very easy to label a horse "naughty, stubborn, nappy, etc." when actually the horse is just frightened at the thought of the pain reoccurring. At this point, getting in a qualified and ABTC registered behaviourist is your best bet to ensure that the problem is dealt with correctly. Of course, prevention is always better than a cure and therefore getting your saddle check regularly by an adequately qualified saddle fitter is the best thing you can do to ensure your horse's comfort and your own safety"

Saddle related problems tend to happen over time, they’re not as obvious as a direct trauma and the horse will often start telling us he is in pain using subtle signs which is why it is so important to understand subtle pain signals and fix problem before they get worse.

If your horse is telling you there is a problem it is important that you seek professional advice. Saddle, back and teeth are always a good place to start and don’t be afraid to get second opinions.

Equine behaviour is a complex subject and there may be various reasons why your horse may be displaying any of the above symptoms. Adding the services of a qualified behavioural therapist to your circle professionals is essential for the long term well-being of your equine friend.


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