An ill fitting saddle can cause pain and discomfort for your horse. This may result in obvious physical symptoms like rubs and sores but saddle pain can also present in more subtle ways such as training problems of difficultly achieving a soft, subtle outline.
One key indicator that your horse is in pain is an inability or reluctance to drop their head and reach into a contact. In short, getting your horse 'on the bit' is near on impossible if the saddle does not fit correctly.
For our horse to be 'on the bit' there are two essential ingredients, the first is hind end engagement and the second is lifting the back. The head and neck position comes as a result of active hind limbs and a flexed spine not the other way around!
A horse who lifts his head above the bit will not be using his body is an effective way and is more likely to suffer injuries, back pain and even long term damage.
How does saddle fit contribute to our horses outline?
First we need to understand the message we are sending our horse. Are we asking him to step through and lift his back or are we just wiggling the reins in an attempt to get a pretty head position?
By focusing excessively on the head we can end up getting a 'false outline'. This is when we apply pressure to the mouth (by wiggling the reins) until the horse drops his head to a position we think is acceptable. This is a method of 'aversion training', i.e. we make every other position uncomfortable except the position we want i.e. with the nose tucked in.
The risk of creating this false outline is that the back remains extended (dipped) and the hindlimbs remain inactive. The neck will usually be overbent further restricting hindlimb action and even restricting airflow.
How the Saddle Contributes
The most successful training technique in the equine world is pressure & release. Using this method we make use of the horses natural instinct to move away from pressure to get a desired result. The pressure can be physical (such as a leg aid) or psychological (such as waving a whip). We apply the pressure such as a leg aid, the horse moves away from the pressure (moves off the leg) and gets a reward i.e. no more pressure (the leg pressure comes away).
The same principal applies to pressure from an ill fitting saddle. If the saddle causes pressure points or pinches the horse he will drop his back to move away from the pressure.
Now we know that we need the horse to lift his back to work correctly yet this is impossible if he is being pinched by the saddle.
When the saddle does not fit correctly the horse experiences more pain every time he lifts his back. In this scenario we effectively punish the horse for lifting his back (he experiences pain) and reward him for hollowing his back (he has less pain). You can see how this is completely counter productive.
By ensuring your saddle fits correctly you can ensure your horse is not being sent mixed signals. A good saddle fitter will ensure that your horse is not only comfortable in the saddle when he lifts his back but actually feels better in it when he is working correctly therefore creating a productive environment to train the horse.
If you think saddle may be causing your horse pain please contact an appropriately trained saddle fitter to discuss your concerns.
A horse who struggles to maintain a contact may be suffering from pain which is not related to the saddle so it is always worth having a chat with your Veterinarian or Physiotherapist alongside your Saddle Fitter, Trainer and Farrier.