Monday, November 16, 2015

Saddle Fit- Does It Matter?

A friend of mine recently ventured back into the wicked world of horses. I have tried to warn her away but she insists that she has done the smart thing long enough (went and got herself an impressive education and career). This summer she acquired her gelding and every so often she drops me a line with a question and I've been doing my best to answer without overwhelming her with just how complicated even the smallest detail of horse husbandry and riding can be. I thought that maybe from here on out I should answer her questions on this blog. I've decided to call her Jane because I think she represents an entire set of women who are bravely facing a new world of adult riding after leaving it behind in their late teens. My friend Jane is one of those naturally intuitive and gifted riders who rode through her childhood- running at game shows, chasing cows, jumping homemade jumps in the backyard, playing bareback tag through the bush and even guided for a local trail riding stable. She can ride. But in the years between then and now she has only gotten to ride a few times a year and hasn't had maintain her own horse. I learned a lot from her family and have oodles of wonderful childhood memories of our many horse adventures so it is a pleasure to be able to offer her encouragement and advice when I can.

Last week she had an incident where her horse bucked at a lope. I threw her my best (shamelessly stolen line), "What happened before what happened happened?" We ran through a list of possibilities like whether he appeared at all sore, had her work schedule not allowed her to work with him consistently enough, was he worried about the lope, too fresh and the inevitable... does your saddle fit? I told her that I knew a lady who used to make a mint off buying and selling horses that were being flogged through the auction because of behavioral issues. This broker was simply good at spotting physical issues and knew which ones could be fixed. She gave these horses a bit of therapy, some time off, thirty days or so of retraining and Bob's your Uncle, she'd have them going like a million bucks... (without any bucking, that is). Half of her horses had white marks on their back from... you guessed it, poorly fitted saddles.  Poorly fitted saddles hurt and pain can make horses buck.

But here is the thing- when we were kids... some *cough* twenty years ago *cough* saddle fit just wasn't on the radar. We rode in what we had and what was anything but top quality and we rode our horses all over hells half acre and it never seemed to be an issue... So why should it matter now?


I think the biggest change is simply a difference in expectation. The fact is that my horse used to buck, rear or bolt on occasion and I also used to fall off a fair amount. Neither of these facts stand out in my memory much (unless I was badly hurt) because it just wasnt a big deal. These days it is. I expect my horse to not buck, rear, bolt, spin in circles in front of traffic while bucking or any of that sort of thing. As adult riders we generally prefer when our horses just behave. Hitting the ground at thirteen aint the same as hitting the ground at thirty-three. When our horses do something that causes us pain, we're motivated to investigate the cause and mitigate the possibility of it happening again.

Another factor is our sensitivity towards our horses attitudes. I dont recall being concerned as a teen about whether or not my horse was or was not a willing partner. When we rode I was most often focused on a task or an objective, like turning a barrel or getting over a jump. When we focus on a task it changes our intent and the stronger our intent the clearer our communication. Problems like being barn sour, or buddy sour, or gate sour just didnt rate as being important in my mind and if my horse misbehaved as a result of these vices it didnt phase me and I certainly didn't take it as an insult against our relationship or as a failure of my training.

There are other things to consider like our weight, our athleticism and balance which are all factors to how we stress a horses back. Also how much variety there was in how we rode, one day we would jump, the next trails, the next a bareback rip down the road. Our horses weight and fitness, the lack of condition of a topline also meant that narrower saddles were less likely to pinch.

Performance wise, there is no question that saddle fit matters. When the difference between a pay cheque and an empty wallet comes down to a tenth of a second, riders do everything they can to make sure their horses are running to the peak of their ability. The tiniest bit of discomfort, that little stiffening of a sore muscle in the back that shortens the reach of as stride can be a deciding factor. The more you expect of your horse performance wise the more you have to be aware of body issues. When you invest thousands of hours and dollars into training a horse to compete it would be penny wise and pound foolish to ignore saddle fit but what about when riding at an amateur or recreation level? As kids we didn't care that our horses were riding with their heads high and if they didnt stop,  we just pulled harder or went to a stronger bit. But as adults we are used to having more control and we prefer our horses to do as they are told. Saddle fit issues can make your horse hard to stop, toss their heads, jig, not maintain gait and otherwise misbehave. Thinking back my horse did many of these things.

Lastly, and most importantly, I think that we used to accept that young horses bucked and had more behavior issues. With new methods of training we no longer necessarily expect a horse to buck even on that first ride. Horses buck for different reasons... out of frustration, lack of confidence, discomfort, and even for fun but they almost always buck in an effort to communicate something. Sometimes they buck to communicate the discomfort of a pinching saddle. When a horse bucks and a rider is thrown they learn that relief comes from bucking. Horses learn this especially well when a rider quits riding or quits riding as hard out of fear of that buck.  But when bucking does not result in relief from the pain (because the rider is a cowboy or whipper snapper kid who sticks) then the horse must learn to just grin and bear the pain. And if they learn that bucking can result in more pain (being spurred for example) it can shut down their attempt to communicate in that manner. The truth is that many horses suffered back pain but didnt act out. Some of the horses of our childhood packed our sorry asses up and down hills, over jumps and around a barrel pattern without complaint. And of course sometimes, but chance, our saddles fit.

 Looking back at the my early riding years I can think of many horses who were "buckers". It was almost expected that some horses bucked. There are many reasons for why this is but there is no doubt in my mind that a large chunk of them were horses with pain in their bodies. These days I honestly can only think of one or two horses I know (of many) who buck. And of the horses I knew growing up who never misbehaved, I also would also safely say that some of them were in pain but were simply of the stoic types. I knew a mare who was a beautifully trained bridle horse. She had no vices but every so often she would tremble for no apparent reason and she had a few other physical quirks that lead the owners to investigate whether she had back issues but nothing was every found. Years later her condition worsened and she had a few big spontaneous blow ups. Finally she had to be put down. The autopsy showed that she had a near severed tendon in her neck. This likely from and injury as a three-year-old. This stoic mare had being packing people around for years without complaint. I knew another gentle giant perchron who packed his rider around as quiet as could be. He was always foot tender and the owner finally decided to do x-rays. The vet said the bones in his feet were in crumbles and he didn't understand how he was standing. We all know people who bear chronic pain silently. We all know people who do nothing buy complain over the smallest injury. Horses are no different.

When you think of it, just how incredible is it that horses, these pray animals, are willing to allow us to climb up on their backs? To run has hard and fast as they can at our bidding; to jump, spin, and blindly follow us where they would never dare go on their own. Is it any wonder that they are willing to stoically bear a little discomfort? When my horse gives me a great ride I feel compelled to give back to her, to make sure that she is as happy and as comfortable as possible. For this reason, and for all of the above, I try to find a saddle that fits.