Socks and bags…how comfy are yours?

I read an interesting article recently and discussed it in an online study group. The writer drew an analogy between correctly fitting walking boots and correctly fitting saddles. There followed a discussion about the role of numnahs and socks, and whether they should be thick or thin. The learning point from this was that if your saddle/walking boots have been fitted with thin socks/numnahs don’t them wear them with thick ones! A useful point to remember, and one I could have done with learning before I gave myself blisters through not following that advice.

The other point that came out of the analogy for me, was the use of footwear as the analogy. We all know understand that a good farrier is worth is weight in gold. Indeed, a story from a William Fox-Pitt lecture tells of a horse his mother bought that had failed the vetting, “what did it fail on?” came a question from the floor. “Navicular” he replied. There was a pause, after which he added, “we had a very good farrier. He was sound and eventing till 16 years old.” Need one say more?

But in fact, in my mind the comparison to the saddle is the backpack that you choose to carry when walking. Now, this is something that people don’t think about, or they buy the cheapest, or the brand they know, or the pink one…However, walking any distance with an ill-fitting backpack will reduce your back to a seething mass of painful muscles, and that is only carrying the fraction of the weight that a rider represents to a horse.

The problem with pain is that we can’t see it. We can feel our own pain, but not that of others. But anyone who has had to walk any distance with blisters will remember how very sore it is. There is no point buying the most expensive walking boots, if you then carry everything in a poorly fitting backpack. You must see the whole picture. Yet how many people are guilty of ensuring their horse’s feet are well-maintained and then riding it in a saddle that does not fit. It is our responsibility as horse owners to ensure that we provide good care for our horses and all the areas this encompasses.

So, the next time you are wondering whether it is worth getting the saddler out, put a cheap backpack on your back, fill it and go for a long walk….

What does your horse do when you do his girth up?

Is your horse happy when you do his girth up? If the answer is yes, then good, but make sure you know what to do should that no longer be the case. It is all too easy for our horses to slip, or spin in the field, or simply turn awkwardly and strain a muscle. You might not see this, you might not know, until you go to girth up your horse and he puts his ears back. Equally you might have a horse that has always put his ears back, and you have simply accepted it as part of his behaviour.

Remember your horse is only capable of communicating with you through his behaviour, it is up to us to make sure that we are listening. We always recommend that you begin with the eliminating the possibility that the horse is in pain before you begin to alter the behaviour. There is no point is challenging your horse’s behaviour till you are confident that it is not a pain response. All you are doing if you do that, is cutting off the opportunity for the horse to communicate with you.

Your horse may have always put his ears back, or started doing it recently, either way you can start to resolve this problem. Have a good professional check your horse over, so that you can rule out whether the behaviour is a pain issue. This may include a physio or osteopath, a saddle fitter, a dentist. Remember pain can be referred, so don’t assume it must be a problem with the girth.

Once you have thoroughly investigated and are confident that the horse is not in pain, then two things will happen. Either the behaviour will stop, as the horse realises he is not in pain, or it will continue, as a learnt response. The horse has learnt the association between the girth being done up and pain. Their behaviour is a response that has been learnt from the pain reaction. It is possible to re-train the horse not to respond in this way.

Begin the re-training by breaking down the process into small pieces and re-training each part of the process. Identify where the horse’s reaction begins. Does he start to fidget when you pick up the saddle, or does he only flinch when you actually do the girth up? Dependent on the severity of the reaction, it will take a proportional length of time to correct the training.

Remember to spend time on each stage of the process, rewarding the desired response with praise, or some action that your horse enjoys, such a scratch on the withers. Be wary of simply using food as a reward, as this can lead to further problems. Once each stage of the process has been broken down and worked on, you will be able to join them together and be able to saddle and girth up your horse, while he remains happy and relaxed.

Does your saddle fit?

You know what it is like to walk around in shoes that don’t fit, so it is easy to imagine how uncomfortable a poorly fitting saddle must be.

The problems caused by a poorly fitting saddle are well documented, including pain for the horse, behavioural problems that are labelled as “naughtiness” and poor performance. In our book “Understanding Horse Performance Brain, Pain, or Training?” we help people to identify the causes of their horse’s problems and whether the problems are caused by brain, pain, or training.

While the majority of riders understand the need for  correctly fitting saddles, the practicality of ensuring this can be challenging. Saddles are notoriously expensive  and if you have just purchased a new saddle and then your horse changes shape, the tendency is to make do. Do make sure you seek out a professional saddle fitter to come and assess you and your horse. There is no point having a saddle that fits your horse, if it doesn’t fit you. Do make sure that you have a good instructor to help you achieve and maintain a good position. Even getting a friend to video you riding can help to develop a correct position.

We understand that everyone wishes to keep their horses happy and healthy, but the logistics of doing so can be hard. So make sure you schedule the time to have your horse’s saddle checked by a competent professional, and should ridden problems, such as bucking, develop make sure that checking the fit of your saddle is one of the actions that you take. For a great guide on saddle fitting and what you should look for, take a look at this guide which has been put together by the Animal Health Trust in association with World Horse Welfare, click here to view the guide.

Are you flapping?

By Sue Palmer

A recent study (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0196960) looked into rider stability on saddles with flaps (i.e. what we think of as ‘normal’ English saddles) versus saddles without flaps (EQ saddles https://eqsaddlescience.com).  It was a small study size (5 riders), but the research was headed by the well respected Dr Hilary Clayton.  The study was funded by EQ Saddles, but it’s stated on the study that they had no say in study design, data collection or data analysis, and that none of the researchers received salary support for the study.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I recommend these saddles – I haven’t personally come across them, so I wouldn’t be able to.  I’m also not saying that I disagree with them – but if they are supporting ongoing research, then I’m certainly interested in knowing more.  Evidence comes not only in the form of published, peer reviewed studies, but also through experience and knowledge.  Peer reviewed, published studies are certainly a good starting point though!

I’m also not saying that I support or don’t support treeless saddles – I think it’s very dependent on the saddle and the horse, and personally I’d recommend working with a saddler you trust and respect and taking their advice.  I’m a Chartered Physiotherapist, not a saddler.  So I can tell you if your horse is sore through his back, and if this might possibly be caused by poor saddle fit, but I certainly don’t feel qualified to tell you which saddle will fit your horse, or how to adjust your saddle fit.

I’m also unsure of any evidence as to whether or not a more secure seat is beneficial, but on the whole, I’d think yes, it is.  Certainly it feels better as a rider if you are able to sit more still.  From a behavioural / training point of view, I think it’s really important to be still in the saddle in order to be able to give subtle signals that the horse can distinguish from the ‘white noise’ of the general movement of your body as you balance.  I do, however, believe that there needs to be a degree of movement of the saddle on the horse, because if exactly the same amount of pressure is put through exactly the same area for a prolonged period of time (as would happen if the saddle didn’t move at all), this would lead to muscle atrophy beneath that entire area.  The movement need only be small, but capillaries must have the pressure removed intermittently in order to refill, and therefore to maintain healthy functioning of the muscle.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a saddle fitter or a Master Saddler, I’m a Chartered Physiotherapist.  This study interests me, saddle design interests me, the treed / treeless debate interests me.  I don’t feel qualified to advise as saddle fit is not my area of expertise. But I do want to remain open minded and to share new ideas and information, and this study fits squarely into that field for me.  I hope it’s of interest to you as well, and I wish EQ saddles the best with their ongoing research.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0196960