EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Low Back Saddle Fit

Dr. Joyce Harman lends her saddle-fitting expertise to a saddle seat rider's very sore Arabian in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.

Question: I have a purebred Arabian with a very upright neck. He has a very low back that goes down about seven inches at the lowest point. To make it worse, he also has a short back. He has been a national champion and has several other national titles and is worth the time and effort to figure out what to use to fix the problem. When I brought him home from the trainer’s about two months ago his withers, neck and back were so sore he would pin his ears even if you touched him in those areas. I have been getting him weekly massages, and he has made vast improvement. Under saddle, he tries to be good, but pins his ears and wrings his tail. I need to find a saddle pad that is built up in the middle to take the pressure off his withers and point of his back. I have also heard you can have air, pump-up panels put on the saddle (he uses a wide tree cutback saddle). Any suggestions? I have included a picture of him in the show ring so you can get a visual. –Taylor Thompson

Taylor Thompson aboard Hells Bells | Photo courtesy of Taylor Thompson

Answer: Here you have an extreme version of a fairly common problem. Your horse was telling you that he was very sore, and you correctly got him some massage to help alleviate the pain. This confirms that he is in pain and will be happier when he is better. Many horses get very grumpy or sour when they hurt–massage, acupuncture, chiropractic and stretching can all help correct the pain part of the equation.

Now we need to fix the cause of the problem, which is a bit more complex. The most important stretch you can do is lots of belly lifts. Here you tickle or put pressure on the midline where the girth goes and ask him to raise his back. Be careful, many horses find this painful and will kick or bite. If this is painful, you need a chiropractor who knows how to work on the rib cage. You can go to www.animalchiropractic.org or www.thehealingoasis.com and look for a practitioner in your area and ask if they work on the rib cage.


You are correct in thinking that you need to fill in the center of the saddle to give him some more support. However, his back has dropped down in large part due to his pain; he is trying to get away from the pressure of the saddle as well as pain in his muscles. The cutback saddles have several problems that are hard to get away from. I cannot see from the picture exactly what the panels of the saddle look like, but most have a very thin panel (photo 1).


Photo 2 shows an ideal panel with plenty of space in the gullet for the spine to sit without any pressure. Thin panels allow the hard parts of the tree to contact the horse’s spine (the hard part of bone down the middle of the back). This area has no padding, so even a little tapping of the saddle will hurt a lot. Very often the weight of the rider just moving in the saddle a little bit will cause this pressure or contact. The horse then starts to drop his back down. As time goes by the back drops further.


The next issue is at the front end. Since the panels are very thin, there is little cushion on each side of his withers to protect him from the hard tree (photo 3). Many cutback saddles either pinch on the sides of the withers or, even though they are supposed to miss the withers, they contact the withers at the back of the cutback part of the tree where it is hard to see (photo 4). As the back drops down more, the pressure increases at each end, which makes the back drop more. Many Arabians and Saddlebreds have a back that seems to be genetically weaker and tends to drop easily, even with minimal pain, and if pain is present, the back drops even more.

| Photos 1-4 courtesy of Joyce Harman

The next difficulty is that the trees and panels tend to be very flat in shape, and most horses have some degree of curve to their back. Your horse has a more extreme downward curve, but finding a show saddle that will follow his shape will be difficult. My book on English saddle fit applies to saddle seat saddles 100 percent, the pictures are just not what you are used to looking at.

From the picture, I can see the rider is placed toward the rear of the saddle, which is the traditional way to show gaited or saddle seat horses. However, no horse can carry a rider without pain when they are sitting back behind the rib cage area. A horse with a short back cannot carry the rider anywhere but in the center of his back, which will be much closer to the withers.

A saddle with air in the panels is not solution to this problem. The air panels have for bladders of air, two on each side. They require a saddle with a thick panel in order to install them and have enough leather to go around the new panel. A horse with a very low back will collect some of the air in the center of the saddle, but will still feel pressure at the ends. Air can also become quite hard when it is under pressure.

The best solution to your problem, and that of many horses ridden and shown in a cutback gaited style saddle is to purchase a dressage saddle. Many of the dressage saddles have substantial panels, wide gullet spaces for the spine and a variety of curves to the bottom of the panels. You will need to look for one where the panels curve up at the back of the saddle so they do not hit his loins, and follow the shape of his back as well as possible. The placement of the rider in the center of the saddle actually allows a saddle seat horse to move better and with better action and truer gaits than when ridden behind the center of the back. It does take some getting used to, as the position is different, but the horses do go much better.

Once you have found a tree and saddle shape that is closer to his back shape, then you can make some shims to go in the center of the saddle to help support his back. Shim systems are available in many styles that can look good. Mattes and Equalizer are both companies that make effective systems. If you choose to make your own, be sure to make the junctions between the shims and the pad very smooth. More details about how to do this are in my saddle fitting book.

The end result of a lot of hard work trying to find the right combination will pay off with a happy horse and improved performance. If you have to have a certain look for the saddle at the show, it may be possible to just use the show saddle in the ring and the well-fitted saddle the rest of the time. Some horses will not tolerate going back to a very bad fit after they have experienced a good fit, so it can backfire with worse performance in the ring. However, many horses can tolerate the bad saddle well enough.

Each saddle search and purchase is like a semester of college education about your horse, and the knowledge will carry you for many years.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.

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