Considerations for Placement of a Saddle

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| Girths and pectoral muscles | Cinchiness and girths | Saddle interference with the shoulder blade and foreleg |
| Brief history of saddle placement and Rider Position | Back problems, saddling and the BEND |
On the Contact/On the Bit | Injuries due to riding behind the vertical |

Cinchiness is a problem associated with the PLACEMENT and ADJUSTMENT of the girth.

If the girth is too far forward, it restricts the function of the caudal deep pectoral muscle in bearing the weight of the forehand, especially during lateral work when the rib cage both bends along its length and rolls between the shoulder blades. Horses are very sensitive in this area. It should be kept clean and inspected for scratches or irritated skin before and after each ride.

A saddle set too far forward will interfere with the shoulder blades, shortening the steps of the forelegs and even injuring the latissimus dorsi muscles, which have major roles in pulling the horse forward when a fore leg is grounded. A saddle set too far back will irritate the loin and place the rider's weight behind the most stable arch of the ribs.

Click on the image to view at full size.

The saddle in the figure above is placed correctly so that it does not interfere with the top of the shoulder blade. If placed further forward, the horse would be likely to take mincing steps as the front edge of the saddle bumped against the cartilage cap of the shoulder blade during a stride.

Walk along side your horse and place the flat of your hand on the top of the shoulder blade to feel where it is during movement. Then place your saddle accordingly.

Placing a saddle too far forward also inhibits the development of important back muscles which stabilize the bend in the rib cage on either side of the vertebrae and on top of the ribs (longissimus dorsi). Muscles grow in bulk with use: if a horse is not using muscles under the saddle, there will be no "double back" formed from an elastic, well-developed longissimus dorsi.

Placing a saddle too far back will make it hard for the horse to carry your weight. The saddle needs to fit the conformation of your horse's back as well as the conformation of your seat and legs.

Saddles will also need to be expertly restuffed from time to time as they age and your horse develops its back.

A groove visible from the side in the caudal deep pectorals (pink muscle at the rider's ankle above) is a sign that the girth has routinely been TOO FAR FORWARD and TOO TIGHTLY ADJUSTED. The double problem of forward placement of the saddle is a chichy horse with mincing movement.

Safety is a first consideration in the choice and adjustment of girths. Choose a girth material which is soft, strong, not slippery and not irritating to tender skin. Keep the girth incredibly CLEAN. You don't like soiled underwear - - - so never ride with a dirty girth in consideration for the horse's comfort!

The width of the girth should distribute the pressure of the saddle plus rider so that the pecs are not squashed by a narrow strip. Adjust the girth slowly, in stages and so the saddle does not slip.

Also remember that the horse needs to expand its rib cage to breathe! There are girths with elastic at one or both ends. Some makes have replaceable elastic. If you use an elastic girth, check to see that the elastic is not worn or weakened.

Finally, jumping or falling with a tight or stiff girth can injure part of the rib cage, creating serious pain for the horse in that region of the body every time it is saddled after the incident.

Over the long term, ill-fitted saddles produce atrophy in the horse's back muscles. A proper saddle will either allow continued muscle development or at least not interfere with it, presuming the horse is not worked in ways that cause its back to drop.

Some Suggestions For Harmony With Saddle and Girth

Please avoid using a device that winches the girth tight. If a horse swells up when girthed, you have a behavioral problem which can be addressed by careful, consistent retraining and moderate desensitization. Someone, at some time or other was rough in the saddling process and the horse learned to get some relief from the pressure of the girth by swelling during girthing and deflating when ridden.

Kicking a cranky horse in the belly risks injuring him, and you may be attacked by a truly angry animal. Roughness just makes the problem worse. If there is an injury to begin with, then it is only made worse by rough handling. Use caution when desensitizing a cinchy horse, because many horses will bite during this time.

The following are some suggestions, assuming that your saddle fits the horse and that the horse's back is clean with the hair smoothed toward the tail (I stroke the back and girth area to smooth hairs toward the tail with a clean cotton towel after grooming and before saddling).

My warmblood came to me as a 4 year old with a dandy case of nippy cinchiness and could swell up like a puffer fish. The procedure (1, 2, 3, and 8) below eventually fixed both the nippiness and the swelling as he learned the discomfort was gone.

1) Read the instructions on the Riding as a Meditation page for a technique of relaxing the horse's back and pectoral muscles prior to placing the saddle,
2) Place the saddle farther forward than it will go when girthed, then carefully slip it back to its proper place (this avoids misdirected hairs which will create rubbed, nasty sores),
3) Do not rush the saddling process (you may wish to lead him a few steps after the girth is first on) and always check to see that the saddle pad is clean and of a material which does not slip or irritate the horse (remember the Princess and the Pea she felt through 23 mattresses!),
4) The pad you choose should not be too thick, because this leads to slipping and overtightening of the girth,
5) Wedge pads are tricky to use, often unstable and are more likely to unbalance the saddle or jam it against the shoulder blades than to solve the problem of saddle fit,
6) Foregirths are prone to interfere with the shoulder blade, so consult your veterinarian about your horse's back conformation before using one,
7) The Spanish Riding School at Vienna uses breastplates and cruppers to keep saddles correctly placed: they require expert adjustment: the crupper needs to be clean and of a material which does not chafe, and
8) Check the girth to see that no skin is pinched under it, lead the horse for a few steps before mounting (a mounting block should be used if available to avoid pulling on the saddle or if the horse's back is sensitive) and check the girth after a few minutes of riding.
9) If you ride where there is sand, take extra care to clean the saddle and girth area of any grains. Sweat plus sand is highly irritating to skin. You should inspect your saddle and girth after each ride to be sure no sand adheres to tack.

What does my formerly cinchy warmblood do now when saddled? He has replaced cinchiness with a mellow tactic which I call "defensive snuggling" where he worms his head under my arm when I come to his side with the saddle. I rub his face with my other hand and we get on with the process of stroking his back and pecs, then placing the saddle. This little routine seems to reassure him. Invent your own way to make your horse comfortable and stick to it. Horses like routine and comforting. I now ride this horse (now 27 29 years old) with a treeless saddle plus gel-foam pad to assure that the saddle does not touch the dorsal processes of his vertebrae. I use a triple layered, wide all elastic girth and a Griffin basic pad that has a wool lining in the saddle area. The gel-foam padding is different than for my Morgan.
My Morgan Max is well behaved about saddling but is fanatically sensitive about materials. He will not abide a leather girth of any description and only tolerates ultra-clean soft fabric or triple elastic bands for a girth. It was a challenge to find a saddle with a wide enough tree to fit his muscular back. Eventually his back muscles developed into a "double back" with his spine in a groove between his longissmus dorsi. His shoulder muscles during passage and piaffe actually forced any saddle but a treeless one back even further than correct placement behind the scapula. Compensating for this was beyond the adjustable width of any saddle I bought or had restuffed. I have finally come to use a treeless saddle, and that has put an end to all his attitude problems. However, the treeless saddle is used only with a gel-foam pad over the wool lined Griffin pad in order to keep the saddle away from the dorsal processes of his vertebrae.

For more persistent "girthiness" or "cinchiness," there may be a physical source of pain involving the fibrous joint of ribs between either the sternum or a vertebra. Or there may be injured intercostal muscles. In this case, a veterinarian or chiropractor may be needed to assess the problem.

There is an excellent paper on this topic by Ian S. Bidstrup, (Girth Pain: A Common Cause of Suffering, Poor Behavior and Occasional Reduced Performance in Saddle- and Harness-Horses). If the previous link no longer works, the text of Bidstrup's 1999 paper is available here.

The images below are displayed at half size: click to open. The LEFT image shows the area where horses are very sensitive highlighted (white star area). The RIGHT image is an enlargement of some of the pectoral muscles and rib cage. During breathing, the joints of the ribs at the vertebrae move a bit and there are also small motions of the vertebrae themselves in three planes during each stride of dressage gaits. A horse should have a reasonably wide chest (appropriate to conformation) and symmetrically developed pectorals when viewed from the front. From the side, the pecs should be smooth and free of grooves, lumps or stringy fibers.

Lateral motion of vertebrae (bend) is only one movement the units of the back can make. The spine can extend/hollow (extend/flex) or perform an axial rotation. These spinal motions occur in patterns unique to each gait. The linked page HERE has citations from the veterinary/biomechanics literature concerning DIRECT measurements of vertebral motions in living, Dutch warmblood unmounted horses.

An incorrectly placed or fitted saddle is the equivalent of putting a painful splint on a horse's back, effectively preventing essential, normal motion! Any "demonstration" of lack of bend in a mounted horse ridden with a tree saddle is not taking into account VARIABLES resulting from actions of a rider or the inhibiting effect of an incorrectly adjusted tree of a saddle. Such observations are necessarily indirect, but can be valuable in that a lack of observable bending should lead to investigation of why this normal activity of a horse's spine is absent for a particular rider/saddle combination.

The saddle in the image above (brown area) is placed so that it does not interfere with the shoulder blade. However, it could be improperly fitted or stuffed so that it does not permit the horse to bend or lift at each vertebra.

It is not the intent of this site to recommend for or against any particular brand of saddle. There are a number of treeless or modified flexible tree saddles on the market and readers are directed to those web sites via a search engine. Treeless saddles allow bending, but may require special gel-foam padding to fit a particular horse: they may be unsuitable for horses with very high withers.

I do recommend gel-foam pads over either gel pads or foam pads. Gel pads can become lumpy and can hold heat in a horse's back muscles. Foam pads will "flat spot," making them useless once a rider has mounted. Gel-foam neither lumps nor flat spots. There are also ventilated gel-foam pads available. If you have to lift the front or back of your saddle with a pad, that need could be a sign that the saddle does not fit. It is time to get the opinion of a master saddler who will come to your barn, watch you ride and make basic adjustments to the fit of your saddle.

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