The Role of Saddle Fit in Equine Back Disorders

By Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE

This article will examine the relationship between equine back disorders and saddle fit.

The issue of “kissing spines,” or overriding dorsal spinous processes, is of concern to many riders. Kissing spines is closely related to saddle fit and specifically, to proper gullet width. While it is gratifying to see that more and more manufacturers have recognized that the gullet needs to be the width of at least three to four fingers evenly down the length of the saddle, there are unfortunately many older saddles still in use with gullet channels that are much too narrow. I have recently come across an inordinate number of horses with kissing spines, which was actually exacerbated by poorly fitting saddles. I am not a veterinarian and would never presume to make this diagnosis openly to a client without a vet’s input; however, I do have an educated opinion based on the number of horses I have seen and the fact that I have taught veterinarians about the ramifications of poor saddle fit.

Photo: Schleese Saddlery

There are differing opinions as to whether kissing spines is a disease with predisposition present at birth, or whether it is caused by something else, such as poor saddle fit or poor riding and training during the course of the horse’s life. Dr. Carol Vischer, DVM of New York has extensively researched this topic and concluded that kissing spines is a disease that some horses are just prone to. In my opinion, it can definitely be caused and impacted by poor riding technique and improper saddle fit. 

To understand how saddle fit plays a role in kissing spines, we must first examine the possible underlying factors. Along with trainable or conditioned reflexes, both horses and humans have parasympathetic reflexes that are not consciously controlled, where muscles react to a stimulus of specific nerves without the need for conscious effort. 

Photo: Schleese Saddlery

Problems can be caused by a saddle that is too long, or one that pinches at the gullet, or is too tight over the shoulders because the tree width or angle is incorrect and sits on one of the horse’s specific reflex points. The equine spinal column has nerve endings that protrude between each of the vertebrae. About five of these nerve endings are actual reflex points. Pressure between the 18th thoracic vertebra and the withers to approximate the feel of a saddle (under even a light rider) will cause the horse to drop his back. If the horse assumes this position the whole time under saddle, the formation of the condition known as kissing spines would result, presuming it is not already present.

Pressure on these nerve endings from a too-long gullet channel or saddle, or a saddle that twists during movement due to the horse’s natural asymmetry, with a gullet plate that has not been fitted to accommodate the larger shoulder, will cause the horse to reflexively lower his back to escape the pressure and/or resulting pain.

Photo: Schleese Saddlery

Photo: Schleese Saddlery

The tendency of many incorrectly trained riders to neglect proper gymnastics of the horse at the lower levels while attempting to “bring the back under” has resulted in what is known as “leg movers” rather than “back movers.” These horses may look stunning to the untrained eye, but I believe that many of them are also suffering from kissing spines. If not yet present, the condition will develop from this type of riding because the back remains hollow rather than supple, causing the vertebrae to lean into each other. By changing the fit of the saddle and the way the horse is ridden, the existing condition can be improved.

Hunter’s bump is another physiological issue that can result from poor saddle fit. I have even heard that it’s desirable for a hunter horse to have this special shape to its back – nothing could be further from the truth! A hunter’s bump is usually caused by poor riding, and exacerbated by poor saddle fit. Many horses in hunter classes are actually being ridden “upside down” – when the horse’s head and neck are being forced into a false frame without support from the back muscles, an incredible amount of negative pressure is placed on the vertebrae, sacrum, and pelvis. In simple terms, the sacrum falls forward and downwards, and because the spine follows this action, the lumbar vertebrae will create the hunter’s bump to compensate for the sacral dislocation. 

Dip behind and in front of the sacroiliac joint. Image ©Horse Community Journals

If the saddle is continually pushed to one side, this causes even more negative pressure at the sacroiliac joint. Many hunter saddles tend to sit this way. They generally cannot be adjusted at the gullet plate to accommodate the necessary shoulder width and angle; they have very narrow gullet channels, and their panels are generally either felt or foam (in other words they cannot be reflocked), which places even more negative pressure at the sacroiliac joint. This often results in lameness in one of the hind legs. I have seen this over and over again, with the stoic horse doing its best to accommodate the rider’s wishes. Are frequent injections to cover the pain really the answer? 

A horse in complete tension, such as when forced into an artificial position by the rider pulling on the reins. The rider action causes an incorrect arch at the third and fourth cervical vertebrae; the neck gets tight and the back drops, splaying the hind legs. This forced positioning results in the forehand becoming weighted because the back end is unable to carry weight properly, and can lead to long-term damage. Image ©Horse Community Journals

Both kissing spines and hunter bump can be ameliorated with proper riding, training and equipment, but there is no quick fix. To help relieve your horse’s pain and improve performance, contact your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis, and work with a professional trainer educated in the classical riding methodology, and a professional saddle fitter or ergonomist.

Main article photo: iStock/Dagamon

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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