Saddle fitting confusion! It happens when signs are misleading, effects of a problem appear in a different part of the horse, or symptoms appear intermittently. Even trainers and veterinarians can be confused.

Misdiagnosis is common, caused by a number of problems that arise with ridden horses. The saddle may be blamed when something entirely unrelated is the culprit, or the saddle may be ignored when it is, after all, the real source of the problem. Many skilled professionals make mistakes when the following situations exist, so if your horse has any of these issues, take it upon yourself to consider both the saddle and other organic causes as the potential source of the problem.

Lumbar pain: Pain in this area may be due to poor saddle fit. It also may be due to an unbalanced rider, especially one who rides toward the rear of the saddle, or who loses balance and falls back into the saddle. However, it can also be a sign of pain in the horse’s hind end – most commonly stifle or hock, but other areas are possible. If your horse has lumbar pain, rule out the hind end, either before or in conjunction with saddle and rider diagnostic activities. Consider the joints, muscles, and the skeletal system.

Mincing downhill: A horse who is hampered in the shoulder by the saddle may take small, mincing steps while traveling downhill. However, a horse that has pain in the front legs or front feet may exhibit the same signs. Rule out front end lameness, navicular, and other less common problems. A horse with hock pain won’t step under when traveling downhill; check the hocks also.

Hoof Balance Issues: Many people devote their attention to the hoof to correct imbalances in the stride. A number of saddle problems will cause horses to move unevenly, to have lateral issues, or to be too quick (or too slow) in moving the hind feet relative to the front feet. It is best to consider the saddle before making corrective changes to the hooves.

Girthiness: While often a sign of an ill-fitting saddle, girthiness can also be from the girth itself. Horses may have pain in the pectoral area, chiropractic issues such as a rib out of alignment, or chronic pain in the back or body from past trauma. If your horse exhibits girthy behavior, body issues should be explored and cleared by competent professionals. During this exploration, saddle fit as a possible cause of any diagnosed pain should be discussed with the professionals you hire.

Stumbling: A horse may catch his toe and stumble regularly for no other reason than poor saddle fit. This is a likely scenario in the front feet when a wide horse is forced to wear a narrow saddle.

Systemic Soreness/Physical Condition: Some horses are ridden above their level of fitness, especially horses that are infrequently trail-ridden. In such cases, any part of the body but especially the back may be sore enough to require a call to the vet, who may indicate the saddle without questioning the horse’s condition. It is important to honestly critique the horse’s pattern of work and to ensure he is fit enough for the way he is ridden.

Wither Soreness: Some horses carry themselves in a very hollow fashion. This may be due to lack of training, bad riding, or some other physical condition in the horse. The result, especially after a long or strenuous ride, may be soreness in the wither that is often blamed on the saddle but is actually unrelated to it.

Atrophied back muscles: If the dorsal spinous processes are causing stress or pain to the nuchal ligament, the resulting pain and back tension may be significant enough to cause atrophy of the long back muscles that run parallel to the spine. This sort of atrophy is universally attributed to poor saddle fit, but may actually be caused by a skeletal or neurologic issue.