of the horse
FACT OR FICTION?
What are the implications to Saddle Fit?
By Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE ©2016 Saddlefit 4 Life® All Rights Reserved https://schleese.com/
Did you ever stop to think that about 85-90 percent of the world’s population is right handed? Nine in every ten people are said to be right handed, but of the remaining 10% who are left-handed, males outnumber females 3 to 1. On average, statistics even seem to support the longevity of right handed people – they are said to live nine years longer than left handed people. Many devices and appliances are made primarily for right handed individuals, such as refrigerators, scissors, microwaves, can openers, button down shirts, guitars, and even military rifles. In the past, many schools have forced children to write right handed. Left-handedness was seen as being undesirable. However, usually you can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they are right or left-handed, and we are not considered ‘asymmetrical’ because of this.
As it turns out however, most horses are actually left-handed (or at least what we call dominant on the left hand side), and it is usually extremely obvious. There are many theories as to what causes this predisposition. The German FN (the governing body of riding in Germany) even recognizes in its rule books that most horses are born with “a natural asymmetry” and that it is “cerebral, or determined at birth”. It could also be caused by the way the equine embryo grows in its mother’s womb. We have found that a good 70% of the horses we see (and this numbers in the 1000s every year) are ‘lefthanded’ while about 20% are ‘righthanded’ and the remaining 10% are pretty even. I am personally of the opinion that asymmetry occurs because of domestication, and the conditions under which we train and keep our horses – at least in part. I go into the various theories behind the asymmetry in more detail in my book “Suffering in Silence” in the subsection of Chapter 4 entitled “The Natural Asymmetry of the Horse” in case you are interested; in this article I would like more to concentrate on the issues that arise because of this asymmetry – regardless where or how it was caused. Suffice it to say that most of the horses which I have analysed over the course of my 34+ years of working in this field are kept in stables or are living on fairly flat pastureland – and most of them had more musculature on the left, over and behind the left shoulder, with a shoulder blade that was obviously higher and further back on the left. In nature the trend may likely be to more evenly muscled horses, but I have not dealt with enough ‘wild’ horses to be able to comment on this with any authority.
On the contrary, we actually seem to cultivate this affinity to the left – we mount from the left, we lead on the left, we saddle on the left – some horses are even distinctly ‘uneasy’ when approached from the right, and you will observe that when two horses fight, they turn their left shoulder to the aggressor. Often it is easier to canter on a left lead – have you experienced this?
After the age of two, the development of the skeletal structure is pretty much finished. Correct training may work to impact the muscular development to counteract any natural asymmetry, but this inherent asymmetry absolutely needs to be taken into consideration when fitting a saddle properly.
The saddle support area of the horse’s back begins immediately behind the shoulder blade at the base of the withers. Particularly the shape and position of the gullet plate needs to accommodate any unevenness in the shoulder area. Its function cannot be substituted with or eliminated by any amount of reflocking, shimming, or orthotics. It is usually necessary to actually be able to fit the gullet plate asymmetrically at the shoulder to accommodate the larger shoulder and to achieve the necessary support equally on both sides. Fitting a gullet plate in this manner will not result in a crooked saddle – it is simple logic which dictates that you fit each shoulder as it should be fit (anyone who has one foot larger than the other will understand the problem in buying shoes that fit – do you buy a pair to fit the larger foot and use insoles [shims] for the smaller foot, or do you squish the larger foot into a pair to accommodate the smaller foot? I think this question is rhetorical; of course you buy a pair to fit the larger foot, which is exactly how the gullet plate should be adjusted – to fit the larger shoulder at the tree points!
If this truism is ignored, and you put a saddle with an even gullet plate on a horse with a larger shoulder (left or right!), it will inevitably fall to one side as it will be pushed there by the more muscled shoulder – as is demonstrated in the photo of the rider from the back (and this is a common picture – even some of top riders who have been photographed from the back will demonstrate this phenomenon). Farther down the horse’s back the saddle will actually put pressure on the left side (if the left side is larger) of the spinal column, because it no longer lies in the proper position within the saddle support area – which keeps the spinal vertebrae clear of the panel. So what happens to the rider? She will shift to the right as well, but will try to counteract this fall to the right by shifting her weight to the left. There will be less support for her left butt cheek on the left because the saddle has shifted to the right, which causes her to collapse further at the hip. This extra pressure will cause the saddle to shift even more to the right (does this sound familiar?)
A crooked rider has difficulty to give the horse the proper aids – especially using the subtle muscle contractions and shifts in weight you want in dressage. She may find increased difficulty with a right canter lead. Her back may start to ache, her hips start to throb. The horse will feel resistance and the continued pressure of the saddle on the left side of the vertebral column increases stress to the SI joint – which can cause a crooked pelvis for the horse and possibly lead to complete lameness in the right hind!
This does not mean that saddles should be made crooked; it means that it is essential to be able to adjust the gullet plate asymmetrically (not just in angle, which is common for some of the saddles with interchangeable gullet plates – but also in width, and also independently at both ends) to accommodate the horse’s conformation. Changes can be then further addressed as necessary because the horse’s degree of asymmetry will change over the course of its life. Just like a blacksmith forms an iron to fit the hoof, a gullet plate should be formed to fit the horse – not be available in only one permanently fixed position!
Once the gullet plate has been adjusted to accommodate any natural unevenness at the shoulder, the saddle should be sitting straight on the horse’s back both when standing still but especially during motion. This will allow the rider to sit properly and in balance and keeps the pressure off the horse’s vertebrae. This is something discussed in one of my previous articles in early 2015 concerning static and dynamic fit issues.
There are many articles appearing about on rider exercises and how to strengthen your core as a rider to allow you to sit straight and balanced in your saddle. However, unless you take into consideration the requirements of your horse’s conformation when fitting your saddle in the first place, your personal ability and strengths as a rider will always be compromised. Think about how much more successful you would be if you could actually use the saddle to help achieve your riding goals rather than fighting it to maintain your position!