Saddle Fit and Equine Anatomy – Attending a Dissection Clinic

Internal damage to horse - layersOne of the things on my bucket list has been to attend an equine dissection course in anatomy at the University of Guelph. Unfortunately, every time it was offered in the last couple of years I have been away at a speaking engagement and so I missed out. However, a colleague of mine in Pennsylvania Terry Peiper (who has written in my blog previously) did manage to participate in one early 2015 and has shared her notes and video clips with me to share with you. You can click onto her site and watch the actual videos and read about her experience in her own words here: since I am paraphrasing a couple of the important points here as they relate to saddle fit.

Attending one of these clinics is highly recommended for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of equine anatomy, but you may actually find it depressing how many things that appear post mortem may have been caused by our simple negligence. I call to mind the pictures of wither damage that I use in my teachings that clearly show how much pain must have been caused by saddle that didn’t fit properly and pinched the withers and trapezius constantly.


Dip in Front of WithersWe have also seen many horses which demonstrate a dip in front of the withers or show a hollow behind the withers – classical muscle atrophy caused by a pinching saddle. Under the trapezius and at the top of the shoulder are the rhomboid and spinalis muscles – when the horse is allowed to move freely then these muscles develop nicely into a rounded top line. You may recall my past blogs outlining the issues with cranial nerve 11 – a motor nerve that can be severely impacted by pressure from poorly fitting saddles, pads, or tightly fitting girths and breast collars.

Muscles atrophy and inflammation in the area of an ill-fitting gullet plate.
In this case the trapezius muscle can also become inflamed like this bulge under the saddle when the tree angle is too wide or too narrow and also causing atrophy in the area.

I have stated before that the saddle tree (the gullet plate) must leave enough room at the withers and shoulders (in width and angle) for the shoulder to move upwards and backwards freely during motion. Forward facing tree points may cause irreversible chipping damage at the shoulder cartilage. The billets of the saddle must be positioned correctly as well so that the saddle does not get pulled up over the shoulder – this is especially important for jumpers since both shoulders move up and back at the same time. However, unfortunately it seems that the paradox of the ‘close contact saddle’ does exactly the opposite: the saddles are usually placed too far forward (with the forward facing flaps it can be difficult to feel where the tree points end that should stay behind the shoulder), which leaves the saddle higher in the pommel than the cantle. So – pads upon pads are added to balance the saddle out again!

I remember watching my first jumping competition when I came to Canada 30 years ago and seeing some of the top riders (who shall remain nameless) using the popular jumping saddle of the day. These close contact models were different than what I was used to in Germany: a) most of them were placed too far forward which of course meant they were too low in back and b) without exception, they all had numerous pads including keyhole foam pads (lollipop pads) underneath them to bring them back into balance. Close contact??? Really?

Western saddles also were deemed the cause of issues which became visible during the dissection. Many of them had bridging issues, which meant that the weight was distributed at the front and rear of the bars instead of evenly along the length of the longissimus muscle.

I invite you to click on the link above and watch a couple of the videos that Terry filmed during the dissection. (Spoiler alert – you might want to pass if you’re squeamish). But I am certainly going to keep trying to schedule my attendance at an actual dissection; I find it fascinating and very revealing (no pun intended)!

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