Monday, May 14, 2012

Changing Shapes and Saddle Fit (with Interesting Links)

Over the past several weeks, I've noticed that my saddle - a Kieffer dressage saddle - no longer was fitting either Dawn or Pie correctly - it was nosing down slightly in front and the back was tending to come up.  And this was when using the same dressage pad, with the Mattes pad with two foam inserts in each front pocket, that I'd been using with both of them all along.  (The saddle had been reflocked for Red, who is the broadest of the three through the shoulders, but had fit both Dawn and Pie well with the Mattes pad.)  Hmmm . . . It fit Dawn fine when she was at her thinnest, so it wasn't weight loss that was the issue with either of them.

And another piece of the puzzle . . .  I'd had a number of good conversations with Dave Ganadek, the About the Horse saddle maker.  I'd sent him photos and tracings of Red and Pie, and his advice was to go with the #1 tree - all the angles were correct.  This is the tree size of the saddle I recently bought used for Pie, and it fits him very well.  He did say that correct work would change Red's shape in a way that would result in a good fit with the #1 tree.  The only issue we noted for Red was that there is a bulge of muscle just behind the top of his scapula (shoulder bone) just below the wither - this makes saddle fit difficult, since just behind the bulge is a hollow.

Here's what I think is going on with Dawn and Pie - likely with Red as well since he was measured although I haven't tried riding him in my dressage saddle recently.  All three horses originally had a tendency to travel inverted through the head and neck, and all three had the "bulges".  Dawn would obviously brace through her head and neck, even when her face was vertical and someone might think she was "on the bit", or would fall on her forehand and invert through her back when her face was behind the vertical (this is the reason over-flexing and rollkur are so detrimental to the proper muscular development of the horse).  Pie was very inverted - he had an upside down curve to the top line of his neck, an obvious dip in front of his withers, and more muscling on the bottom of his neck than the top.  Red could mimic softness very well, with a beautifully arched neck, but he was braced just in front of the withers and hollow through his back.  Our work with Heather has resulted in big physical changes in Pie and Red, and Dawn and I have been on the same track.  What I think is happening, is that all three horses are in the process of changing shape as a result of correct work along the road of self-carriage, which means the saddle no longer fit.

That lump of muscle just behind the top of the shoulder and below the wither?  Take a look at this picture of the deep (not surface) muscles supporting the neck - it's a particularly useful picture since the horse's neck is inverted:

See the long muscles that run along the top of the ribcage just below the top line?  Those are the culprits - they tend to be over-developed in horses that are inverted - hence the bulges that all three horses have had.  But now the bulges are disappearing, and here's why, I think - they are now developing the muscles for correct self-carriage and losing the bulges, so they're changing shape.  Adding extra inserts to both sides of the Mattes pad has solved the problem for both Dawn and Pie, although the saddle may have to be reflocked again or replaced.  So it turns out the saddle fit problem I've been having is a good one - it reflects positive changes in their bodies and carriage.

Here are two very interesting discussions of the musculature of the horse and how it is affected by proper (work leading to self-carriage) and improper (braced, inverted or over-flexed) training - I think you'll find them as interesting as I did.  The first article is by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, and the second is by Dr. Deb Bennett - some of you may already recognize those names.  Enjoy!


  1. Old lecture, oft repeated from my lips--one of the benefits of the Ansur saddles. They change as the horse changes and actually do encourage the horse to use his back correctly. I've been riding in one since 2001, and although I have changed to the newer model in the last 5 years, I have had no saddle fit issues whatsoever on three different horses.

    That lecture over....horses ridden correctly really do develop different musculatures. Sounds as if yours are doing really well. Good news indeed that the saddle doesn't fit quite right any more.
    (Strange as that may seem....)

  2. I would say I'm definitely still in the early stages of building proper muscle, especially since we've had some setbacks. Still, I've noticed some pretty cool changes in musculature over the last year.

    FYI - the link to the Heuschmann article isn't working for me.

    1. Seems to be working now - I redid the link.

  3. I think your observations are correct. Since they're using their bodies properly they're developing different musculature and the saddles aren't fitting anymore. It's good news except for the fact that you may need to get a new dressage saddle (if you want one). The other saddle might just be perfect for all three. I find saddle fitting a pain in the neck but it's the only way to have everyone comfortable and willing to work.

  4. Interesting stuff. I'll read the articles when I get a chance - they sound really great.

    Saddle fit and proper muscling is such a tough thing. Saddles are so expensive that it is difficult to keep switching them or finding ways to adjust and make them fit...!

  5. Thank you SO much for all your notes and insights that address this topic and thanks for providing such wonderful links to help educate others. I'm just beginning to try to tackle this stuff with my young horse and while I "get it" on paper I lack the confidence that I have the expertise to work through it myself. I'm still considering putting both of us in the hands of a good trainer ... hopefully that will happen and we can learn together like you did with your horses and Heather! Again, thanks a bunch, your posts are greatly appreciated!

  6. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing the links!


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