Once in a while, one of my horses has to yell at me, and I always feel bad about this because it means I've not been paying attention and have been ignoring what they have been trying to tell me, often for days. They say that if they ask nicely - often repeatedly - and if I'm still not listening, and they have something important to say, then I leave them no choice but to yell at me.
Yesterday, Dawn and I figured out something important - but she says to tell you that she had to yell at me first.
She's been increasingly snappish about our morning rides, sometimes when I'm grooming, often when I'm saddling and girthing, and even sullen glares and attempted nips when I'm leading her to the mounting block to get on. She started with gestures of displeasure - glares and grimaces, then over the next days, upped the ante to "air snaps" - biting gestures where she doesn't make contact, to grabbing my coat and holding it (with accompanying glares). Finally, Monday, she'd apparently had it - she really turned into an alligator - big snaps and even hitting my hip with her teeth. She and I have a deal: she can be expressive but contact with my body isn't allowed. The fact that she felt she had to cross that line was a really clear indication of how upset she was that I wasn't getting the message she'd been trying for days to tell me.
The worst of the snapping occurred when I was saddling - putting the saddle on, putting the shims under the saddle, adjusting the pad and girthing. So clearly it was something about the saddle. But I was a bit perplexed. We're using the same saddle she's been happy with for years, with the same shims. I had to think about it overnight until the light bulb came on . . .
But first, a note about saddle fit and shims. These are the shims I use:
This shows two of them, fanned slightly, much as I use them under a saddle. They are very thin pieces of felt, and they are inserts that came from a Mattes pad. A number of years I got a Mattes pad, thinking it would be useful, but pretty quickly got rid of the pad itself and kept the inserts. The pad itself was pretty, but not very helpful, as it has pre-set pockets into which the shims go. But what if that's not where your saddle needs shimming? And the shims had to stack up in the pockets, creating uncomfortable edges for the horse. So, instead, I shim using the felt pads alone, arranged in whatever number and configuration is needed and placed between the saddle and pad exactly where they're required. The pads stay put nicely, since the felt isn't slippery.
But, you ask, why not get a saddle that fits? This is a good question to ask. I have three saddles. Missy wears one (an About the Horse saddle), with no shims - it fits her perfectly. Red wears a different About the Horse saddle - it fits him well with no shims. Pie wears the same saddle as Missy, but with shims to compensate for his narrower shoulders. Dawn wears a third saddle (a Kieffer dressage saddle), and she's both slightly downhill and also narrow through the withers, so we use shims. There's nothing wrong with using shims to allow a saddle to fit, and they can be helpful as horses change shape due to fitness levels and weight. But as with anything, shims can also create problems, and they won't fix a saddle that really doesn't fit.
I use the thinnest saddle pads possible - Red and Pie use single wool pads, and Dawn uses just a dressage pad. Missy does use a diamond wool pad but it makes her saddle fit perfectly so that's OK. If your saddle fits, you don't need much if any padding (also assuming you're not bouncing and pounding on your horse's back), and this has the benefit of putting you closer to the horse. If you need a lot of thick padding, your saddle really doesn't fit. And padding up a saddle with a tree that is too narrow actually makes the problem worse.
Anyhow, I thought about what Dawn could be telling me about saddle fit . . .
Aha!! I got it! She'd changed shape - she has gained some weight recently (a good thing as she's a hard keeper) and also has most of her thicker winter coat, and her saddle, shimmed the way we'd been doing it, no longer fit and was putting pressure on the back of her shoulders (the most common saddle fitting problems are: a) wrong tree size - too big or too small or wrong shape, b) bridging - where the front and back of the saddle correctly fit the horse but there's a gap in the middle where the saddle doesn't contact the horse's back, and c) pressure on the shoulders due to wrong tree shape/bar pressure or incorrect placement on the horse's back).
The next morning, I confirmed when grooming that the areas at the back of her shoulders, just below the withers, were a bit sore, the right a bit more than the left. We did some massage and energy work on those areas, which she seemed to really appreciate - some muzzle twitching, chewing and even one big head/neck shake out. Then we went to saddling, and before I saddled, I took the shims and held them out to her and told her I now knew what she was saying and thought we could fix the problem so she would be comfortable.
There was one pro forma glare when the saddle came out, but other than that she was relaxed and happy throughout the saddling, including for girthing - a huge change from one day to the next. I'd been putting three shims on each side, at the front and top of the saddle - this both raised the saddle and narrowed it at the front. The problem was that three shims was too many with her weight gain, and I was also putting the shims too far forward where they pushed on the back of her shoulders. I reduced the shims to two (we tried one on each side first but that wasn't enough shimming) and moved them back from the front of the saddle - they're still towards the front, but behind her shoulders. I also rotated the shims by about 45 degrees to more correctly fill the space without lifting the middle of the saddle.
Voila! Problem solved! Happy, non-snappish Dawn. We've had two days in a row where things have been just great. I think that many horses who act out - who feel they have to yell (which can take the form of biting, bucking, rearing, bolting, etc.) - have issues of physical discomfort due to saddle fit, bit type/fit and muscle/joint pain issues that no one is paying attention to. "Misbehavior" can often be a horse who is desperate to communicate something important about how they are feeling, physically and/or emotionally.
Now, Dawn says, if she could just get me to pay better attention so she doesn't have to yell at me again . . .
Have you ever been yelled at by your horse?