Saddle Fit and Swelling
One of my associates in Europe recently came across this issue at a client visit. This chestnut gelding was exhibiting blisters and swelling beside the withers on the right side – but apparently there was no saddle pressure to account for this. The saddle was sitting perfectly aligned. (I especially mention the colour since chestnuts often seem to be particularly vulnerable to skin problems).
The horse had just had a series of two unrelated operations and consequently was off for about 5 months. When the client began riding again, blisters began forming, and then 2 weeks later these swellings appeared. She was using the same pad the whole time, but the more she padded (including a sheepskin), the more swollen the area became (which makes sense, because the saddle fit would become even tighter). The billets had to be crossed to avoid having the saddle slide forward during his movement. The question is, could these swellings be a result of too much saddle movement? Another paradox is the one-sided appearance of sweat – especially since there is no panel here either!
My response was that generally, if a horse has blisters like that, ie. fluids under the skin, than there is nothing you can do as a saddle-fitter. The skin has to heal 3-4 months which means no riding. If he absolutely needs to be ridden, then the only thing you can do is to keep the saddle as quiet as possible. I would suggest using two very thin cotton pads so that any friction occurs between the pads instead of between the pad and the skin, and a girth without any elastic. The saddle should also be stuffed very firmly, thinly, and evenly from front to back. It should be girthed up pretty tightly since less movement will help to stop shearing the skin. When the rider rides, less siting in walk, trot, and canter also keeps the saddle more quiet. But even if all of this is taken into consideration, keep in mind the skin will still need to heal for many months.
Damage on the skin does not always comes from riding. In the wither area it could also come from play fighting, rolling, insect bites, too many/dirty saddle pads, stable blanket, or any other wither irritation. In this particular example, the saddle does not come close to those spots on the wither, so it is likely that this issue was not caused by saddle fit.
Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE