One of our certified Saddlefit 4 Life® saddle ergonomists in Europe recently came across this horse – which had a shoulder blade that was higher than the withers. She said that the 'best' fitting saddle for it had a half panel to accommodate this unique conformation, but asked for my advice. Does anyone else recognize seeing a horse like this before?

Part of the conformational analysis for a 'good' horse is a high withers. Horses with high withers will have more leverage and strength to bring the back up using their dorsal nuchal ligament system. There is an inherent problem with horses that demonstrate such small withers. As we know, when the horse has his head down (for grazing, or riding forwards/downwards), the neck ligaments pull the high withered spinal processes forward , and the back ligaments support the ribcage, muscles, intestines – even the weight of the rider in the saddle. The smaller and shorter the withers, the harder it will be for the horse to use nature’s suspension system, which leads him to necessarily engage more back muscles to support not only himself, but also the rider and the saddle. As you see in this picture, this particular horse has very small withers – it might be broken, or might just be naturally small. This will make the shoulders stick up and out, and appear bigger than they are. This horse will always have difficulty in engaging the back properly due to the lack of sufficient leverage for the suspension system caused by the shorter spinal processes for attachment at the withers.

With the lack of the withers, you will see a lot of space between pommel and withers, which the horse will need for these large shoulders. It is an optical illusion that the rider is going to sit far away from the horse. This is a common mistake made by saddle fitters either on their own volition, or because the trainer has asked them to make the saddle fit closer to the horse’s back. As a rider you do like to sit close to the horse, but as you know, you don’t actually sit on the pommel, you sit in the centre of the saddle. This is what should be the closest part to the horse, keeping in mind that it is important to hopefully have enough room in the gullet width in the channel for the spine.

The saddle which needs to be fitted to this horse needs to have a maximum weight bearing surface strictly within the saddle support area. Under no circumstances may it exceed the requirements for this or the rider will risk crippling the horse, since the horse has no chance to support himself or the rider, which will result in a nasty chain reaction. My recommendations would include a saddle with a panel one size smaller than the tree (i.e. perhaps a 17 ½” tree with a 17” panel). The panel would definitely need to be kept pretty thinly flocked, be short, and very straight. Normally, a saddle needs to have sufficient clearance at the pommel for several reasons: a) to ensure wither clearance (not really a problem with this horse) and b) when the horse moves, the shoulder moves upwards and backwards about 4-6 inches, there needs to be a lot of room for such a big shoulder to move through the opening of the pommel. More frequent monitoring of saddle fit to horses with physical challenges is definitely recommended by all equine professionals.

Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE

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