The following article, from an old ACTRA newsletter, consists of excerpts from information prepared by Lisa and Len Brown, a couple from Missouri, USA for Trail Blazer Magazine, Dec. 1985.
A horse doesn’t always give you reason to think his back hurts. Why should he? We’re teaching him to endure. After all, that’s what our sport is all about - enduring high blood pressure, hyperventilation, profuse sweating, high temperature, stone bruises and inevitable post race aches. Everyone that has ridden a one hundred-mile race will agree that by the end, it hurts. It hurts the horse too, but he’ll put up with it for you. The rider has an obligation to learn the subtle signs of sore backs. Facts that you may not be aware of:
1. You don’t have to see a horse limp for him to be to unsound to ride.
2. You don’t have to have a patch of white hair to have a painful bruise on a horse’s back.
3. You don’t have to see a dry spot to have an unbearable pressure point.
4. Thick pads do not negate pressure points.
5. Veterinarians will not necessarily find bruises on your horse’s back at rides
6. A horse that’s rearing to go at the beginning of a ride isn’t necessarily doing that, because he’s good endurance horse material.
7. A horse doesn’t know how to tell you his saddle hurts.
8. White hair isn’t caused by removing a saddle pad to soon from a hot horse’s back.
9. Dirty saddle blankets don’t sore horses.
10. Wool on the underside of a saddle won’t keep it from soreing your horse, if the saddle doesn’t fit.
11. A saddle doesn’t have to draw blood to cause agony.
Traditionally we think of a saddle sore as an open wound somewhere on a horse’s back from his withers to his loins. What comes before the sore, however, is a difficult-to-detect bruise. Because of the hair covering the hide, any discoloration of the skin as seen on a human in the way of a bruise can’t be seen on a horse, so one has to look for a difference in the firmness of the skin where the bruise is beginning.
There are two types of bruises to look for. The first is a new irritation, and the second is repeated irritation, one that has been suffered repeatedly over a long period of time. Neither can be seen at a distance, and the first can hardly be felt, but it’s painful enough to cause a horse to shorten his stride or misbehave.
Before I explain how to feel for a sore, let’s decide what a good back should look like. A good back should be as firm as a yearling’s. There should be no lump or bump anywhere. This precludes the horse being bitten or kicked in the pasture. The back should be so smooth that when you lay your fingers flat and run them towards the horse’s rump, they encounter nothing but smooth hair on their trip over the horse’s back and sides. Remember to test your horse’s sides as carefully as you do his wither area because a bruise here will hurt his performance just as much as one above.
To test for the new irritation, begin examining suspect areas. Do this when the horse’s back is dry and cool, within 24 hours of his last ride. For that matter, look for any kind of bruising when your horse’s back is dry and cool. Just after a ride you can tell a little by looking at how the hair had been affected by the saddle. It may be pushed backward, or lays differently in one spot more than the rest. Dry spots, of course, indicate severe pressure points.
The first suspect location lies beside the withers and is often caused by a ridge where the top of the saddle skirt meets the inside of the gullet on a western or endurance saddle. Also test the area on either side of the backbone about six inches back from the withers where the forks of a hunt seat saddle transfer pressure, or where the front of western bars make contact. Another suspect place is where the rear of the bars end on your western-type saddle, or where the padding curves upward on your hunt seat or stuffed cavalry-type seat.
Test these areas as though you were tapping the top of a cake that’s just about through baking. Tap gently around in circles. By doing this, you are feeling for any fluid that may have collected just under the skin as a result of damage to the tissue. If you are like we were, you man wonder if you are ‘feeling things,’ because you haven’t tested your horse this way before, and aren’t familiar with this aspect of his skin and back. So, move to the top of his rump and tap-press the same way. There’s sure to be no fluid up there, and it will provide you a firm gauge with which to compare the back.
A bruise may feel slightly warmer than the rest of the skin, but not always. Your best indication, though, is that fluid will move out from under your fingers. The spot may simply feel slightly "mushy.’ This is easier to detect in the summer when the horse’s coat is fine, than it is in the winter.
Let’s say, for the sake of this discussion, that you have sound a spot that doesn’t feel firm enough, and it corresponds with the spot where the forks of your hunt seat bear down just behind the horse’s scapula. Now you have to determine if the spot hurts your horse.
Press only your index finger and middle finger firmly in the middle of that spot. Among the signals the horse will give you are these; twitching his skin as if ridding himself of a fly, raising his head, dipping his back, fidgeting in general, stepping away from you, tensing muscles around the bruise, holding his ears back. He may also frown. That sounds ridiculous, but many horses tense the muscles around their eyes. One might say their eyes look ‘hooded.’ Horses display this look when they are being scolded, hit, or in some kind of pain. Compare the difference between his facial expression when you are testing him, with the way he normally looks when standing in the sunshine in the pasture on a pretty day.
Any of the signs I’ve mentioned are the only way the horse has of telling you that the spot you’re pressing hurts, and you have to press hard enough with only two or three fingers to get him to give up the secret.
If you’re never tested your horse this way, start by pressing with two fingers all over his neck, chest, legs and rump to get him used to the feel of it. After he’s relaxed with all the firm poking, I guarantee you, if you hit a sore spot on his back, he’ll do something to show you he hurts. Once you know he hurts, you can start taking some steps to find a different saddle, or modify yours.
Remember, check for initial bruising within 24 hours after a ride when the back has become completely dried and cooled. In two days, all evidence will be gone. However, it will recur the next time the horse is ridden with the same saddle for the same length of time. When you rest your horse for two days the back returns to normal. That’s what makes initial bruising so illusive.
Repeated irritation, without the owner’s knowledge, week after week, leads us to the second type of irritation to look for. Over a ling period of time, the repeated irritation, with time allowed between rides for fluid to recede causes a firm, barely raised area the size of the pressure point causing it. It most frequently appears where the front portion of the bars on a western-type or endurance saddle dig or where the front forks of an English type saddle transfer your weight. It may also appear at the rear of the bars on any type of saddle. Generally repeated irritation can’t be noticed at any distance, and can only be felt by rubbing one’s flattened hand across the spot. The hair won’t lie flat around it, and there may be a few white hairs growing from it. This bruise goes virtually unnoticed by many riders because it doesn’t change shape or size as ling as the same saddle is being used. It’s ‘always been like that’ as many riders say, but if the rider used the two-finger test, while watching the horse’s face and looking for signs, he or she will see that it hurts. The firm, chronic sore I’m describing may swell after a ride, but always recedes to its old shape after a little rest.
The reason, I stress the fact that only you know how your horse displays pain, is you can’t expect a veterinarian to walk up cold and be able to tell. Furthermore, most veterinarians don’t know how to feel for these initial soreing problems any better than the average Joe. I have seen very experienced endurance race veterinarians profess to feel for back soreness by taking both hands, thumps on one side, fingers on the other side on the back bone, and they squeeze their way down the horse’s back - never once looking at the horse’s face. That’s like asking a child if his scrape hurts, then sticking your fingers in your ears. I realise that test identifies other problems in a horse, but some vets think that it is a test for back soreness. Rarely will you ever see a vet at a pre-ride, mid-ride or post-ride vet check tapping the horse’s skin gently to see if it is slightly mushy in comparison with other skin; or taking just two fingers and pressing firmly on a suspected sore spot. You have to do it yourself, and then you will have to be honest with yourself about the results.
There are some things we can all do for our animals in objectively assessing the fit of our saddles. The surest way is to ride your saddle normally for tow weeks (that must include at least three days a week plus competition in riding season) with absolutely no padding. You might use a sheet to keep the mud off the wool or leather. If you’re afraid to do this, maybe that should tell you something. We feel a saddle should fit well enough to pass this test.
Here are some other ways to determine if the saddle your are using fits. If you’ve been riding the same hunt seat or western saddle for a very long time, the wear marks on the underside of it will tell a story. On a western saddle you may see areas where the wool is smashed down much more than the rest of it. That’s where the bars are making the most contact. Generally, this will be on the front ends and rear ends of the bars. Be sure to check the sides of the gullet. Are there ridges where the skirts meet the gullet that have been rubbing your horse?
On an English saddle you may see that the leather of your well-worn saddle is a little lighter or darker color where the forks make contact, and where the rear of the bars make contact. The middle of the bars may not be worn as much, and thus you can actually count the number of square inches bearing your weight.
If yours is a new hunt seat, or you’re getting ready to purchase that type, check the height of the pommel groove and purchase one with high enough clearance to accommodate a weight loss in your horse. Or buy a cutback seat. You must check the match of the factory padding of the panels to your horse’s back. Try lightly oiling the underside of the saddle, then powder your horse’s back. Set the saddle in place and lift it off. Figure up the number of square inches contracting the horse‘s back. Remember that as you use it, the padding can shift and smash, and can even conform to the hard tree in the future, as the leather skirts of a western saddle can. You can learn a little by feeling under the flap to see if the saddle is making contact. I placed a young lady’s saddle on the Fiberglas mould of my Arabian, mare’s back at a race one time. There was a one-half inch gap in the middle, while the front and rear made the contact. Another lady’s saddle fit all the way on that particular mould. Don’t ignore the gap in the middle of the bar, because the excess pressure at the front and rear will result in bruising.
Saddle sores usually result from a rider’s attempt to save weight by choosing a light saddle, which usually means a small saddle. To small a weight-bearing surface creates to many pounds per square inch transferred to the horse’s back. Equus Magazine, Copyright 1978, states that more than one and a half pounds per square inch is to much pressure to place on the tissues and capillaries of a horse’s back. You may figure the pounds per square inch your horse is bearing by multiplying the combined weight of the saddle and you by two. That takes into account the concussion exerted on the saddle as you ride, whether you are posting or standing in the stirrups. Divide that figure by the number of square inches your saddle actually contacts your horse’s back, to figure the pounds per square inch. Unfortunately, the heavier riders often try to pare the weight their horse carries by scrimping on saddle weight, and that usually means scrimping on the surface that bears their weight.
If we endurance riders intend to tell the world that we care about our horses’ comfort and safety in this fine sport, then we have to learn how to tell when our saddles don’t fit and do something about it.