The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.

Tack Cheats for Little People

I don’t often have an opinion on a pony’s tack. I may recommend some form of grass rein if the pony snatches at the reins, or I may comment on the size of stirrup iron or leathers if they’re unsuitable, but I don’t like too many gadgets on a pony because although the gadgets may solve the initial problem, they don’t allow the rider, however small, to learn correct habits which means that they will run into difficulties later on in their riding career.

As long as the tack is safe, I don’t tend to change things. However, recently I’ve found myself making little adjustments to tack to help my little riders.

My most common suggestion at the moment is that my young riders have a piece of electric tape wrapped around their reins so they know when a) their reins are the correct length, and b) that their holding the hands level. Often children have one hand which has a longer rein and sits back, just above the saddle, a throwback to when they were holding on to balance. Others will shorten one rein more than the other, especially if feeling nervous. Putting a visual cue helps correct this subconscious habit. You can buy multicoloured reins which do a similar thing, but electrical tape is free and quick to apply. As soon as a rider’s hands are held level they begin to sit straighter and their pony responds to a more even rein contact so becomes easier to control. Most of my Pony Clubbers have tape on their reins.

The other bit of tack which I’ve been tweaking recently are knee rolls. Most saddles nowadays have velcro knee rolls, which means they can be adjusted so that they support a rider’s leg. Sometimes, as in the case of inherited ponies, the knee rolls were adjusted for the tall previous rider, and the new, shorter jockey ends up swinging their legs around as they try to find their balance in rising trot. A quick adjustment of the knee rolls means that they have some support at the knee which discourages the knee from reaching forwards and subsequently stops the chair position developing. It’s worth reviewing the positioning of knee rolls as children’s legs grow, and as they develop their muscles and balance they become less reliant on knee rolls anyway.

Last week I was working on jumping position with a young rider. We’d managed to get her folding nicely, but her lower leg started to look insecure. When I looked closely I noticed she didn’t have any knee rolls on her saddle. So I’ve dispatched her Mum off to buy some velcro knee rolls, which I believe will solve the wobbly leg problem and help this rider feel more secure folding into her jumping position.

Another cheat I’ve suggested recently, which is also useful for slight adults riding big ponies, is that if the saddle seat is a bit big for the rider – because a child has moved up a pony size or a family pony means everyone has to try to make fit – a seat saver can help reduce the size of the saddle seat. It does not need to be extra grippy, or memory foam or anything in particular, but the aim is to shorten the distance from pommel to cantle so that a rider with a small seat, especially one developing their balance, doesn’t feel the need to push their bottom backwards to feel the cantle and get some support from it as the learn to rise to the trot. This should help stop the lower leg going forwards and them developing a chair seat.

Saddlers should always fit tack to both horse and rider, so in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to make these cheats, but new saddles are expensive and situations less than perfect with young riders having growing room on new ponies, so we need to think outside the box and make adjustments to develop good habits, which is far easier than correcting ingrained bad habits as a result of not having support from tack in the right places.

Winter is Coming

I have been looking towards winter with some trepidation for the last couple of months, dreading a potential repeat of last year’s emotionally unstable Phoenix.

So as with everything, I made a plan.

I decided to maximise on the fact that she’s come on so well in her training over the summer, and reap the rewards by booking a few competitions. Having something to focus on would also help distract me too.

So in the last five weekends, Phoenix and I have been adventuring four times, and have two more adventures before November. She’s entered four showjumping classes, doing three double clears and being placed in all four. She’s been placed first and second in dressage tests, which whilst they weren’t her best work felt much more established than her last test and the consistency had improved. She’s also been on the Badminton sponsored ride to get in some cross country practice. Our next two outings are hunter trials, which will hopefully put us in good stead for some one day events next year.

So we’ve had a lovely few outings, thoroughly enjoying ourselves and building on her CV.

I planned to make some changes to Phoenix’s management this year, but I wanted to ensure I did it step by step so that I learnt which aspect she didn’t appreciate and what stressed her. She’s continued to spend time in her stable over the summer so that it is a familiar environment, which would hopefully reduce any stress there.

I decided to get her saddle checked before she started living in, and to buy her a dressage saddle that I’d promised myself, so that I knew there wasn’t an issue with either saddle or back. Phoenix’s regular massages mean I know that her overall muscle tone is healthier and better than last year, with any problems being ironed out quickly.

I have come to realise over the summer that Phoenix doesn’t cope well in the wind and rain. She gets chilly very quickly, even when we’ll rugged up, and when ridden is more tense and “scooty” in the wind and rain. I retrieved my exercise sheet which when Otis grew out of it several years ago I loaned to Mum and Matt, who rarely used it. Over the last week I’ve used it a few times and definitely found Phoenix to be more settled and rideable with it in adverse weather.

With this sensitivity to wind and rain, I decided to give her a blanket clip, not a full clip, so that her loins had extra protection. Additionally, she found clipping a very stressful experience last year, so I planned to clip her before she started living in. Then I could gauge her reaction to clipping without the factor of being stabled. We actually had a much more positive experience last week; Phoenix ate her bucket of feed, and let my friend gibber in her ear while I clipped away. It’s not my best work of art, as I quit while I was ahead and stopped clipping when she ran out of food! But it was a positive experience, and there hasn’t been a change to her behaviour under saddle.

So I’ve ticked off clipping, saddles, and back, and still had a lovely, happy horse to ride. Next on my list was feed. Phoenix didn’t eat well last year, not tucking into her hay, or drinking sufficient. She’s happily eaten hay in the field the last month so I decided not to change her forage unless she went off it when she started staying in. And then I would immediately introduce haylage. However, I bought some Allen and Page Fast Fibre a couple of weeks ago and have introduced it alongside her chaff based bucket feed. This has a low calorific value, but will fill her tummy up and hydrate her, which will hopefully mean she is less skittish as a result of gastric discomfort. I’ve recently increased her magnesium the level she had in the spring, and maintained her daily dose of gut balancer.

My plan was to get all of these steps established before Phoenix came in at night, but the fates were against me as last weekend she and her field mates started living in due to the atrocious weather conditions. I haven’t been able to exercise her as much as I wanted to this first week due to family problems, but I was thrilled when I have that Phoenix has been lovely to ride, and that she seems happy in her new routine.

It may be that Phoenix is more settled this year; in her ridden work, at the yard, with me, and having experienced a winter living in, so is less likely to become a stress head this winter. But by taking these steps I feel I’ve done my best not to overload her system with simultaneous changes, and could identify triggers that upset her.

I’m not so anxious about winter now as I feel in control, yet ready to make positive changes at the first sign of stress from Phoenix.

Buying a New Saddle

After selling Otis’s dressage saddle in the spring as it wasn’t quite right for Phoenix, I decided it was time to get a replacement. I decided not to get one immediately because of our other issues, but now that Phoenix is in such a good place, working well, and her shape has changed, it’s time to find us a new saddle!

What should you expect from a saddle fit? Or rather, how do you know that you’re getting a good service? After all, it’s so important to get the right saddle for both horse and rider.

Firstly, find a master saddler. You can access a list of qualified saddlers who are registered with the Society of Master Saddlers on their website. Do some research too, as some saddlers only sell stock certain brands of saddle, some don’t sell second hand, and some have more experience with certain types of horse or saddles. You want to find a saddler who can meet your requirements.

Speak to the saddler to book an appointment; tell them what you’re looking for (jump, GP, endurance saddle; new or second hand), describe your physique and that of your horse, as well as both of your current abilities and fitness. Some saddlers like to see a photo of the horse to help them assess what sort of saddle would fit.

Once you’ve booked your appointment you need to work out how best to prepare your horse. They need to be clean and dry, but bear in mind the saddler needs to see them working sensibly, so it might be worth lunging a horse who might be fresh. When Phoenix had her saddles checked in the spring, when she was being very tense in the arena, I took her for an hours hack before her saddle fit to thoroughly warm her up and relax her so the saddler could see her working properly, rather than seeing the first fifteen minutes of silliness. This time, I schooled her before, and he actually ended up observing it while I rode upon arrival, before he took a closer look at the fit.

So with a clean horse, either standing in their stable or on the yard if it’s dry, the saddler will have a look at their back, checking for any lumps, muscle soreness, muscle symmetry, and anything else which may affect the horse’s acceptance of the saddle.

Then the saddler should try the selection of saddles that they’ve brought with them on your horse. Some can be discarded straight away, others need a closer look, and sometimes they just fit snugly. They fit the saddle without any pads, stirrups or accessories, checking that the seat sits horizontally, the pommel is a hands width from the wither, the saddle doesn’t pass the last rib, and that the shoulders aren’t inhibited when the girth is done up.

Once happy, the stirrups and saddle cloth are put on and then the saddler wants to see the horse ridden. This is to check that the saddle doesn’t sink too low once the rider sits on, and that the saddle fits the rider, as well as the horse moving comfortably with the saddle. Ideally, you need to show walk, trot, canter, and jump if necessary. However, if for whatever reason you can’t or don’t want to then be honest with the saddler. My friend has just had a saddle fitted to her new horse, but she was worried about cantering him before he’d settled in and she’d gotten to know him, so she explained to the saddler, who was happy to assess the saddle in trot and then potentially return in a few weeks time to assess the saddle fit in canter, and make adjustments to accommodate her horse’s sure to be changing shape. If you are rehabbing your horse then you need to take this into account too as they’re likely to change shape rapidly, but may also not be up to cantering for the saddler.

The saddler shouldn’t rush you, after all you need to be confident in your decision as it’s not a cheap outgoing! When Mum bought a new saddle for Matt last year her saddler was very patient, letting her ride for over twenty minutes to see if she really did like the saddle.

An ideal saddle fits on top of a thin numnah, but sometimes saddlers recommend other pads. Perhaps a non-slip pad to help stabilise the saddle on a rotund horse, or a sheepskin numnah which can even out pressure and is said to be cooler than cotton, or a prolite pad to overcome any asymmetries or muscle atrophy until the horse muscles up.

The saddler’s job is to find a saddle which fits both horse and rider, and then help you perfect the fit, temporarily or permanently. This may be by using a different girth to best6 fit the horse’s girth groove, using a pad underneath, and using a different configuration of girth straps.

By the end of all that you should have a saddle which fits both you and your horse, which you are 100 percent happy with, and the saddler can review the saddle on another visit to ensure it is moulding nicely to your horse’s shape and doesn’t need adjusting.

WOW Saddles – Wow or Woah?

Firstly, apologies for the quiet blog this week, the piece I wrote on Thursday seems to have disappeared into the ether… I will retrieve it. But in the meantime, here’s today’s post.

Last weekend I enjoyed a very informative day at a Horses Inside Out seminar. So much to take in, I felt like I’d just had a full day of A-level exams! Anyway, I have lots of new knowledge to impart to my clients, and some subjects to discuss on here too. Where to start?

How about with the warm up act, a lecture from the WOW saddle man.

Have you heard of WOW saddles? In fear of you getting bogged down in their blurb, here’s a link to their website , but I’ll surmise it for you here. WOW saddles are based on the flair system of flocking saddles with pockets of air instead of traditional wool, and each style of saddle has a number of different options, such as tree shape, stirrup bar position, knee roll position, which enables horse and rider individuality to be taken into account. Possibly an easier method of creating bespoke saddles than the traditional way? Imagine it to be like going into IKEA and building your own wardrobe from the different options available to you.

This seems like a pretty good approach to saddle fitting. But it is unfortunately outside the budget of the majority of horse owners, and doesn’t lead to a second hand market.

Next, let’s discuss the flair system. By using air to flock a saddle you can make small adjustments easily, and adjust the saddle while it is on the horse and the rider is mounted. Sounds great. I’m led to wonder, however; how often do the air bags need “pumping up” and do they have a limited life expectancy? Do owners “top up” the air themselves? And what is the effect of putting in too much air? Or indeed, riding when they’re flat?

I’m no saddler, but as far as I understand, flocking with traditional wool puts a solid (albeit with tiny air pockets) into the panels of the saddle until the saddle is balanced and fits the horse. Over time, the flocking settles down, compresses, and moulds to the horse’s shape. You’ve seen the dips in your favourite sofa from where you always snuggle up. Saddlers add flocking if necessary when they check the saddle fit, and if there’s any dense bits of flocking, or if the flocking is old and ineffective (take a feel of those ancient stubben saddles on the top rack in the tack room) they can remove all the flocking and replace it with new. I digress. I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, that wool flocking settles around the shape of the horse to a certain extent. Which enables saddles to be close contact and for riders to really feel their horse’s movement.

Air is a gas, and if you squash a gas, the particles migrate to other areas, which causes an increase in density of the particles, which increases pressure. Here’s a little animation for you.

So when a rider applies pressure to the air flocked saddle, when they sit on it, they’re increasing the pressure in the panels. And if they aren’t sat in a balanced manner, they’ll increase pressure in different areas of the panel, potentially causing sore spots on the horse. Equally, the pressure in the panels is just as likely to send energy up through the rider’s seat, causing back pain, and creating an unstable seat for them to balance on. I’m trying, but failing, to find the research online I heard about yesterday, which says that air flocked saddles are of no real benefit compared to wool flocked saddles, and can even have worse pressure points. If you know the paper I’m talking about, please send it over!

The concept of flocking saddles with air I’m yet to be convinced by. From what I’ve heard, it’s like marmite. Some horses love the freedom it gives over their backs, some hate the unstableness of the saddle. Some riders love sitting on an air bed, others hate the reduction in feel. I’d suggest doing your own research because the jury is still out on this.

Moving on to the main subject of the lecture I heard. Fitting saddles. The lecture began with a quick overview of how the horse’s shoulders develop with work, and he gave us a couple of visual checks to do to see which areas of your horse are more developed than others … more on this another day when I’ve got some photos to accompany my words.

WOW saddles design or fit the saddle to the horse, in terms of the physical body of the saddle, anyway, and when the rider sits on the saddle is adjusted asymmetrically. The company claims that by adjusting the saddle asymmetrically the horse will become straighter. I sat on one of the saddles on a wooden horse and had it “fitted” to me. As with the majority of riders, I sit slightly to the right, which means that my left seat bone is slightly closer to the midline of the horse. The lecturer told us that this means my right leg hangs long and loose, whilst my left leg draws up to hold me on because I feel like I’m going to slide right all the time. This causes my left shoulder to drop and go behind my body. In terms of the way the horse goes, the right hind is stronger as it’s having to compensate for me sitting off centre, which leads to a stronger left shoulder, and a better bend on the right rein and better quality trot because the stronger hind leg is on the inside. The left canter has more power because the right hind (the strongest) is the propulsion leg, but the horse is more likely to fall in during left canter because he gives you right bend more easily.

Now with all these lefts and rights it’s really confusing. But I’ve sat down and thought about it all, and the chain reaction makes sense if you sit to the right. Obviously it all happens in reverse if you sit to the left. I was disappointed that before sitting on the saddle my posture wasn’t assessed at all as then he’d know that my right shoulder is tighter and carried higher than my left as a result of an old injury and muscle tension rather than a consequence of my sitting to the right on the saddle.

This is where there is a point of contention. WOW saddles focus on sitting the rider asymmetrically in order to help the horse go straight. But what came first? The chicken or the egg? Do horses make riders crooked or do riders make horses crooked? It can definitely be a vicious cycle, and I’m always telling my clients that if they’re giving their horse chiropractic treatment then they should also have some too. In my opinion, WOW saddles are only treating the symptom and not the cause. I think WOW saddlers also assume that the horse is straight at birth and it is our asymmetric riding which causes any problems. Domestication does favour doing things from the left hand side, but surely good training ensures the horse is comfortable being approached, led, tacked up and mounted from both sides?

Of course, you need to break the vicious cycle of horse and rider crookedness. To me, this can be done by working the horse from the ground more, ensuring you’re working them evenly, educating the rider’s eye, feel and understanding of biomechanics, Pilates (equine and human), and using regular physio treatments to help make horse and rider as symmetrical as possible. Yes, no one (human or equine) is born perfectly symmetrical. One hand/leg is always dominant, and bone length can differ. But you can become ambidextrous. Those lefties years ago had to adapt and write with their right hand for fear of being burnt at the stake for being a witch/the devil. Now we know it’s not a sin to be left handed, but equally we also know that by using both sides of our body to the same extent we build even muscle tone and are less likely to over stress and injure one area.

So surely before making adaptations to our riding lives we should look at solving the underlying problem, and not the symptom?

You hear of horses coming back from injury who need to have their saddles temporarily altered, perhaps with a shimmy on one side to compensate for muscle atrophy because of the injury. And the rider will work on various strengthening exercises to build up this area, and the saddler will then be able to remove the shimmy once the muscle has developed. The use of the shimmy, or asymmetric flocking will reduce any saddle slide and hopefully stop pressure points developing elsewhere. For example, if the saddle slides left, then there is the potential for soreness to develop on the right side of the thoracic spine. Which creates another problem. So saddlers do fit saddles asymmetrically to a horse in order to not cause further problems, but they’re fitting the saddle asymmetrically so that it is a level surface for the rider, and is less likely to slip to one side. A bit like if you have one foot bigger than the other. You buy a pair of shoes to fit the bigger foot and fill the other shoe so that the smaller foot is comfortable. Then you’re more likely to walk evenly and without causing an injury.

So where have we got to? I’m as confused about the whole concept as anyone else. But to me the concept of fitting the saddle to the rider’s asymmetry reinforces the idea that it is ok to ride crooked and to not look after your own body. Yes you need to fit the saddle to the horse, whether that’s asymmetric because they have an underdeveloped trapezius, or not. But it doesn’t make sense to me to put a rider on an uneven saddle; just like it’s uncomfortable walking in shoes with heels of different heights, and causes soreness in one leg. Furthermore I’m yet to be convinced by using air to flock saddles as research and rider feedback is so divided. Perhaps the WOW method has a place in rehab work, but I don’t think it is the long term answer. Or at least, if it is, maybe we shouldn’t be riding that horse?

I have to give it to the WOW saddle man, he gives a persuasive lecture, but I would urge riders to think about the underlying reasons for a lack of straightness in themselves and their horse and look at working on overcoming this through physiotherapy and exercise as surely it’s better all round to be as close to straight as possible.

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Split Saddles

A post on social media caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. An Australian had put a photo of her saddle up, saying that many people ask her at competitions if her saddle was broken. It wasn’t, but it’s an innovative, modern design that hasn’t made it into the grassroot market.

Obviously this meant that I had to do a bit of research.

Stuebben, of which I’ve not got much experience except for their old saddles which I never seemed very comfortable; have developed alongside Equi-soft, a type of saddle with a split tree.

This design, either as a jump saddle or a dressage saddle, has a divided tree, which facilitates and adapts to a wider range of back movement. Apparently this split tree reduces pressure on the horse’s back, and adjusts well to the movement of the rider. You can see that by having two separate sides to the saddle, a left and a right, the seat aids should be clearer and more precise because the pressure won’t be distributed to the opposite side. Which leads me to wonder if the seat aids could be too much for some horses – those with sensitive backs or heavy riders? 

Having the split in the saddle also improves ventilation to the horse’s back, and helps prevent muscles overheating. I assume Stuebben have done some research using thermography, so it would be interesting to see results from a similar, independent study. 

On a slightly different note, and I’m sure men will identify more with this, the saddle seat relieves pudendal nerve pressure (after a bit of googling I’ve discovered this nerve causes pelvic pain and supplies feeling to that region), which helps prevent injuries to that region – we’ve all winced in sympathy as someone’s crashed down onto the pommel, so surely having some preventative measures is a bonus.

The saddle also has a stirrup bar that can be adjusted to four positions which will mean that those of us outside the range of “normal” won’t have to look at specially made saddles to accommodate long legs (I don’t count myself as one of these people). It also means you can adjust your seat from cross country to showjumping by adjusting the position of the stirrups rather than just adjusting the length of your stirrup leathers. According to their website, the way the stirrup bars attach mean that the rider’s weight would be distributed more evenly and effectively.

The girth straps are also a new design, being attached to elastic rings, which relieves pressure, improves breathing, and allows the ribcage to expand more.

Unfortunately for me, this saddle is priced way out of my price range, probably why I’ve only experienced tired, old Stuebben saddles previously, so I’m unlikely to experience the benefits of these technological advances. Perhaps if anyone is ever running a study on the effects of different saddles, investigating effects on performance, as well as physiological measurements, then they can get in touch and Otis and I will be happy to oblige!

Being Straight

It’s the ultimate aim of all of us; to have a straight, symmetrical horse so that we can ace those centre lines, and not have a weaker rein to throw away marks.

Which means that we spend heaps of time and money into physios, chiropractors, osteopaths and the like. Treating our horses, that is.

But how many of you get yourself treated at the same time your horse is treated? It’s logical really; that if your horse is crooked they will send you out of alignment, and if you’re crooked you will misalign your horse. Like a vicious cycle, it needs breaking.

Frequent checks to monitor both of your crookedness, or straightness, will enable you to treat one or both of you as soon as an issue appears, and before a problem occurs. I always think that riders should consider their own bodies when treating their horse, even if it’s just a sports massage to release the tension carried in the shoulders.

There are other ways to monitor your straightness, as well as your horse’s so you can notice immediately if there’s a change. Firstly, you can use arena mirrors whilst riding to check you are both level and straight. Or a person in the arena, instructor or otherwise, to assess levelness. Then you can check your stirrup length regularly – don’t just assume that because both stirrups are on hole number eight that they are level. Stirrup leathers stretch! It may be that you need to swap your leathers over on the saddle. I know a lot of people mount from a mounting block so don’t think they put as much pressure on the left stirrup leather, so won’t stretch it. However, if you carry more weight in your right leg, or sit to the right, you put more pressure on that stirrup leather so will stretch it regardless of how you mounted.

Working evenly on both reins will help prevent either of you becoming one-sided, after all everybody favours one side of their body, and only by trying to be ambidextrous can you prevent the muscles on your dominant side becoming too strong. I personally have found Pilates really helpful for teaching me proprioception. That is, the awareness of where each part of my body is and the amount of work it is doing, or not doing as the case may be!

Has anyone seen those jackets with lots of horizontal and vertical lines on? They aren’t for fashion, but are a really good tool for identifying collapsed hips, dropped shoulders, and many other asymmetries. I always like teaching riders who wear stripey tops because it helps me identify their weak areas. Also, if they see a photo or video they will better understand your corrections.

You can study your horse to see if they are tending to put more pressure on one side of their body than the other. Do they rest one leg, dropping that hip, more than the other? Does the saddle sit square on their back or is it twisted? Does it shift as you’re riding? Does one side of the saddle panels seem flatter, or squashed, than the other? Does your horse have more sweat on one side of his barrel than the other, does it indicate there may be a pressure point from the saddle? Does he find carrot stretches on one side easier than the other?

A lot of physios will ask when the saddle was last checked, or recommend it is rechecked if the horse is significantly misaligned or has uneven muscle to try to prevent them losing this new straightness and to help them balance out the muscle.

So next time you think, or moan, about your horse being crooked, have a think about yourself to make sure you aren’t causing, or won’t cause, the issue to reoccur after your horse has been treated. After all, a pain-free horse who is straight will work better for you, perform better, and have a lower risk of injury.

Shiver Me Timbers

During one of the pony camps in the summer we instructors witnessed a moment of pure comical genius, which I’m convinced could be used as a sketch.

One of the girls was tacking up her pony by herself. The pony was tied to the trailer quietly munching on his haynet.

The girl took out the gel pad and placed it carefully on his back, checking it was central and perfectly aligned. She turned around to pick up her saddle and saddle cloth, at which point the pony decided to twitch his withers so that the gel pad slid towards his croup.

The girl came back with the saddle, looked in confusion at the gel pad, before putting her saddle down carefully and putting the gel pad back into its original position.

She turned back to the saddle, as the gel pad made it’s way along the pony’s spine. The girl looked at it in dismay, as she held her saddle. 

Before she could put the saddle down to try again one of the instructors, in fits of laughter, got up to help anchor the gel pad whilst the saddle was put on! 

I think the situation was made more the funnier by the demure look on the pony’s face as he upset the tacking up procedure.