If you're like me, you like nothing better than saddling up your senior horse for a ride, be it a quiet hack around the trails or a schooling session to improve for the next competition. But—especially with senior horses—it's important to check your horse's saddle fit regularly. Why? Horses' bodies change as they age, and just a small amount of time can make a big difference in how a saddle fits.
When we first purchased Taz, our recently departed chestnut snowflake Appaloosa gelding, he was big. Not overly tall, standing just 15.3 hands, but big…as in very wide and very muscular. He was 13 at that point, and his body was in its prime. Fast forward nearly 15 years and you saw a very different picture: Not only had nearly all the chestnut roaned out of his coat, his body shape had changed immensely. He was still wide, but his muscles had started dwindling and his body became slightly more angular. He wasn't skinny or underweight—our veterinarian gave him a clean bill of health (save for his existing uveitis and arthritis) year after year—but his body shape had changed over the years from that of a pleasure horse to that of a senior horse.
With his changing body shape, we were always careful to ensure his tack fit appropriately. We made equipment modifications as necessary, ranging from changing saddle pads to adjusting the saddles themselves. My father and I both ride in saddles with adjustable gullets, which we've both found incredibly useful in helping our horses—all of which have different body shapes—stay comfortable, Taz included.
The differences in Dorado's body shape from when he came home (here in 2009, about two weeks after he arrived at our farm) compared to what he looks like now (below, last week during a cross-country schooling session) are substantial and a good reminder of why we should check our tack's fit regularly.
Photos: Keith Larson (above) and Adam Spradling (below)
Now, I concede that 15 years is a long time—whose body doesn't change in the course of 15 years? But Taz isn't the only older horse I've seen changes in; 17-year-old Dorado's body has changed immensely since I first got him in 2009, and it's still changing.
When Dorado first came home, he hadn't been in regular work in a long time. He had a scrawny neck and was on the slim side, and little to no musculature anywhere on his body. He also had—and still has—rather prominent withers, which make saddle fitting a challenge. So to start, we used a gullet measuring system to determine a good starting point, and put that gullet in the saddle.
This set up worked well for a while—there was no back soreness or abnormal sweat patters that could have pointed to pressure points—but eventually Dorado made it clear that something wasn't right…by planting me on my head twice in five minutes. So a friend who works as a massage therapist took a look the next time she was at our farm. Sure enough, Dorado's back muscles were barking.
He had a couple massages to work out the kinks and I reevaluated Dorado's saddle fit. Sure enough, he needed a different gullet size. Our guess is that his back broadened slightly as his muscles developed through work. Once we adjusted his saddle, he had no further problems.
A few years later, a similar experience reminded me of the importance of checking saddle fit a few times each year. We'd returned Dorado's jumping saddle to a slightly narrower gullet because of more body shape changes, but had left his dressage saddle in the slightly wider gullet (we only had one of the narrower gullets, and he wore his jumping saddle more frequently than the dressage saddle). Everything went well for a while, but again, Dorado started having problems. This time, rather than pushing the launch button, he simply became very agitated and uncooperative whenever he worked in the jumping saddle; he worked beautifully whenever he wore the dressage saddle. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that it took me several weeks to make the connection between the narrower gullet in the jumping saddle and the poor disposition while working, but the light bulb eventually went off. Sure enough, once we replaced the jumping saddle's gullet with one the same size as the dressage saddle's, Dorado started working beautifully again.
Since I've recently clipped Dorado for the winter, now's a good time for me to check his saddle fit again. I've got my trusty measuring device in my SUV, and plan to evaluate his saddle fit this week.
How often do you check the fit of your senior horse's tack?