Earlier this month I spent two days at the American Association of Equine Practitioner's Focus on the Sport Horse Symposium, in Louisville. I listened to hours of lameness and rehab presentations from renowned researchers, and my right hand has finally recovered from rapid note-taking.

Hannah, here with back wet and no pads, put up with my saddle fitting experiment.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

In a discussion about rehabilitating horses with back problems, Dr. Philippe Benoit, a private practitioner at Clinique Equine des Bréviaires in France and former veterinarian for the French show jumping team, touched briefly on the importance of saddle fit. He gave the usual advice: "Check for any abnormal pressure and bridging of the panels and padding of the saddle itself" to help avoid back soreness. Many of us have heard it before.

Then, offhandedly, he gave another bit of advice that caused several vets in the room--along with myself--to perk up.

"Or, if you're cheap like we are in France," Benoit said jokingly, "you can do what I call the 'poor man's saddle fitting.' "

He then described something that goes like this:

  1. Wet your horse's back and saddle area with water before riding.
  2. Saddle your horse without using any pads.
  3. Ride through your normal paces (e.g., walk, trot, canter) for about 10 minutes.
  4. Dismount, untack, and make note of what areas on your horse's back are dry or dry first. These are receiving the most pressure from the saddle.

The theory is that the saddle leather (sorry, this test might not be very effective with synthetic saddles) absorbs the water from the horse's coat. The harder it presses against the horse's back, the more water it's likely to absorb.

The right and left sides of Hannah's back, immediately after saddle removal.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

The right and left sides of Hannah's back, 10 minutes after saddle removal.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

Being a poor horse owner myself, I thought now this is a saddle fitting I can afford!

So two days later I hosed Hannah's body down and cringed as I placed my clean, dry saddle directly on her back. Having never ridden sans pads before, I assumed it would feel a bit strange, but I was surprised that I couldn't tell any difference in the way she felt under saddle. Hannah also didn't seem to mind.

We did the usual: walk, posting and sitting trot, full-seat and half-seat canter, and lateral work. I wanted to make sure I crammed as much of our normal routine as possible into that 10 minutes so the pressure my saddle exerted would be true to form. Okay, so maybe my ride lasted closer to 15 minutes.

Back in the grooming stall, I removed my saddle and, voila! There were two mirror-image dry spots where the front of the panels lie against Hannah's sides, just below and behind her withers.

I'll admit, I had skeptically assumed I wouldn't see any true dry areas--or that they would at least be indiscernible at first and more apparent as Hannah dried. But that part of my saddle must apply enough pressure to leave an obvious mark. Either that or my saddle is really thirsty.

Because this is likely not the most scientific of saddle fits, I'm not going to jump to conclusions that I need new tack. I am, however, going to ask my vet and trainer's advice for reducing my saddle's pressure on that part of Hannah's back.

What are your saddle-fit tips and discoveries?