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Saddle Fit for the Hunt Horse
By Kate Wooten; photo by Michael Gomez
As I write, hounds are being walked, and hunt horses are being brought up from the fields in preparation for the coming season.
For those of us who work in the industry, it is a time to ensure our animals are fit and ready to take on anything that is asked of them. For those who participate in foxhunting, they will also need to ensure that their horses are fit and prepared for whatever they encounter in the hunt field. We ask so much of our equine friends when we hunt: we ask them to carry us safely across varying terrain, to jump coops and ditches, and to do all this for up to three or four hours at a time.
From the staff horse hunting hounds to the hilltopper at the back of third flight eagerly awaiting a view, all need to be at the top of their game. It is our responsibility as their caregivers and riders to ensure our horses are able to function optimally.
While there are many facets to consider, including nutrition, exercise, and grooming, saddle fit is one of the most important. Our animals must have correctly fitting tack, and it must be maintained properly.
Imagine for a moment that you have a pair of sneakers. It has been a while since you purchased them and your feet have grown. You are forced to wear those same sneakers for hours at a time. What happens? You don’t want to wear the sneakers, your feet get blistered, or you begin to walk differently to alleviate the pain in your feet. Imagine running a marathon with a pebble in your shoe. Uncomfortable, right?
Now imagine lovingly put away your tack at the end of last season and you have brought it out to get your horse in shape. It fit last season, so you slap it on and off you go. But you find that your horse doesn’t act right, or it slips, or your horse is antsy while saddling. When you come back from your ride you have hairless spots on your horse’s back. All of these are signs there is something wrong with the way your tack fits. “But it fit last season” is a comment heard a lot, and while that may be true, a few months at pasture, your horse aging, and changes in your horse’s body can all contribute to the need for having your saddle checked.
The horse's spine is designed to protect the spinal cord and essential organs. We place a saddle on the horse’s back and it is important that the saddle does not compress the vertebrae and cause pinching or sit too low and crush the vertebrae. Adequate space is needed to clear the spinous processes, so a saddle which sits evenly across the thoracic spine and is not too long for the horse’s back (therefore straining the lumbar region of the spine and maybe bruising the kidneys), does not tip or slide, and that does not ride up at the cantle is required.
One of our biggest problems is fitting some riders who require a larger seat size than the horse can adequately carry, due to short-coupled horses needing a shorter panel. This saddle ideally should be fitted with a saddle pad that will be used when hunting, as thickness of pads will affect the fit of the saddle.
Saddles should be checked for fit at least twice a year. During hunt season, as our horses change shape, you may need to have it checked more often.
Other things to consider are the type of saddle you are using. What is the flocking made of? Is your saddle wool flocked or foam flocked or does it have CAIR® Panels?
Wool is the most traditional flocking and easiest to adjust, usually on site. In my opinion, it is the best for hunting, as it conforms to the horse’s back. If you have foam flocked panels, these can only be adjusted by sending your saddle away, so you are stuck with having to pad your saddle to fit to get through the season. With CAIR® panels, the same problem arises regarding padding, although the new riser system makes it a little easier to adjust. Whichever you own, it is imperative it fit correctly for your horse.
As the season progresses, your horse will become fitter and, therefore, his waistline may reduce. This will affect the fit of the saddle. You may notice your saddle does not sit quite right; it may slightly rock side to side or begin to slide backwards. Many of our hunt horses are ridden with in a breastplate, especially in a hilly area, to help prevent the saddle sliding backwards. By Christmas, you may need to have your fitter to readjust the flocking again. If you have a wool flocked saddle, this is easily done; for foam and CAIR® saddles, a pad which allows for shims may be needed.
Let’s talk about adjustables! Some saddles come with an adjustable gullet system. These are great for horses whose bodies change to more than one gullet size through the year. It is quite easy to have the gullet switched out as your horse narrows through the season, therefore eliminating the need for excess saddle pads. Excess padding in itself can cause problems, so the “less is more” principle is one we try to follow religiously.
Keeping your tack maintained and the leather supple, while checking for cracks, lumps, and deteriorating stitching, is important for safety reasons as well as for comfort. Your saddle is an investment in your horse’s health and keeping it in great shape will make it last for years.
Kate Wooten owns and operates English Saddle Fit: https://englishsaddlefit.com/
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