Back problems aren't always what they seem
It is usual for me to be particularly busy at this time of the year with referrals. They emanate from vets, physiotherapists, trainers and instructors and other professionals. I can only assume that more back problems in horses are manifest at the end of a long, hard season. This theory may be faulty because the referrals are still pouring in despite last year's show season being substantially contracted as a result of foot and mouth.
Much has been written about back problems in horses. The Society of Master Saddlers, in particular, has done a great deal to educate and advise horse owners about the need for saddles to be professionally fitted and for the fitting to be checked regularly, especially when changes to the horse's routine and management are likely to result in alterations to the back profile.
Either horse owners are more conscious of their horses' backs - or there are actually more horses suffering from back problems. Horse owners collectively spend a great deal of money having 'problems' diagnosed. Analyses often follow a similar route. The 'symptoms' can manifest themselves in any number of ways. The rider or their instructor/trainer notes a reduction in performance . . . failure to bascule over a fence . . . reluctance to work in a 'round' outline . . . refusing fences . . . nappiness and irritability that were not previously part of the horse's temperament . . . growing dislike of being tacked up and/or mounted . . . 'stiffness' in the back . . . un-level steps, especially behind . . . clamped or rigid tail . . . and a multiplicity of other 'symptoms'.
Diagnosis often follows a similar pattern. The services of the vet, a physiotherapist, perhaps a 'back specialist' are called upon. Sometimes during the ensuing proceedings, what appears to be the cause of the problems is determined and treatment or changes in management instigated with happy results. Sadly this is not always the case.
Quite often, when the various professionals have failed to agree a diagnosis, it is somewhat arbitrarily decided that the saddle must be at fault. Often this does not result from a scientifically based diagnosis but because there is very little left to which 'blame' can be attached.
It should always be the original saddle fitter whose advice is asked, but this belies the assumption that the saddle was professionally fitted in the first place! (Readers would be horrified to know the number of occasions when this is not so!). The fitter concerned may be faced with any number of interesting possibilities. Yes, there is a fitting problem yes, she did fit the saddle but that was to a four year old horse some two years ago. During which time the horse has grown and developed out of all recognition. Yes, the saddle fitter certainly supplied the saddle but he fitted it to a grey mare and not the chesnut gelding that he is being asked to examine today. Yes, the saddle is causing problems largely because it needs reflocking, something the rider has ignored for several years. Readers will assume that I am exaggerating because, by and large, most horse owners are sensible, concerned, informed and knowledgeable or seek advise. Wish it were always so!
My own involvement in the proceedings often occurs when the horse owner admits the saddle was never, ever fitted! I might be called in when the owner can't remember (it was such a long time ago!) where the saddle was purchased. Sometimes the saddle has been 'fitted' by an unqualified person, even, I hate to say it, the riding instructor or similar. (One remedial fitting I undertook was in response to problems caused by a saddle fitted by the local farrier; on another occasion it was a veterinary nurse whose services had been deemed adequate!)
During the last week I have undertaken four referrals, on three occasions I was contacted by the vet and on the fourth by the physiotherapist involved. What is so extraordinarily interesting is the fact that, in all but one case, diagnosis was quite simple!
Case 1 involved a pony. The pony was reported to have become 'nappy and irritable'. The vet and the physiotherapist were agreed the pony's back was 'very sensitive' and pressure areas had been determined. I found that the saddle fitted the pony adequately but that the rider, a heavily built twelve year old boy needed a considerably larger saddle. The current saddle was too small for his rather large seat, his balance was badly affected and he was banging down in the saddle and creating the pressure points that had been identified. (Unfortunately I had to explain to the boy and his parents that the pony was too short-backed to accommodate a longer saddle and, quite simply, the boy needed a bigger pony).
Case 2 concerned a very attractive dark brown gelding. The professionals had been called in because the owner felt the horse was becoming very stiff in his shoulders and not moving as freely as he used to. Examinations had been unable to determine an underlying cause. I considered both the saddles concerned had been fitted well and were suitable for the lady rider whose main interest was dressage. A bit of a mystery that is, until I enquired if the rider ever added anything under the saddle. 'Yes. A riser pad, I'll go and get it' Eureka! I found the riser pad was seriously unbalancing the saddle and resulting in the points creating pressure points which must have been quite painful for the horse when he endeavoured to move his shoulders freely.
Case 3 involved a horse with a chronic problem resulting from a road accident that had taken place some three years previously. The injuries the horse sustained had resulted in the horse becoming very one-sided. Various remedial physiotherapy had been undertaken but it was agreed that the affects could only be palliative and could never 'cure' the results of the injury. The horse was considered very happy undertaking light hacking and was exercised almost every day. The saddle was the right size for both horse and rider but I realised, because the horse's shoulder was built up so much more on the near side, it was effectively pushing the saddle off to the right every time the horse took a stride. I organised for minor alterations to the saddle that would allow for the horse's asymmetry and redress the balance.
Case 4 initially appeared the most difficult. The horse was a youngster only backed three months previously. She had been easy to back and then had been turned away for a four week rest before commencing 'proper' schooling. Since being brought up she had become unwilling and even tended to nap, especially when ridden out by the girl who helped the owner with all three of her horses. The vet concerned had diagnosed the mare to be suffering very mild contusions, bruising in everyday language, just behind the withers. Let me say straight away that the owner was an experienced horsewoman, that the saddle she showed me had been well fitted and had even been re-checked after the mare had been brought up from her rest period. I asked some of the obvious questions (feeling mildly embarrassed because I was dealing with an owner who was far from novice). Was the horse being hacked out with an older horse to give her confidence? ('Yes'). Was she being ridden a little every day or was it possible that she was fresh and above herself? ('Yes' . . .'No'). Finally I asked if I might speak to the groom. She was a nice girl who quickly confirmed all I had been told. In desperation I asked which of the owner's two saddles she normally used to ride out. 'Oh, I don't use either of them. I like my own saddle, especially when I'm riding an inexperienced youngster'. The saddle was brought and I found it was considerably too narrow for the mare. An interesting case because the groom (I later saw her ride another horse) was a talented horsewoman but patently deficient in management knowledge.
I'd like to conclude by recommending that all horse owners regularly review the need to have their saddles checked and to suggest they protect their own and their horses' interests by always employing the services of a Society of Master Saddlers qualified saddle fitter.
Adapted from articles recently published in The Essex Rider magazine