Sorting Back Soreness

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By Anne D. Crowell

Ques: I have an event horse that I ride at the lower levels. Recently, I’ve noticed back soreness and a friend said it could be the way the saddle is fitting. How can I tell if it’s the saddle fit or if it could be medical or work related?

 Ans: Thank you so much for the question. Back soreness is a common occurrence in riding horses. Eventing, dressage and show jumping are high impact endeavors that have a pronounced influence on the horses’ back. Often, riders get frustrated trying to get at the cause of the issue.  Fortunately there is a simple logical procedure that is very effective at sorting out the cause of the back soreness.

First, the causes of back soreness fall into one of three major categories (figure 1). They are 1) saddle fit issues, 2) riding training issues, and 3) medical issues. They are related, and have and can affect each other. For example, a saddle that is too wide can create a nasty pressure sore on the horse’s withers. Poor or harsh training techniques that cause the horse to lose longitudinal flexion in the spine will result in soreness from excessive bracing of the back muscles. Lastly, long term sickness or illness in the horse can cause a degradation of the horse’s topline which will affect the saddle fit.

Figure 1
Saddle Too Wide
  1. First have an independent professional saddle fitter check the fit of the saddle. The saddle is actually the easiest of the three to eliminate. If you’re an event rider, you will need to have both your jumping and dressage saddles checked. The saddle fitter should check both the static and dynamic fit of the saddle, as well checking the flocking and soundness of the tree.  Remember, when evaluating a saddle there is a high correlation between saddle fit and the horse’s performance. So if your saddles check out, and the horse is performing well, it is unlikely that the saddle is the cause of the problem.
  2. Next take a good look at your training program. First take inventory of your own riding biomechanics. Here are some questions to ask. Are you sitting correctly and in a centered manner?  Are you keeping your horse through the back and on the aids during training? I had an older customer, a few years back, and his horse was terribly back sore on one side. The saddle fit checked out, and the horse was otherwise sound. Due to a knee replacement the rider was sitting quite crooked and unevenly loading the saddle. The knee replacement had actually changed his lower body biomechanics and he was completely unaware of how crooked he was sitting. Also think about your horse’s workload. Has it increased dramatically in recent weeks? Extreme changes in training intensity, when the horse is not fit enough, almost always result in back soreness.
  3. Lastly, if you suspect a medical issue at any time, call the vet right away!  I had another client several years back whose horse was extremely back sore. The horse had a high quality well-fitting saddle. As it turned out, the attending veterinarian determined that the horse had a severe case of Lyme’s disease. After treatment with an antibiotic, the back soreness subsided.

So how do we go about sorting out the causes of the back soreness?  The following simple procedure is very effective at determining the cause of back soreness.

Correct fit for a modern dressage saddle

In summary, when you are trying to diagnose back soreness, start by checking your saddle(s). If your saddle(s) check out, assess and evaluate your training program and any physical issues that might affect your ability keep a balanced centered seat. Lastly, call the vet at any point should you suspect a medical issue.

Pegasus Saddlery and Biomechanics is owned by Anne Crowell. Anne has been saddle fitting for almost 10 years and has been trained by several of the world’s premier saddlery manufacturers. Anne has been working with Albion Saddlemakers since 2011 and has been trained to fit Albion’s Revelation line of fully custom saddles. Anne’s training as a biomechanist began as result of her involvement in saddle fitting coupled with her background in engineering. Biomechanics, as a discipline, is closely related to the study physics and engineering. In fact, the American Society of Biomechanics (ASB) describes it as follows:     “Biomechanics is the study of the structure and function of biological systems by means of the methods of mechanics.” (Herbet Hatze, 1974) 

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