Saddle Fitting For a Severely Swayed Back Horse
The following is a case study with pictures, analysis, and suggestions of possible treed and treeless saddles with accessories that are the best choices for both horse & rider.
Amistad is a 6 yo Egyptian/Russian bloodlines Arabian gelding who is 15.1H weighing about 980 lbs.
Gina is 40 yo and weighs about 126 lbs at 5’4″. Her inseam is approx. 30″ with an equal thigh and lower leg length. She has spinal compression issues that flare up if she rides too much or does too much lifting. She also works full time commuting 45 minutes each way , so during the winter’s shorter days can only ride on the weekends.
Gina would like to eventually ride Amistad 3 x’s a week for under an hour doing a mix of dressage, Western Pleasure & trail riding.
All Gina’s horses are kept barefoot & ridden mostly on the property which is a combination of sand and clay with tiny to large rocks.
Amistad was ridden by Gina primarily in a Full Quarter Horse Bar Martin Western saddle with a Reinsman Sway Back corrective pad underneath. Because the rigging in this saddle is not in a good place for Amistad’s girth groove, the saddle would slide forward onto his neck. See the picture of Gina on Amistad. Amistad is not a happy camper under saddle, bucking and frequently going into “freeze mode” with a generally hostile demeanor towards humans.
Amistad lives with his person, Gina, and several other Arabian mares in the Texas Hill Country. All the horses live in large 2-3 acre rotated pastures. He is mainly kept with a 24 yo mare, ET, who is the only mare that puts up with Amistad’s still studly, dominant antics.
He has been with Gina since he was gelded at 2 years of age. Gina had hoped that his mouthy, often agressive to horse & human & stud like behavior would change as his hormones normalized, but it did not. Amistad seems to be a hot, reactive horse by nature who has a tendency to go into “freeze mode” in both handling situations and after he was introduced to saddle.
Shortly after he arrived at Gina’s, he sustained a serious right rear fetlock tear in pasture that required a lot of painful treatment and dressing changes along with many vet check ups. During his long recuperation time which necessitated confinement, he became very hostile towards any humans and to other horses.
At a little over age 3, Gina began to slowly start Amistad herself as she had started many of her Arab mares before with no issues. Gina decided to seek professional help later that year because she could not seem to get him through the “freeze mode” and hostile attitude. He also bucked her off several times.
At age 3 1/2, Amistad showed no signs of the swayed back he now exhibits. Since neither his dam or sire who are national halter champanions show no signs of even a dropped back at over 20 yo, this probably isn’t hereditary.
At 4, Gina sent Amistad to the first trainer who had a “traditional” training approach to working with problem horses. Since Gina left him with this woman, she was not present for his training sessions. The trainer told Gina that Amistad had taken to rearing under saddle & that she would step off as he was going up then pulling him over to cure him of his habit. Gina found out this happened several times..with a heavy Western saddle on. Not liking this approach, she took him home. Amistad was with this first trainer about 90 days. Amistad became even more hostile & bucked worse after this experience even after many months at home.
At 5, in desparation, Gina sent him to a second male trainer who used various head setting devices and tied his head down in efforts to stop the bucking and “re-attitude” him. After 1 year with this trainer Amistad still bucked & had a very bad attitude towards humans, so she took him home. During the year Amistad was away from home, he developed the steep sway he has now.
He is now still very hostile when handled, bucks when lunged and the few times Gina has tried to ride him as well as being generally aggressive towards her other mares. All this escalates when approached with any saddle.
Gina was referred to me by a Sensation dealer in Texas for a saddle fit consultation. After the initial consultation with me, Gina has chosen not to ride Amistad until she can determine if there is a permanent injury, whether his sway can be helped enough to be ridden, & how much of his attitude is due to pain.
Amistad has a pronounce swayed back with a steep angle from the rear of his longer whithers. Gina says that the lowest point of the sway measures more than 3″ which is unfortunately dierctly below where the rider’s weight would be. If you could envision his back with a little less sway, the whithers would still be longer, but of medium height with a very broad back & nicely sprung ribs to support the saddle. His moderate back length does not present an issue in conjunction with the seat size Gina would need. Amistad does have a straighter shoulder with a long, forward girth groove as well as being somewhat croup high. His stifles are pretty straight and he has a long, thin neck which he carries high. The combination of straight shoulder, long , forward girth groove and croup high all can be probelmatic in terms of saddles staying put in a comfy place for the horse unless the saddle is shimmed properly with rigging/billets placed as close to where the girth would lie naturally as possible.
Sometimes the combination of the above with a self centering central elastic girth can do the trick.
If a veterinarian clears Amistad for under saddle work and his sway can be modified over time, He may be able to be fit with a softer structured treeless with modified billets & rigging to make both he & Gina comfortable. Only time will tell, if Amistad’s emotional trauma can be healed through TTEAM & Connected Riding work enough to be trustworthy under saddle.
A caring owner who is willing to go the extra mile for him.
A broad, back with good length, medium whithers, and nicely sprung ribs.
Emotional trauma combined with a sensitive , reactive nature & physical injury history.
A pronounced sway with a steep angle right under where the rider sits.
Straight shoulder combined with a long forward girth groove.
Croup high with straight stiffles.
Long , thin neck carried high.
Good weight to height ratio for Amistad’s build.
Appropriate aspirations for ride times and types of activity.
A caring, patient attitude with openess to still explore alternative training options for Amistad.
Willingness to provide a longterm home for Amistad if he can not be ridden or driven due to his back/emotional trauma.
Limited time to work consistently with Amistad during the winter months
Low back issues
1) Until Amistad has been thoroughly assessed by a preferrably holistic veterinarian to see if there is any nerve or bony damage to the spine, I would not recommend even putting a saddle on his back. Ideally it would be great if a TTEAM practitioner & an equine chiropractor or osteopath could also see Amistad for some sessions after a diagnosis has been made by the vet.
2) If the vet gives the ok to start work and to eventually be ridden under saddle, sending Amistad to a local longtime TTEAM practitioner for even a few weeks of intensive work would give Amistad a good foundation for the at home remedial program Gina will do in preparation for re-starting/re-educating Amistad. This will also yield valuable information on how to approach Amistad’s complicated history of emotional trauma interwoven with unsuitable training practices and the injuries.
3) After a minimum of 3-4 months of consistent remedial work including hands on TTEAM and groundwork, if the vet clears Amistad for riding, set up another short saddle fit consultation with me to see what saddles may be possibilities for them both. If it is safe, maybe ponying him off a quiet, familiar horse would help Amistad to trust human interaction more, give him some semi-structured exercise, and focus his mind on learning new fun things. Lunging or traditional round pen work are not one activities I would recommend doing because of his injuries/conformation and negative memory of past experiences. Staring with as clean a slate as possible with this horse would be best.
4) Maybe consider teaching Amistad ground drive and maybe later to actually drive would allow him to have a different experience with human interaction. This would be a good option for them both as well if the vet does not clear him for future riding. He could enjoy being a driving horse and with all the quiet roads near Gina’s ranch, it would be easy/safe to do.
5) For Gina’s back issues, explore some Feldenkrais At Home tapes & maybe some hands on Feldenkrais sessions. Eileen BachYRita/ www:Feldenkraisathome.com has my favorite sequenced tape sets that are wonderful for riders. She also has them available as downloads for MP3 / Ipods on her website now and is in the process of taping more new lessons.
For now I can not recommend any saddling or pad options for this horse. Fortunately Gina has several other riding horses, two of which will be featured in the coming issues.
Coming in the next issue,a very round 3 yo Arabian mare in an unlevel growth spurt.