A weight on equine shoulders: Saddle fit and cartilage damage at the scapula

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My own horse was a victim of scapular damage caused by a saddle with forward facing tree points. I didn’t realize that this was the problem until many years later, when I began building saddles myself in Canada and was working with equine professionals on a more consultative level.

At the time I was competing, all I knew was that he developed this little ‘hitch’ in his gait and was pulled out for lameness in the front left more and more often. We tried everything – the best veterinarians working with the German young riders’ team were called in, but no-one could figure it out. We ‘blistered’ the area, laid him off for months – but within a couple of weeks the symptomatic lameness recurred and I had to retire him, which essentially ended my competitive career as an eventing rider.

Blisters, bumps, and white hairs show up after the damage has already been done.
Blisters, bumps, and white hairs show up after the damage has already been done.

Apparently, there has never been a published paper written on this subject in any equine journal, even though there is tons of anecdotal evidence that cartilage damage does result from poor saddle fit at the shoulder area. Fibre-optic cameras and MRIs have been used in diagnostic evaluations, but never has there been any ‘scientific research’ done on the topic using correct experimental methodology.

In a study done in Australia, multiple dissections were done on horses which had all been ridden for years (saddle brands were not noted but I will bet you that they had forward facing tree points!) with resulting cartilaginous damage appearing at the shoulder. I would take this one step further and add this distinguishing saddle characteristic to the mix of a study done over many years with autopsies performed after natural death occurred … this would of course be almost prohibitive in its scale to carry out, but it would quiet the cynics once and for all. (Or prove me wrong, which is always a possibility …)

The problem is that cartilage does not have a direct blood supply to it so has less capacity to repair itself. Once the cartilage is torn or damaged from excessive stress or repetitive trauma it will not heal easily and can lead to further degeneration (and possibly osteoarthritis as a side effect as the bone itself continues to erode). At the very least, it will severely limit the horse’s ability to perform comfortably and will usually manifest itself in lameness as the horse begins to limp as a result of continuing pressure at the shoulder.

I am a huge proponent of rearward facing tree points as one assisting solution to avoid issues arising at the shoulder blade. However, I am incredibly surprised to learn that the Society of Master Saddlers claims that these are not stable enough to support the saddle properly and suggest straight tree points that flare out at the bottom (which is incorrect for proper anatomical saddle fit and will cause even more problems down the road!) I hear they are working on revising their training curriculum for saddle fitters, which, in my opinion, is long overdue … we’ll see what this results in.

Of course, tree angle (which needs to mimic the shoulder angle) is also a factor in ensuring no damage occurs at the shoulder, as is tree width itself. All of these factors need to work together, be adjusted properly for your horse’s conformation, and checked regularly for continuing fit to allow your horse maximum comfort and freedom of movement. You can see for yourself how limited your range of motion is if someone restrains your arms at the shoulder – you will barely, or with great difficulty – be able to raise them.

You can feel for yourself the range of motion at your horse’s shoulder by having someone lead you while you ride bareback. Lay your hands left and right by the withers, and when you feel balanced, close your eyes. You can feel the movement of the muscles and the rotation of the shoulder upwards and backwards.

Learn from my mistakes and don’t put your horse through the kind of pain I inadvertently subjected mine to. Cartilage damage is irreversible and will cause your horse much pain and distress. You want to keep your horse healthy for a long life of companionship!

Have your saddle fit checked regularly and visit our YouTube channel for more saddle fitting pointers.

 

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Jochen Schleese

Jochen Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler, Equine Ergonomist and a leader in the concept of saddle fit. He teaches his Saddlefit 4 Life philosophy worldwide. He is also the author of “Suffering in Silence” and “The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses”. 
Visit www.schleese.com

One thought on “A weight on equine shoulders: Saddle fit and cartilage damage at the scapula

  • October 30, 2017 at 8:43 pm
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    I loved this piece. It amazes me that we have been riding horses for thousands of years but still new research and understanding is coming out about proper saddle fit for horses. When I was growing up most people only every worried about if the saddle was comfortable for them! Love Jochen Schleese’s videos!

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