I still remember the scene, my buddy and I at age 8 performing a silly stunt on the playground see-saw. My buddy sat on his end of the see-saw resting on the ground. I stretched up to grab the other end and pulled down hard enough to lift him in the air with a bounce. He clung on the handle for dear life. Then “whoosh!” I let go, and he plummeted pell–mell to the ground with a big thud. Heady stuff for two little kids.
Of course, now I know that in mechanical terms a see-saw is a type of Class 1 lever. The lever arm of the see-saw sits on a pivot point, or fulcrum. The load (my buddy) is the object to be lifted at one end of the arm. When force is applied (me) to the other end, the load moves upward without too much effort, the weight of the load being born by the fulcrum.
What’s this got to do with saddle fitting?
I’ve learned that saddle panel pressure on a horse should be even, with few exceptions. Uneven pressure can cause a pain-spasm-tissue breakdown cycle. These pressure points result from repeated high stress over time, according to veterinarian and saddle fit expert Joyce Harman.
Over the nine years I have been fitting saddles, I’ve noticed one problem causes pressure points most often. I call it the “double fulcrum.” (More about other common saddle pressure points in an upcoming “Diary” entry.) That is, the saddle behaves like one, or even two Class 1 levers. These levers can occur separately or together, but in either case the saddle see-saws on the horse’s back, causing pain and tissue breakdown. Sometimes the rider doesn’t even know it is happening.
If the saddle cantle panel curves away from the horse such that a gap occurs between the panel and the horse’s back, and the gap extends under the rider’s seat, then the main point of contact under the back half of the saddle is the fulcrum—the deepest part of the tree. Every time the rider posts and sits in a rising trot, for example, the downward momentum of the rider’s seat forces such a gap to close, much like our see-saw where the kid in the air plummets downward until the back of the see-saw hits the ground.
Whereas the fulcrum of a playground see-saw rests on a firm footing, the saddle fulcrum, the deepest part of the tree, sits on the soft muscle tissue of the horse. Every time the rider sits, the gap under the cantle closes, but only when the deep part of the tree is driven into the soft tissue of the back, creating a pressure point. When the rider rises, her upward momentum on the stirrup bars, combined with the pull of the girth, causes the cantle to rise in the air, only to come down with a crash again as the rider sits. This repeated action causes pressure points on the horse’s back at the deep part of the tree so consistently that I can detect the improper saddle fit just by palpating the horse’s back.
I also frequently find a fulcrum under the area of the panels just beneath the stirrup bars. This fulcrum can typically be caused by an over-stuffed panel (too much flocking), a too-narrow gullet channel between the stirrup bars, or by a too-open mouth at the front of the saddle. In any case, the tautness of girth plus the rider’s weight concentrates pressure under at the stirrup bars. The saddle pivots, and the stirrup bar fulcrum gets driven into the soft tissue, creating pressure points. This fulcrum often coexists with the fulcrum under the deep part of the tree, creating a double fulcrum and two sets of pressure points front and back.
Saddles with these types of fulcrums can rarely be fixed by a flocking adjustment. While adjusting the panel flocking allows the fitter to fine tune and sometimes correct the fit of a saddle, flocking adjustments can rarely solve what is essentially an inappropriately shaped tree for that particular horse.
If your saddle has one or more fulcrums, it may be time to ask your saddle fitter to check the fit, and maybe start thinking about a new saddle.
The Saddle Fitter, Inc.