The right saddle area

The saddle area is the part of the horse’s back on which the saddle is placed for riding. This area starts behind the shoulders and ends with the 18th thoracic vertebra. Only a rider sitting in this position can influence the horse well and doesn’t restrict its movements. It is as simple as that.


Why is it important to find the right saddle area?

It would be easier for the horse if we were sitting on its croup – but have you ever tried riding dressage or jumping from that position? Okay, to be serious. Please note that the scapular cartilage should also be in front of the saddle. The rider’s weight is placed above the 12th/13th thoracic vertebra and distributed throughout the saddle further to the front and to the back. In order to “support“ the rider’s weight, there are around 10 rib pairs under the saddle area which are connected to the sternum. The horse is almost like a “barrel“ we sit on.

Another criterion for defining the saddle area is the length and the width of the spinous processes. The processes of the withers play a special role because they stick out of the topline and are not embedded in muscles like the other thoracic vertebrae. The whole structure is attached to the ligaments in the neck. The back and abdominal muscles primarily move the horse, they are not made for carrying weight. That’s why those muscles need to be perfectly supple to do their job. Between the shoulder blades, the horse’s forehand is built like a hammock, suspended in ligaments and muscles, which leads to excellent shock absorbing qualities and helps to carry the rider.

As the shoulder blades are very moveable and flexible body parts, the horse is likely to be sensitive to pressure and mechanical stimuli there. Imagine you were asked to carry two water buckets attached to a frame on your shoulders. But it is too short and presses against the sides of your arms and makes moving difficult. As a result, your neck and shoulder muscles would tense up. And that’s exactly how the horse reacts, which is why the saddle has to be placed behind the shoulders.

The muscles under the saddle are the following, among others: m. trapezius, m. latissimus dorsi, m. longissimus dorsi and m. iliocostalis. The two more superficial muscles trapezius and latissimus are first impacted by the saddle. Both of them are responsible for moving the forehand. The latissimus also influences the pelvis and the hindquarters through its connection to the lumbar fascia.

Why does the saddle area change – is my saddle still in the right position?

The saddle area depends on several factors. The feeding, husbandry or age of the horse as well as health issues, training and the tack can influence the saddle area. Concerning the tack, it’s not only the saddle that can cause problems because a stable rug can also rub when it’s too tight, too long or too short.

However, we need to distinguish between the different degrees of influence on the saddle area. Of course, the training including the rider and the tack exert the biggest effect on changes in this area. Feeding, husbandry and the age have a more indirect impact.

Oversensitive or a genuine reason to complain

Our horses are sensitive animals who express their discomfort directly. A responsible horse person should always observe the entire horse and have an eye on the slightest changes. When those changes continue for a longer period of time, please check carefully what is going wrong. And don’t forget to consider every single factor!

Please don’t misunderstand what we are saying – you are not supposed to hear a pin drop or to overreact to every “mood“ of your horse. However, with sensitivity and true realism you’ll have the chance to detect and solve any problem in time before it can cause real harm. That includes some delicate questions: Is there something wrong with my training? Is it maybe too much for my horse? Do I need to seek help from a trainer? Etc.

Honesty is the best policy

When you work with other people’s horses – as a trainer, saddler or therapist – checking the entire background of the horse is self-evident for you. So please be honest yet empathic and respectful towards the horse owners. In most cases, they want the best for their horses and simply don’t see the deficiencies in their daily routine.

Okay – that was a delicate topic. Still, it is very important to us as it concerns horses which depend on our care.


How do I find the saddle area on my horse?

The best method is palpating:

In the front: Place your hand on the upper edge of the shoulder blade. With rather fat horses, you’ll need some finer feeling. Go along the back edge of the shoulder blade. At about the same height as the hip bone, you’ll feel the “bump” of the scapular cartilage. The saddle area begins behind it.

In the back: At about the same height as the shoulder joint, you can palpate the back edge of the last rib. Follow this rib up towards to the spine (the ribs draw a slight bow to the front). When you’ve reached the spine, you’ve found the end of the saddle area. In the beginning, you should mark both begin and end of the area with chalk to train your eye.