Thursday, August 8, 2013

Arena Footing: Maintaining Soundness

Every rider, whether riding for leisure or competing, needs a good program to keep their horses sound, happy, and healthy. Training aside, there are many aspects of a program that need to be addressed in order for it to be successful, but the one I chose to discuss today in this blog is arena footing.

Arena footing can make or break your horses career. Many soundness issues and even training issues could be completely avoided if the horse was not being asked to perform on sub par arena footing. Something that I have found as a bodyworker is that far too often not given enough thought. We all know that footing that is too hard, too deep, too slippery, etc can cause undue stress on our horses tendons, ligaments, and muscles. But what about a horse that is asked to jump on ground that is too slippery? Or a reining horse that is asked to stop on ground that is shallow and hard? In addition to injury, what can occur is a total loss of confidence. If they are protecting themselves from what they determine as a harmful situation, how are they going to be able to perform to their best ability?

Sometimes I feel that I might as well be an alien when I remark that I won't ride and/or ask my horse to perform any maneuvers in such and such arena. Why would I want to risk my safety or the safety of my horses by riding on hazardous ground? I wouldn't! In all fairness, however, I think a lot of equestrians just haven't taken the time to educate themselves on this very important aspect of their program. Not everyone is a "dirt diva" like I am!

The top 5 common mistakes of arena maintenance are:

1. Allowing animal waste to remain in the arena and become ground into the footing.

2. Turning horses out in the arena.

3. Letting horses roll in the arena.

4. Not dragging and watering often enough.

5. Standing water.

Footing that is too deep causes fatigue. Quickly. This is a recipe for a torn suspensory and/or other type of soft tissue injury due to over flexion. A good test is to run in the arena yourself and see how it feels. Kick the dirt around. Dig a line in the sand. Every discipline is going to vary with its footing needs but if it's quickly fatiguing you, odds are it will be doing the same to your horse. Some disciplines require deeper footing but deeper does not necessarily mean it should be heavy. Dense, heavy footing is the root of many problems regardless of the discipline.

Footing that is too hard causes concussion injuries. It should have enough resilience to minimize concussion yet be firm enough to provide adequate traction for the type of riding you do. If you can scuff down no deeper than approximately an inch with your foot, it is too shallow. When horses' break down to the base, it's going to be extremely slippery... not to mention scary! In most cases you should see a hoof imprint not deeper than 1” with no shifting of sand. Also listen to the hoofbeats, the less you hear, the better.

Base is typically a 6" minimum to 9" of materials such as compacted screenings or crushed limestone. This is not a place to skimp on cost! If you are using clay as both the base and sub-base, be careful. Clay is very sensitive to water and can become extremely slippery. Clay is typically best suited for use a sub base.

Good arena footing should last around 10 years but bad arena footing may not last even a year. It all begins with a good foundation.

Drainage is essential. Pools of water create unstable spots and will compromise the base and sub layers. French drains, which carry water away from the arena are a popular choice for outdoor arenas.

The more traffic in your arena, the more you need to drag. When done properly, dragging maintains the integrity of your footing. You should never wait so long to drag that you see ruts in your footing. If you wait until this happens, you have waited too long! Personally, I drag every day I ride.

Animal waste and dead sand are common waste products that contains all sorts of silts and clays and other unmentionables. The worst of all is manure. It is so common to see riders not picking up their horse's manure or even dumping stall cleanings in an arena. GASP! This is a surefire way to send a certifiable dirt diva into cardiac arrest. The waste will become even more dense when you add sawdust or shavings. Speaking of shavings. Sawdust and shavings are also common "fills" for arenas. Fact of the matter is though that shavings are slippery, unsanitary, and dusty.

In closing, anything occurring in an arena that you would describe as too deep, too hard, too loose, too dusty, shifting, rolling, and not draining is undesirable. And it will likely save you valuable money in vet bills to avoid such ground.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How to tell if your saddle tree is broken

One of the most damaging things to a horse's back is a broken, twisted, loose, or warped saddle tree. One may think that only older, obviously worn saddles would have such a compromised tree. Unfortunately, I come across new saddles and saddles that appear in great condition that have one of the above defects.

Case in point. Today I checked a saddle that, at glance, was in wonderful condition. Sat on the horse balanced, showed no wear, etc. Upon closer examination, however, there were some major red flags. It first started with a peak at the serial number. It was impossible to read. This saddle was in pristine condition and even on older, well worn saddles, the maker's stamps and serial numbers are typically quite easy to read. Next was a flexion text, which it failed miserably. Also, you could see the very top of the billet was a fresh cut of leather. Indicating that this was a new strap. I wish I could say this is an uncommon occurrence but it's actually not. Sometimes asymmetries and tree abnormalities can be easy to spot and sometimes it can take some detection work and the assistance of a professional. We wish to believe everyone is honest and wouldn't put a broken tree back on the market but unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Before I get into how to check the saddle tree, here are some basic English and Western saddle anatomy diagrams:

Now, moving on. Here are some of the ways I check English saddle trees:

1. Grasp the front of the pommel with your thumbs on the "buttons" and your fingers underneath the panels and pull outward. Look for scratches, wear marks, etc on the pommel that may offer clues. A synthetic tree may have a little movement but it still should not be to the degree that it is suspect. Even if a synthetic or flex tree is not broke but has too much play, it will make your horse sore. Listen for any sounds the tree may make.

2. Sit down and put the cantle on your thigh up against your stomach and put your hands on the pommel. Thumbs on the buttons and hands on the panels. Pull the pommel towards your stomach. Also, pull at a diagonal (pull left side of pommel to right side of cantel and vise versa) and every which way you can. Compare each side, does one side move more than the other? Listen closely. Do you hear any clicking, clunking, etc? Look closely at the movement of the leather. Are there any creases in the leather?

Here are two photos of a saddle with a broken tree. Notice the line across the seat.

3. This step is the same as step 2 but in reverse. This time the pommel will be on your thigh, up against your stomach and your hands will be on the cantle. Pull towards your stomach.

4. Flip the saddle over and run your hands down the panels checking for flaws, hard or uneven panels, or uneven wear marks in the leather. After you have done that, starting at the front of the saddle push downwards checking for movement from front to back.

5. Check the billet straps to check for loose stitching, thin or broken leather, and any other abnormalities.

6. Check the stirrup bars. Stirrup bars should be even and be fully functioning.

7. Finally, check the saddle for asymmetry. Look at the saddle from every single angle. Look at it from the back, notice any curvature in the tree. Look at it from the front. Compare the stitching from side to side, compare buttons, look at the angle of the pommel, etc. It is especially important to assess symmetry and balance in saddles that have had previous tree manipulations done on them.

Here is a photo of asymmetry in a dressage saddle. Can you see what's wrong?

Here are some of the ways I check a Western saddle:

1. Try to move the horn. Push it forwards, backwards, and to both sides. There should be no movement here.

2. Placing the saddle on the floor on its horn, push firmly on the cantle. Watch for movement in the bars while you do this. There should not be any.

3. Sit down and put the saddle on your thigh with the horn facing your stomach. Push the horn and the cantle away from each other. On a well made saddle with a solid tree, it actually hurts your arms a bit. The difference in wood v synthetic trees is for a different blog post; however, I will say this, if you are noticing a lot of flexibility it may flex in very undesirable ways once you have the biomechanics and weight of the rider. Instability = pressure points. The saddle should feel rock solid and square.

4. Then push the horn and cantle towards each other.

5. Also put one hand on the horn and one on the seat and push hard. You want to push and pull the saddle every which way checking for movement.

4. Run your hands over every inch of the sheepskin feeling for sharp points such as staples, screws, or nails. Look for any unusual wear patterns in the sheepskin. Feel for any lumps or bumps in the tree.

5. Pull the stirrups forwards, backwards, and straight down hard. Listen for any noises and feel for any motion coming from the tree.

6. Look at the stitching throughout the saddle. On the swell. On the cantle. Try moving pulling up on the cantle. Assess the rigging attachments and billets. For safety purposes, stick with only leather billet straps. NO nylon!

7. Finally, assess the saddle for symmetry the same way as I described above for english saddles.

Whether you are riding english or western, you should never hear any noises coming from the tree when you are riding. When you are sitting in the saddle, move all about, putting all your weight in the stirrups in front of you and behind you while paying close to how the tree feels underneath you.

Some asymmetries and flaws are easy to see and some require a trained eye to spot. There are those that will debate subtle degrees of asymmetry will not sore a horse. This may or may not be true. There are some horse and riders that may not be affected and others that will be greatly affected. At any rate, if you are uncertain, contact a reputable professional.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Training for Success

When we ask for maximum effort from our horses, dogs or ourselves, it inevitably places stress on the body. Intense training promotes advanced levels of fitness and heightened skill but it can also lead to performance regressions.

While there are many different causes of decreased performance, one thing for certain is that if you do not train your performance horse like the athlete he is, he cannot be the athlete that you want him to be.

When we stumble upon roadblocks in our training, we should search for the reason why. Why is the horse suddenly regressing, traveling off, acting dull, or displaying training resistances? Sometimes the answer is an educated guess, sometimes it’s as concrete as an x-ray, and sometimes it’s a simple solution that has a big impact. Whatever the case may be, determining and eliminating the cause is a crucial aspect of a successful recovery.

The ability to critically examine every single aspect of their program is what can set good riders apart from great riders. Nothing goes under their radar.

Case in point, if you are causing musculoskeletal damage due to an ill fitting saddle, any therapeutic means you use to address the soreness will only be a band-aid. It is not until you replace the saddle that you can expect to start reversing the damage and correcting incorrect movement. While it’s common sense, it’s the one common factor I see that most often prevents successful recoveries.

Warning Signs

Muscle dysfunction begins with muscle fatigue. When a muscle is worked in a weakened state, it is susceptible to injury. When this happens you will start to see muscle tightness, muscle spasms, weakness and ultimately muscle overstretching, straining, or tearing. If the horse continues to be worked through his normal paces in this condition, he will begin to compensate for the pain, start to resent his job, perform insufficient movement patterns, and ultimately sustain further damage.

The object is to catch potential problems before they manifest. Warning signs start out very small initially, therefore, the more in tune you are, the more successful you will be. Signs I look for whether working with a human or equine athlete is uneven shoe wear, travel pattern or weight bearing stance. I also look at muscle health such as asymmetry, atrophy, and development. Lastly, I want to know how the athlete’s balance, coordination, and flexibility stack up.

The Balanced Program, The Balanced Horse

To achieve total body fitness, we must address the following areas:

 Cardiovascular endurance
 Muscular strength and endurance
 Body composition
 Balance
 Flexibility

While the degree of talent an athlete naturally possesses is not trainable, all of the above traits are and they are traits every successful athlete must have. By combining functional stretching and strengthening exercises into your rides, you will achieve greater flexibility, balance, increase muscle and tendon length, as well as increase muscle elasticity and resiliency. The cardiovascular portion of your program will enhance the respiratory, cardiovascular and muscular systems to sufficiently produce energy by the metabolic pathways. Finally, by continually monitoring the horse’s body composition utilizing the Henneke body-scoring system, you will ensure the horse has the appropriate amount of body fat, muscle development, and is receiving the correct nutrition to optimally perform his job.

The Warm Up

The warm up consists of dynamic repetitive exercises done at a low intensity to prepare the muscles for higher intensity exercise, which includes stretching. Dynamic stretching, which is done under saddle, consists of light cardiovascular exercises. Dynamic stretches are useful in developing neuromuscular coordination, as well as speed and power. Examples of dynamic stretching are: guiding your horse through a cone pattern, lateral exercises with forward motion, or trotting over ground poles.
Dynamic stretching can also be used intermittently during workouts to regenerate tired muscles. Tired, overworked muscles hurt because they are filled with lactic acid. Giving the horse brief breaks with dynamic stretching exercises allows the muscles to return to a relaxed state and it aids in circulation.
Stretching or expecting a muscle to work when it’s unprepared and cold, will only lead to resistance and possible injury. Warm muscles have an increased blood supply, which renders the muscle less likely to be injured during the workout. You must warm up to stretch, not stretch to warm up.

Pre-Show Warm Up

Prior to competition, the most beneficial time to warm up and subsequently stretch your horse is shortly before your class. At this time, you are best able to take advantage of the increased power stored in the muscles you created with the warm up and stretching routine. If you perform your warm up too long before entering the arena, the muscles will contract back to their original length and the stored energy will be lost. If you perform a warm up for too long, you will fatigue the muscles and will consequently lose muscle power.

The Cool Down

A well-executed cool down of approximately 10 to 15 minutes at roughly 40% of the horse’s maximum performance capability can decrease soreness dramatically and increase blood flow to rid the muscular system of metabolic waste.

Post ride or post warm up at a show is the most beneficial time to statically stretch your horse’s muscles. Static-Passive stretching is the gradual lengthening of a muscle by holding a position at the first point of resistance for approximately 15-30 seconds to allow the muscle to relax and reach a greater range of motion. When properly performed, static stretching greatly enhances the horse’s range of motion. An example of a static stretch would be stretching a front leg forward or hind leg backwards.

Program Design Essentials

Cross training

Cross training helps prevent injury and burnout. Repetitive movement day after day without recovery commonly causes overuse injuries. By mixing up the program and having the horse do something different, such as working on the trail, even just once or twice a week, you will reduce muscle stress, achieve greater total body condition, prevent performance plateaus, and keep the mind fresh.


Recovery is the amount of time a muscle group needs to recover from exercise. It typically takes 48 hours to 96 hours for a muscle to recover from targeted exercise. An aged or out of shape horse may need a longer recovery, an extremely fit horse may require less recovery time. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the muscle discomfort that occurs between 24 to 48 hours after exercise. The cause of the pain is small microscopic tears and inflammation in the muscle tissues. The discomfort is perfectly normal but you do want to take it easy on the horse during bouts of DOMS. Dynamic and static stretching exercises, therapeutic bodywork, and therapy devices such as Game Ready or Back On Track products are great ways to help the horse recover from the pain.

Targeted Exercise

If you practice stopping for 5 days straight, you have not given the hindquarter muscles adequate time to recover between rides. A better solution is to target specific muscle groups each ride and alternate which muscle group you work. If Monday is hindquarters, Tuesday would be shoulders and so on. Changes in muscle development occur during time off, not during exercise; therefore, adequate muscle recovery time is vital.


It takes anywhere from 300 to 500 repetitions to create a new movement pattern and 3000 to 5000 repetitions to undo a faulty movement pattern. I always recommend doing a few repetitions correctly than doing many repetitions incorrectly. Less is more and will result in quicker gains in the end. For example, if you perform 3 rundowns correctly but keep on going until the horse fatigues and runs out of air, you have just negated those first 3 correct repetitions. If you stop while you’re ahead, you will help prevent the risk of regressing.

While it can be easy to quickly advance a talented horse through his maneuvers, we must remember to give the body enough time to adapt to the next level of fitness. An easy rule that many athletes and personal trainers follow is the Ten Percent Rule. This rule is simply increasing the degree of difficulty by no more than 10% per week.


Without rest, you run the risk of over training. Over training or burnout is when an athlete is repeatedly stressed to the point where rest alone is no longer adequate for a complete recovery. Hard training wears an athlete down. It is the time off that makes them stronger. Studies have shown physiologic improvement in athletes only occurs during rest periods following hard training.

When a human athlete is fatigued they often become sullen, depressed, moody, and lose their competitive desire. The same also happens to equine athletes. Many times that cranky, uncooperative horse is simply trying to tell us how he’s feeling.

Rest is extremely important in any training program but what is even more important is when it’s given and for how long. It can take approximately only 4 weeks to start losing muscle. Therefore, if you give a horse 3 months or more off in the winter without any work, you have to start over when you put them back into training.

Without a doubt, yo-yo training is detrimental to the body. Too often I find clients thinking that after turning their horse out in the pasture for several months, he should feel like a million bucks and be ready to roll. They are shocked when things do not go quite so smoothly.

How I like to deal with rest is two-fold. First, I believe it is important to give the horse more rest periods throughout the show season, such as 1 or 2-week periodic breaks, as your show schedule allows. We tend to feel we will lose ground if we stop training but we need to remind ourselves that changes come from the rest periods, not the workouts. The most beneficial time to chose a rest period is when the horse feels good. If you wait until he becomes burned out, you have waited too long. Secondly, during the off-season, I recommend the horse be given a break, but I like to keep him legged up to preserve his athletic development. This usually consists of riding lightly a couple times a week at a relaxing, enjoyable pace for the horse and maneuvers are either not practiced or practiced lightly once a week. This makes the transition back into full training and competition much easier, safer, and more importantly, successful.


Resistances in performance horses can be anything from a kick out on a lead change, tail wringing as the stressed or injured muscle fires in a maneuver, inability to hold correct position in a turn around, lack of concentration, unwillingness to collect or rate, rushing, or a nose tipping to the outside of the circle. Many times resistances are warning signs that the horse isn’t a 100% mentally and/or physically. Certainly, the above can also be the result of training issues but anytime a proven performer stops performing, you should look for a reason - period. Competing demands a great deal from the horse’s body and there will inevitably be times you need to adjust your program to achieve greater gains.

Suggestions for a balanced program:

 Long trotting and cantering workouts on the trail to achieve cardiovascular endurance
 Do not become stagnant in your routine or your results will also become stagnant
 Targeted muscle workouts to properly develop muscular strength and endurance
 Continually assess your feeding program and horse’s body composition
 Utilize dynamic stretching exercises to ascertain proper balance and coordination
 Implement a static stretching routine to increase flexibility
 Strategically plan rest and recovery periods

Creating a well balanced training program for any athlete is an art as well as a science and it can make the difference between winning and losing. Training smart is the key to not only optimum performance but also longevity.

(c) Heidi Pichotta

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Got Nerves?

We all know that stress and anxiety are bad for our health. Have you ever considered how these emotions affect our animals in a competition environment? I am someone who has been on both ends of the spectrum. I used to suffer from extreme pre-run anxiety - but now I actually have to work to pump myself up. How did I achieve that? Well, I hope you do not have to experience what I did to make the same realizations that I did…

I came to the conclusion that my nerves were so negatively affecting my animals’ performances that, I decided, unless I learned to control my emotions, I would not allow myself to show. Period. True to Heidi fashion, it was this harsh ultimatum of fix it - or stop showing - that helped me.  But it wasn’t until later, after I was in a serious accident, that I began to acquire much more insight into my own emotions. I remember lying in my hospital bed (and also in the many months of inactivity that followed), reflecting and remembering all the things that I loved to do and was determined to do again. I had always appreciated the opportunity to run my dogs and show my horses - but when that was abruptly taken away from me, you can bet that I began to look at things a bit differently.

There are all kinds of self-help programs on mental management to better help competitors achieve their goals. In fact, I used to use some of them. Lots of them! However, the problem I see with a lot of these programs is that they are failing to help us identify the cause of our problems. Without knowing the cause, how can we fix the problem? Typically, the cause is going to be different for each person.

So let’s get right to the meat and potatoes of anxiety and break it down.

First, it’s important, when learning to control our emotions, to keep in mind that emotions such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, greed, shame, fear, insecurity, frustration, worry are…. you got it, negative emotions! Therefore, when we are aiming for a positive outcome, how are we going to achieve that outcome when we use negativity to try to get it? Yep ding, ding…it won’t!!

We all know how common these emotions are in any competition environment. It’s not a secret, competing brings out the best and worst in people. It causes people to doubt themselves, to be mean to others – or even worse, to their animals, to place blame on everyone but themselves, and so on. Most all of us have been guilty of this, to varying degrees, at some point in our careers.

I can sit here and tell you how detrimental it will be to your overall success if you do not learn to manage these unproductive feelings - the many problems it will cause for you - and also how it can take ALL of the fun right out of the game - but what is that really going to accomplish? Probably not much since I would be shocked if you didn’t actually already know all of this! How about we, instead, think about WHY we are having these feelings in the first place and what emotions – positive emotions - you can replace them with.

Let’s start with one of the most common emotions:

Fear: This will often impact certain personality types. They are afraid or even terrified of making mistakes. They are afraid of letting their trainers, coaches, friends, etc down. They are inclined to try actually try TOO hard! They are so afraid of doing it wrong that it prevents them from doing it right.

If this is you, ask yourself these questions; What is it exactly I’m afraid of? Am I afraid of making mistakes? Am I afraid of things going wrong? Am I afraid I will look like a fool? Keep asking yourself these questions until you find out what exactly is your own personal trigger for this emotion.

Once you determine the why, you can better start to recognize WHEN this is starting to occur and can then subsequently replace those fear thoughts, with positive thoughts. Thoughts such as, I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here with my animal, that it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect - because regardless, we will have fun!

Anxiety: This also may affect certain personality types more than others. They will be talking a mile a minute, picking constantly on their animals, over handling, getting an upset stomach and even possibly causing erratic behavior in their animals. The animals don’t understand why you are having these emotions, as you likely don’t train with these emotions. So what do you expect them to do when you have them at a show and you are anxious?

Question time again. Why are you anxious? Does people watching you and making judgements about you, make you anxious? – I think that might actually be one of the most common reasons. If so, instead think…I am so relaxed and happy to be here and I have worked hard to be here. I will rely on my training and be confident and just enjoy whatever happens. I do not care what others think because it’s not about them.

Anger: Some personality types will question placings and doubt judges. They harshly criticize others as an attempt to ease their own insecurities. They can cause a lot of upset to “fear” based personality types and may often target these types.

It can be hard to step back and critique yourself, but without that ability, there is not room for your improvement. By being more aware of what you are doing, how you are acting, and what you are saying, you are opening yourself up for greater growth. So as painful as the process may be, it needs to be done.

Back to the questions. Is what I am saying affecting anyone negatively? It should not be difficult to know if this is the case – as it is not rocket science. Am I being critical of others to “self medicate” my own emotions? Am I trying to “psych out” the competition by making verbal jabs because I am afraid they will beat me? If this is the case, instead think of how you would not want to accept being treated this way and how it would make you feel. Think of how embracing more compassion will actually make you better, more aware, and stronger - and that you do not need these negative emotions to be successful.

There are many more emotions but you get the idea. Recognize the emotion, honor the emotion, and replace the emotion with a higher, more positive emotion.

And always remember that no one knows what you are going through and that no one can hurt your feelings without your consent. Recognize that not everyone needs to have the same goals as you and that offering support to EVERYONE will make you a better competitor! Doing this will also better allow you to be able to recognize which emotions you want to have - and those that you do not wish to experience.

Take LOTS of photos, savor every single moment – good, bad, or even the plain ole ugly - because you never know when your last run will be and you will then be just looking back on the memories. If you are honest with yourself you will, I can assure you, enjoy looking back on every SINGLE memory.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Let's Talk Saddle Pads

With the vast selection of saddle pads on the market, how does one even go about choosing the best fit for their saddle? As we know, there’s a pad claiming to fix every fitting issue. Lift pads, correction pads, gel pads, pads that claim to eliminate all pressure points caused by an ill fitting saddle and so on. As a saddle fitter, I see a lot of riders recognizing the obvious fitting issues and choosing a pad that claims to fix that issue; however, what often ends up happening is in trying to fix that obvious issue, we create more problems with our well intentioned pad choices. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- There are several things to keep in mind when on your search for the “perfect” pad. First, we must take into consideration that a saddle pad can make an ok fitting saddle a great fitting saddle - or it can make it a very poor fitting saddle that will cause a great deal of soreness. The margin of error is typically quite small. For example, the difference between a baby pad (a quilted english pad without filling) and quilted pad (with filling) can mean the difference between a good fit and poor fit. Secondly, when correction pads are used they will change the balance point of the saddle and this can prevent the rider from “connecting” with the horse’s center of balance resulting in an imbalanced seat and incorrect biomechanics of both horse and rider. Riders generally recognize when a saddle tips forward or tips back - but often the problem stems from not fully understanding why. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- There are several important factors to keep in mind when searching for the correct pad. One rule about fitting, in general, is that static (when the horse is standing still) fitting is only a guide. The actual test of the fit comes in motion. A lot of biomechanical issues and/or rider imbalances can cause a saddle that looks like a great match statically, not to be a match at all in motion. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- English Saddles Riser pads: Riser pads are either built up in the front to lift the pommel or built up in the back to lift up the cantle. These pads cause a multitude of problems, and I never find a situation where they actually do more good than harm. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Built up shoulder pads: Pads with a built up area over the shoulders are designed to lift the saddle up. A common issue with muscle atrophy around the scapula is caused when the saddle settles in the hollows hence restricting movement. Consequently, adding additional padding in this area alone also results in uneven weight distribution and balance issues. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Correction/Shim pads: Correction pads do have their place. However, there are certain types of correction pads with pockets for shims that do not work. A correction pad MUST have 3 pockets on each side for shims. If you build up the front or rear of the saddle alone, it will bridge and negatively affect the overall balance. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contour Pads: English pads should be contoured to provide proper wither relief. This seemingly minor detail makes a significant difference in fit. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Pad thickness: Big squishy, fluffy pads do not equal more support for the horse’s back. As previously mentioned, there is a fine line when it comes to padding. So many people keep adding pads until the saddle sits even to their eye. However, if the saddle cannot accommodate the extra thickness of a pad, it will result in severely uneven pressure points. If extra padding is necessary for a “special needs” back, then the saddle fitter should fit the saddle to that that pad to ensure proper balance and weight distribution. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Gel pads: Some horses do favor gel pads but their construction is imperative. If they are not cut out over the withers, they tend to pull down over the withers causing undue wither pressure. The thickness of them needs to be taken into consideration as well to ensure that it is not too thick for the fit of your saddle. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Western Saddles Material: The material that is against the horse’s back is crucial. Neoprene/rubber lined pads are popular in training barns because they can be easily disinfected; however, these materials trap heat. If there is no breathability, as the horse sweats, the back will get very hot leading to possible injury. I see a lot more back soreness with these pads than I do with pads that are constructed of a more breathable natural material. The heavy neoprene designs also typically do not have a good contour design – usually just vents over the spine, which is not the same. It’s better than nothing but not the same as an actual two piece contour design. This results in a great deal of wither pressure. You will also find this in some of the heavy gel type pads as well. FYI: A better choice instead of using neoprene pads for cleanliness purposes, would be to disinfect pads and cinches after each use with a spray made of 1 cup water, 10 drops tea tree oil, 20 drops eucalyptus, and 20 drops lavender. Your horses will thank you! ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contour: To avoid unnecessary bunching that causes pressure points and wither soreness, a western pad should be made of two pieces, as well as have a wither hole in order to effectively pull the pad up into the gullet of the saddle. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Thickness: Again, more is not better. Thicker does not mean more protection. In most cases, a 1” pad is too thick. If the tree fits, you will need a ½” or less. What works on one horse, may not work on another so it’s important to assess to each fit individually. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Shoulder cut outs: I still come across folks cutting out holes in their saddle pads (gasp) in hopes of relieving shoulder pressure. This strategy does not work well at all. The real problem here goes back to being able to understand WHY there is shoulder pressure in the first place. Usually it comes down to an issue that is beyond what a corrective pad can fix. Although, there are some exceptions where it’s simply a misunderstanding of the problem at hand. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The bottom line is that you should start with the best possible tree for your horse. Relying on a pad to fix major fitting issues is just not realistic. A pad is meant to compliment the fit rather than perform a fitting miracle. In english saddles, when you have a saddle that is wool flocked, there is a lot of room for customization allowing for the best possible fit. Western saddles are a bit trickier, especially when you are using the same saddle on multiple horses. However, if you start with a well-designed tree for the types of horses you ride, you may be able to stretch out its fitting versatility by choosing the right pads for each horse. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Heidi Pichotta Mechanics for the Equine Athlete