Muscle Atrophy

Muscle atrophy (damaged, wasted away muscle tissue) due to ill fitting saddles

Every ill fitting saddle starts a spiral of pain. The horse moves in a different frame to avoid the pain caused by pressure points. The result is that other parts of the body get over worked or work improperly. A lot of horses tolerate pain for quite a long time and only start to show obvious behavior once a significant amount of damage has already been caused.

Wasted muscle tissue can be seen:

  • on each side of the withers, which means that the trapezius, spinalis and/or rhomboid muscles have atrophied usually due to tree points of the saddle that are too narrow
  • towards the end of the saddle panel since the saddle is not sitting level on the horse if it is too tight in front. This could tip the rider backwards which in turn increases the pressure under the cantle.

There are the rare cases that these kind of indentations show up due to fatty deposits. Heavier breeds or overweight horses can show indentations in the fat rather than a muscular atrophy. This should be further evaluated by a professional.

A saddle that is too narrow or too wide can prevent the trapezius and spinalis muscles from contracting and elongating properly. The horse may tense due to pain and this can interrupt the circle or chain of proper moving muscles over the topline. This has a negative impact on the entire psoas, pelvis and croup area and the horse is not able to properly engage from behind.

The supporting part of the saddle ranges from the withers to the trapezius, spinalis and ribcage. The weight bearing surface starts behind the trapezius muscle and ends near the last rib on a well fitting saddle. The majority of the weight should therefore be positioned evenly within this zone.

Also important to remember is that the ribs carry a part of the weight as well as assisting in support. Broader panels can help distribute the weight better over a larger surface and narrow panels can often crate too much pressure in a smaller bearing surface area. This can often be seen in saddles with foam panels, panels that are narrow or overstuffed etc. Generally, the broader the bearing surface, the more evenly the pressure is distributed over the horse’s back. A gullet which is too wide though can cause problems too. Severe pressure points can be detrimental for any horse since muscles in this area will contract and cause tightness in the horse’s body in an effort to get away from the pain. In the end the muscle can start to atrophy.

Point pressure doubles at the trot and triples at the canter.

If nothing is done about an ill fitting saddle, it can progress as far as to damage the bones. The typical bone damage is mainly seen on the shoulder blades which consist of bone and cartilage. The tree point angles which determine the tree width are therefore very important. The tree has to be wide enough that the tree points run parallel to the shoulder blade of the horse. If the tree points bend inwards towards the horse’s shoulder the rear part of the shoulder blade hits the tree point with EVERY step. This is even magnified in turns. In a case like this the cartilage of the shoulder blade tries to adjust to this permanent insult and calcifies over time.

Often, saddles are fitted right behind the shoulder blade which is WRONG. When the horse’s front leg moves forward the floating shoulder blade shifts 2 – 3 fingers backwards. The saddle should be correctly positioned here when starting the ride to give the horse enough room for proper range of motion.

If an ill fitting saddle caused a change in the musculature of the horse it can be a long way to recovery. In some cases if the damage is too severe muscles might never regenerate. If there are bony changes in addition to the muscle problems the muscles might recover over time but bony changes could mean permanent damage and will possibly be prone to new injury.

Examples of the change in musculature
if horses are ridden in ill fitting saddles:

On top of the withers are white hairs from a previous ill fitting saddle or saddle pad. The two darker areas of hair show that the hairs have broken off there and there are small dents in this area of muscles. It seems that the center of gravity of this saddle is too far backwards preventing the even pressure distribution of the saddle panels.

This horse has been ridden in a too tight saddle for quite a while. The longissimus dorsi is atrophied which resulted in a protruding spine. Behind the shoulder blades the muscles are clearly atrophied as well.

The same horse – different view on the shoulder blades. The saddle pressed against the edge of the shoulder blade and the muscles show quite significant wasted muscle tissue with possible bone inflammation and calcifications.

This photo shows a saddle which seems to fit well in the shoulder area but is unevenly flocked. There is significant muscle atrophy in this area from a saddle panel which was flocked too hard.

Clearly visible: the atrophied trapezius muscle; a dent has formed behind and under the withers.