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Seasonality of body changes and the importance of saddle fit

Seasonality of body changes and the importance of saddle fit

Dr. Stephanie Wood, Director of Science & Nutrition at Feedmark, Lily Carson and Sue Carson of Sue Carson Saddles


It is widely accepted that there are seasonal fluctuations in the body weight of free-living wild and feral horses and ponies, mainly due to variation in the availability of food resources (Arnold et al., 2006). From spring until autumn there is generally more food available than in winter, allowing animals to gain weight and fat stores that support breeding, and provide a source of stored energy that the body utilises during the winter. In domestic equids these variations in fat stores may be less dramatic as their food intake and body condition are more closely monitored and controlled, although studies have shown that for many equids fat stores increase in spring and summer and decrease in the cooler months (Giles et al., 2014). In contrast, horses and ponies performing more intense or prolonged exercise during the warmer months, may experience a decrease in fat stores as they get fitter and lose the additional kilos gained when in lighter work or on a break from exercise in winter. Such fluctuations in fat stores influence the shape of the horse, and are just one factor that can affect the fit of the saddle. There is much focus on not letting horses and ponies become overweight in spring and summer to reduce the risk of health issues such as laminitis, however there is little attention drawn to the affects that seasonal changes in fat stores and muscle mass can have on saddle fit, which has a direct influence on ridden horse welfare and performance (von Peinen et al., 2010; Greve & Dyson, 2015).

One study investigating factors influencing saddle fit was performed by Greve & Dyson (2015) over a one-year period. During this time the researchers measured horses back dimensions every two months and collected information on body weight, exercise and saddle fit. Data showed that season considerably influenced back dimensions, with back width measurements decreasing over the winter period (October to February), and then increasing from March onwards. Such changes could be attributed to changes in food availability, particularly pasture, however body weight changes appeared to have minimal effect on back measurements in this particular study. What the changes in season may reflect are changes in use of the horses and ponies and how much exercise they were performing, as exercise intensity was shown to have a significant effect on back dimensions. Rest periods resulted in a reduction in back measurements, whilst an increase in exercise intensity lead to a gain in back measurements. These results likely reflect the changes in muscle mass in response to exercise, and clearly show the need to consider saddle fit when there are changes in management, feeding and exercise, which often occur at the change of seasons.

Sue Carson Saddles provides a detailed explanation of saddle fitting, factors affecting saddle fit and signs to look out for that indicate your horses saddle needs attention.


Figure 1. Observing the horse ridden during the appointment

Photo Credit: Sue Carson Saddles


Saddle Fitting

Saddle fitting is a process requiring attention to detail and a thorough assessment of both horse and rider in order to understand the whole picture and is a process which should not be rushed. During a new saddle appointment a fitter should spend approximately three hours with you, gaining a full understanding of the horses veterinary, physiotherapy, osteopathy and farrier history. It is also important to understand any medical history relating to you as a rider which may have a direct impact on the horse’s way of going. A full work up of your horse at every appointment is also vital to ensure any issues such as lameness and asymmetries are identified before going under saddle. This should include being trotted up and turning short. Templating the horses back measurements and weight taping should also be undertaken at every appointment, as this allows for any seasonal changes, growth and maturation to be monitored and the identification of potential problems such as muscle atrophy to be dealt with. Your saddle fitter must then fit your saddle when ridden, apart from during exceptional circumstances such as on unbroken horses or horses coming back into work after rehabilitation. During your appointment your fitter should watch you ride to the level you compete at, if you compete, to make sure the saddle fit does not hinder the horse’s ability to perform the required movements.



Figure 2. Template changes for a 5 year old gelding over a four week period 

Image Credit: Sue Carson Saddles


Your saddle is a crucial part of your horse’s performance and should be maintained alongside everything else. Unfortunately, all too often this is not as high up the list of priorities as it should be. The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) recommends having your saddle refitted every 12-16 weeks, thus ensuring the correct fit of the saddle and contributing to optimal performance and comfort of your horse. The templates in Figure 2 illustrate the changes for a five year old gelding in a four week period, highlighting the importance of regular fittings through seasonal changes, growth and maturation. This is something we see regularly, particularly for young horses or those coming back  into work, which is why we see some of our customers every four weeks and others every 16 weeks, along with everything in between. We at Sue Carson Saddles understand that slight changes in a horse’s shape can alter an entire saddle fit which is one of the reasons why all of our saddles are designed utilising the air flocking system.

The use of air flocked panels on our saddles creates a flexible layer between the saddle and your horse. The air panels act as shock absorbers, reducing the pressure on your horses back, making your horse more comfortable, less restricted in their movement, with more freedom of the shoulder. Alterations are able to be conducted while you are on the horse which enables our fitters to perfectly balance the saddle front to back and right to left, receiving real time feedback from the horse and rider. Our dressage saddles are usually fitted at trot and jump saddles at canter. By fitting on the move it allows us to take the back angle and the changes it undergoes during every pace into consideration, obtaining the best fit and balance, promoting a harmonious partnership. With the adaptability of the air flocking combined with possible alterations of narrowing and widening the tree a Sue Carson Saddle truly is a saddle for life.



Arnold, W., Kuntz, R., Kubalek, C., Ruf, T., & Tataruch, F. (2006). Seasonal adjustment of energy budget in a large wild mammal, the Przewalski horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) I. Energy intake. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209: 4557–4565. doi 10.1242/jeb.02536.

Giles, S.L., Rands, S.A., Nicol, C.J., & Harris, P.A. (2014). Obesity prevalence and associated risk factors in outdoor living domestic horses and ponies. PeerJ, 2: e299. doi 10.7717/peerj.299.

Greve, L., & Dyson, S. (2015). A longitudinal study of back dimension changes over 1 year in sports horses. The Veterinary Journal, 203: 65-73.  

von Peinen, K., Wiestner, T., von Rechenberg, B., & Weishaupt, M.A. (2010). Relationship between saddle pressure measurements and clinical signs of saddle soreness at the withers. Equine Veterinary Journal, 42(Supp. 38): 650-653.