Horses have an acute sense of touch. Their whole-body touch sense has been described as ‘as sensitive as our fingertips’ and that ‘a horse can feel a fly landing on a single hair’. Anyone who spends time with horses has observed this of course, though our horses, often stoic in nature, will sometimes forget to remind us of it.
I attended a conference yesterday, which certainly put this fact straight back into the forefront of my mind – some of the best researchers finally overtly able to communicate the significant effect this touch sense can have on our horses. I’m not referring to my massage, where this sensitivity is a very helpful work tool! And I’m not referring to the incredible ability to react to the tiniest movement of the rider in the saddle, this is a whole topic all of its own. I’m referring to the over-stimulation we are causing by the addition of ever-more complex pieces of tack and equipment. Our horses put up with a lot before displaying significant behaviour changes, at least obvious ones. Subtle clues are there though…we just need to look for them.
Let’s start with the saddle, and for this it’s useful to imagine somebody plonking a stone in weight onto your back, perhaps with a narrow gullet which pinches your spine, perhaps with a wide one which allows the weight to sit in direct contact with your bones, and to thud down onto them with each step. Maybe due to this, they add a blanket or two to make it more ‘comfy’ but this lifts it up and means it wobbles as you move, maybe slipping off slightly one side or the other and digging into your sides, the gullet edge firmly now sitting across your vertebrae on one side and rubbing continuously… Sounds like torture right? Well, we haven’t even added a rider yet!! This is the reality for many horses with unfitted saddles. A horse in work with the aim of muscle tone/build or with significant shape change with the seasons should have a qualified saddle fitter check their saddle every 3 to 6 months ideally, though this is often unfortunately considered a luxury expense. Sometimes adjustments can be made, balancing aids added, it is far from a given that a new saddle will be required. The overall improvement in your horses’ way of going will no doubt be significant, including benefits such as increased bend, increased hindlimb action and forwardness. Right, preach over 😉 Onto the accessories!
– Girth – consider ‘anatomically-shaped’ with higher buckles and without elastic to reduce elbow pressure and increase stride length
– Bridle headpiece – check it is not pulling at the ears and consider a comfortable wide surface with nose band strap over not under
– Bridle noseband – make sure it is placed correctly, and is loose enough for 2 fingers width over nasal bone – nerve damage caused by bridle/noseband tightness has been linked to head shaking
– Bridle cheekpieces/browband – check for pressure on temporomandibular joint (see pic!) – tightness, buckles digging in, misplacement – the TMJ is heavily-nerved and connected to balance – reduction of TMJ pressure increases hindleg symmetry, and may reduce balance issues
– Stirrups – swap leathers regularly and check for evenness of length – asymmetry will detrimentally load forelimbs
– Boots/bandages – can assist in preventing contact or interference-related injuries, but with little evidence for general ‘support’ properties, and the potential for overheating, adding additional load, restricting movement and circulation issues, consider whether they’re necessary – if so, fit well, do not over-tighten and remove as soon as exercise period is complete for limb breathability
– Fly bonnet/veil – these look pretty when they match a saddle cloth and boots(!) but where not needed for keeping flies out of ears, it should be noted that their use is connected with asymmetry in knee joint movement due to the pressure points they cause beneath the headpiece/browband (surprising one!)
– Breastplate/martingale – consider necessity and use of these items, they have been shown to create sternum pressure and affect jump landing angle/loading, especially when not correctly fitted (though a running martingale in jumping may have rein stability benefits which outweigh this in some cases)
– Lunging roller – pressure over withers is greater than when lunging in saddle – put roller over saddle if needed! (Another surprising one)
– Bit choices – get advice from the experts where possible – this area is a minefield and there are a multitude of misconceptions regarding poll pressure, tongue pressure and the alternative ‘gentleness’ of bitless options – even the seemingly ‘kind’ French Link has been shown to angle sharply into the tongue when in tension!
Each of these suggestions are based on published research from a variety of highly-respected researchers. Feel free to ask for names/paper references, and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction. Findings certainly worth taking into consideration though…who knows, you might find you have quite the willing and talented athlete when discomfort is removed from the equation! And your horse will thank you for it…