Wonky Donkeys (not about actual donkeys!)

(to quote Ant and Dec!)

Have you ever caught yourself thinking "my horse isn't that croup high, surely?", and as you go round to the other side you sigh with relief, it's obviously an optical illusion….except it's not an illusion at all.

Early in my saddle fitting career I started to notice that several things were going on:

  • If I ever occasionally got sent photos of horses from both sides, rather than the one I used to ask for, I often saw a different front to back balance.
  • In the actual fitting process the saddle could look in perfect balance from one side, but out of balance on the other side and yet the saddle was straight at the back. This really challenged my thinking!
  • That most saddles were moving to the right, if they slipped, though of course many riders slide out to the right, so it can be very hard to separate one from the other.

Here you can see the most brilliant photos sent in by a new customer, who has kindly agreed for me to use them for this blog post.  She is a fabulous looking cob but her asymmetry is quite pronounced, though this is far from rare.

I have used a black box on the photos to try and make sure that my line across the horse’s top line is parallel to the feet, though in one photo the feet aren’t quite fully shown so I have lined the box up with the front of the coronet band on both feet.  How many inches do we think the balance of the horse changes from one side to the other?  3", 4", or even 5"?  If the horse looks uphill from one side and downhill from the other, it's going to be a bigger difference than you might think.

Below I’ve tried to draw a line from the same point below the point of hip, to the same point on the wither/shoulder area, to show the immense difference in the pitch of the area on which we need to fit the saddle.

What challenges does this present the saddle fitter? So many challenges!

We are facing both the croup high horse where saddles have a tendency to drop at the front, jamming into the shoulder, and leaving the rider fighting for balance and as well as (from the other side) a more level horse where the saddle would sit in better balance, or could even tip back.  I have to decide how best to balance the saddle to help the rider, and spread their weight for the horse, as well as trying to accommodate any sideways slip, which may or may not be present.

So what's going on?

I'm going to address this not so much in terms of biomechanics as there are complex and differing patterns that horses exhibiting this shape utilise.  And honestly, I'd say that almost 9 of every 10 sets of photos that are sent to me before a fitting show this pattern of asymmetry, even if not to this degree.  

As a rider you may find it difficult to get your right seatbone anchored onto the saddle, you may find that you can't get your leg on on the right hand side as that ribcage drops away from you, though this can depend on the exact shape of the ribcage and how your leg hangs in the saddle on this particular ribcage shape. It will also feel different on each rein - you will almost certainly be drifting to the outside on the left rein.

My understanding has been transformed by my work with Ergox2, and their approach is rooted in a couple of key principles from Science of Motion. SoM is fascinating, but many of you, me included, may find it a little impenetrable!  Luckily Maria Hallring and Lena Gunarsson of Ergox2 took away a couple of simple principles that could most easily be applied to benefit the horse, and one of them is this ribcage rotation.

In further example, a Section B pony, you can clearly see the ribcage is rotated to the right (green lines, compare each side to the bottom of your screen, they are at quite different angles) and the right shoulder is subsequently significantly lower (black line).  I find that much more helpful than smaller/larger. In many cases that right shoulder will also be more forwards than the left.  You are hopefully starting to understand just how many factors are contributing to saddle slip to the right!

If, reading this, you've realised your horse shows this pattern (and do go take some photos so you can have a better look at your own horse), what can you do about it?

I will always encourage people to work their horses from the ground as a priority.  I have a sheet of online links to various groundwork practitioners and courses, and send it to all new customers  Please shout if you'd like a copy.  Would you prefer to correct this asymmetry from on board?  I bet you've been working on straightness already, most of us do, yet your horse still shows this uneven pattern and shape.

I would say most riders need to change things up.  Taking the weight off the horse's back makes it SO much easier for the horse to improve its posture – ultimately we need both hind legs to step evenly under the horse enabling it to lift in front – much easier without our weight…and our asymmetry!

Most riders are asymmetric to some extent – you might see a bodyworker, you might go to a yoga class and you might even have biomechanics lessons, but some off-horse work is likely to bring you the biggest benefit.  I have three programmes I currently recommend to my new customers: a natural movement specialist, an ACPAT physio and a "neuromechanics" specialist, something for everyone.  

Consider time and money spent on your straightness and fitness to be time and money spent on your horse, and don't scrimp on it.  If you do you'll likely be spending that money on more saddle adjustments, on bodywork for your horse, or, even more seriously, on lameness when that asymmetric body actually breaks under the strain.

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