Ask the Vet: Equine Behavior

Question: I just bought a flextree saddle, but a now hearing these may cause back problems in my horse? What is your opinion? 

Answered by, Sid Gustafson, DVM, Bozeman, MT 

Answer: More important than the specific saddle or style of saddle, is the specific fit of the specific saddle to the individual horse, and the suitability of that saddle to fulfill the needs and anatomy of horse and rider. The saddle should be well-suited to the horse’s anatomical features and the pursuit, as well as to the rider’s size and ability. There are saddle-fitters, and saddle fitting guidelines, along with high tech devices to assure an even distribution of pressure under the saddle. Saddle pads are critical, as is their cleanliness. The horse’s back must be sound and inflammation-free to begin with, and the ribs must be quiet. Often, if you can believe it, where the rider’s heels ride along the horse’s rib cage there can develop tenderness and bruising from inadvertent and purposeful kicking. Rib pain must be ruled out before and after each ride. It is important all of the ribs and back are carefully palpated for inflammation and tenderness before and after each saddling. Grooming and brushing the back are important. The horse’s stable life needs to be fulfilled and enriched with abundant friends, forage, and locomotion.

Most important to equine back health is the rider’s finesse, ability, and style of riding, along with the effective fluid development of a willing partnership between horse and rider. It is critical the rider moves with the horse, and assists the horse in her locomotory pursuits, avoiding any aggravation or limitation of natural motions and gaits. Rather than saddle issues, many back problems are the result of imbalanced riding.

There are flexible trees, and solid trees, and saddles with no significant tree at all. Each has their place when properly fitted and applied. Horses need to be abundantly fulfilled, massaged, and warmed up before being saddled.

Question: I notice after I ride my horse that he begin to display signs of abdominal pain and doesn’t eat anything for a while. However, he is just fine before the ride and only displays this behavior after the ride. I really don’t know what could be going on with him.

Answer: This sounds like a digestive disturbance rather than a behavior problem. Horses require abundant daily forage and should never be without a bite of appropriate forage when they are not being ridden. Horses should not be hungry or forage deprived before they are ridden, and nor should they be fed grain unless they are in race training or a similar pursuit. Stalled horses require miles and miles of daily walking to facilitate digestion. Normal digestion is dependent on 24/7 appropriate forage availability and miles of daily walking. Make sure your horse never runs out of appropriate forage, and that he is getting miles of daily walking beyond his riding routine if he is stalled or paddocked. Please have your horse examined by your veterinarian, do a fecal egg count, and have the teeth checked, as well. Make sure the saddle fits, and that the cinchas are clean and non-irritating.