In-Hand Harmony

Seasonal Saddle Sores? Apparently So!

Is it possible that saddle sores can show up seasonally? The idea still sounds like an old wives’ tale to me. But that’s what the saddle fitter suggested.

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll know that I’ve struggled with Tobias’ saddle fit as his back has changed. Some unexplainable soreness was one of the reasons we attempted to go barefoot again last winter. (See January 10, 2015, “Tender Footed“)

Ansur Chic Saddle

Ansur Chic Saddle

Living on Orcas Island in Washington state without a tack shop or saddle fitter anywhere close, we started out in 2005 with an Ansur treeless saddle. With the Ansur, Tobias did all he could to avoid being saddled and refused or bucked when asked to canter. When we finally got a trainer from the mainland to come out and help a few of us on the island, I broke into tears when I was shown how the treeless saddle was pressing on Tobias’ high-withered spine.

I broke into tears when I was shown how the treeless saddle was pressing on Tobias’ high-withered spine.

Riding in the Collegiate Sr. Eventer with just a rope halter at Long Beach, WA 2007

Again, without a tack shop or saddle fitter on the island, I took the ferry and headed to The Bony Pony in Mt. Vernon. Even at 45 or 46 years of age, I remember feeling looked down upon by the women that worked there — even the younger ones — which I’m sure was simply due to my lack of knowledge and the language of horses and tack. I was shown various saddles and purchased a new Collegiate Sr. Eventer with an adjustable gullet. While not nearly as luxurious as the Ansur, the Collegiate seemed to fit me well, and I figured with an adjustable gullet I couldn’t go wrong.

Even with a new saddle, tacking up remained a challenge. I worked with my trainer to help Tobias get more comfortable with that process, but at least he didn’t complain under saddle. Admittedly, I was still a novice and just figured I had a lot more work to do. Regardless, we did quite a bit of riding in the Collegiate saddle over the next several years and developed a good partnership.

Identifying Saddle Issues

I’d forgotten about this, but in looking back over my notes, the first time I noticed white hairs appearing on Tobias’ back was in 2010. It was suggested that I widen the Collegiate’s exchangeable gullet to relieve the pressure points. However, when I widened the gullet and used a thinner pad as suggested, there was no clearance between the gullet and Tobias’ spine. With a thicker pad, there was better clearance.

Having lived in Colorado for a few years, at some point I asked my fellow horsewoman, trainer and equine body worker to come over to do some work on Tobias. She pointed out that the saddle flocking in the Collegiate had clumped up in some places, leaving pits in others. It was 2012 and I’d had the saddle for about six years, so I sent it to a Certified Master Saddler, Suzie Fletcher-Baker, and invested nearly $400 in a complete reflock.

[My friend] pointed out that the saddle flocking in the Collegiate had clumped up in some places, leaving pits in others.

Ruling Out Physical Issues

Thinking that everything was addressed for Tobias comfort, he became more uncomfortable being girthed up that summer. Again, I approached it as a training issue. But just in case, I had Dave Barton, a local chiropractor, take a look. I’m glad I did because apparently Tobias had some ribs out of place. No wonder he was “girthy”. Unfortunately, the symptoms kept recurring, so I had Dave repeatedly out to do adjustments.

Then the symptoms escalated. While tacking up, immediately after I loosely attached the girth, Tobias jerked up and headed backwards, hitting his head on the barn rafters. After talking with some friends and doing some research, we took Tobias to Littleton Equine Medical Center (“LEqMC”) and had him scoped for ulcers. He checked out fine, “textbook healthy”. Interestingly, one of the vets observed that the muscles in Tobias’ back looked atrophied where others had commented that he had developed a “hunter’s bump” or “kissing spine”. Being focused on possible ulcers and the scoping, we didn’t get into asking why.

Identifying A Changing Back

County Saddle

County Saddle

That fall, I enlisted the help of a professional saddle fitter who told me that the Collegiate was pinching Tobias’ back.

So I was once again looking for a new saddle. The saddle fitter found a used, custom-made County saddle at an online tack shop with a dressage seat and jump flaps. I bought it (Aug. 2012), along with an anatomically-shaped girth. The saddle fitter checked out the fit and everything seemed wonderful. I loved this saddle! It was the most comfortable saddle I had ever sat in. Tobias moved much more freely in it, and jumping low jumps together had never been easier.

The saddle fitter guaranteed the fit for three months and provided follow-up visits to be sure everything was working well for us. As Tobias filled out, the flocking needed to be adjusted. But that October not only did the white hairs reappear but they were larger than ever before.

The following spring (2013), the saddle sores on either side of Tobias’ withers disappeared … again. I was thrilled! The bad news is that in June Tobias ended up having colic surgery in addition to fracturing his withers on the way to the clinic. That’s another story. (See “Emergency Colic Surgery: How It Unfolded“, “Colic: Day 2“, “Rehabilitating A Horse: Five Months Post Colic Surgery and Fractured Withers“, and “Six Months, One Week Post Colic Surgery and Spinal Injury“.)

After a year of rehabilitation, hand walking and body work, in the Spring of 2014, we had fabulous rides together with the County saddle. (See April 23, 2014, “First Trail Ride Post Colic Surgery“) But then in just a few months Tobias had developed a lack of impulsion and enthusiasm. I once again began working with a trainer to explore issues in riding technique. I also had the saddle fitter come out again to check the fit. She adjusted the flocking and noted “tree is at limit, has gained 3/4″ each side”.

The following fall (2014) Tobias became quite girthy again. I used a girth extender to ease the girthing process. I also ordered a custom-made shearling fleece girth cover. And, wouldn’t you know it, the white marks returned. The saddle fitter checked the fit yet again and suggested that the white marks could be seasonal. Since it happened last fall, it could be that horses have different hair follicles in summer and winter.

The professional saddle fitter checked the fit yet again and suggested that the white marks could be seasonal. Since it happened last fall, it could be that horses have different hair follicles in summer and winter.

Acceptance Of An Ongoing Process

Disheartened and frustrated, I went looking for another opinion. Last winter (2015), I began taking classical riding lessons from Frances Carbonnel. Frances noted Tobias’ lack of impulsion and showed me that the County saddle was pinching, interfering with the ability of his large shoulders to move freely. She recommended a change in saddle, one without such forward flaps, and helped fit him in an Albion dressage saddle. For the first time in ten years, Tobias stood completely still while being saddled.

Tobias with his latest saddle, an Albion SLK.

Tobias with his latest saddle, an Albion SLK.

The following May (2015) the white hairs disappeared.

When it came time for spring vaccinations, out of curiosity I asked Dr. Lois Toll (LEqMC) about seasonal hair follicles. The long-time equine vet confirmed that, yes, horses do have two sets of hair follicles and it’s entirely possible that is why Tobias’ white hairs appear in the fall and disappear in the spring.

The long-time equine vet confirmed that, yes, horses do have two sets of hair follicles and it’s entirely possible that is why Tobias’ white hairs appear in the fall and disappear in the spring.

And guess what resurfaced when October rolled around this year? Yep, although not nearly as large or as white as last fall (at least not so far) those white hairs returned. But for now I’m just ignoring them. I think they’ll be gone in the spring.

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Right withers, October 2015

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Left withers, October 2015

Post Script

This process has spanned over ten years. And, even after all this, I have to admit that there are still times when Tobias moves away when the saddle approaches. I’ve found that if I warm him up at the walk, trot and canter in the round pen before saddling, along with leg yields and changes of direction, it makes the process go pretty smoothly. Tobias also continues to receive occasional body work.

As the saddle fitter said, “Tobias’s journey with you hasn’t been perfect which is the way it is with all horses. Everything is OK until it’s not OK. If you are looking for consistency and certainty with any horse, I fear that you will be disappointed.”

Happy Trails!

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