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Saddle fit, freedom of movement and performance

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

In polo the horse, arguably, makes up for 80 % of your chances of success. Their ability to accelerate, turn and stop as quickly as possible determines how swiftly you get to where you need to be. Horses are not structurally designed to carry weight on their backs, let alone in excess of 15% of their body weight while performing manoeuvres that they are also not structurally designed for; a horse is biomechanically designed to move predominantly in straight lines. In other equestrian disciplines a huge amount of effort is put into the fit of the saddle to the horse’s back, because every movement the horse makes travels through the spine. Imagine how wearing shoes that are too tight or loose affects the way you walk and your ability to run or jump – saddle fit for the horse has the same importance on their performance.

The basic rules of saddle fit (and why the typical polo saddle breaks every one).

  • The panels of the saddle should not go past the last rib. If your saddle does go past the last rib it will be digging into the weakest part of your horses back where there is no skeletal support from the ribs for rider and saddle weight. A huge amount of polo saddles do this, because they come in such big sizes so that the players have room to move around. Having the panels pressing into the lumbar area will make it difficult for the horse to round and use the lumbar area, which is crucial to them in order to bring their hind ends underneath themselves for stopping and acceleration.

Image 1: Line A represents where the gullet bar of the saddle should sit to avoid damage to the cartilage of the shoulder. Line B represents the last rib that can support the saddle. Section C represents the area which should not have any contact with the saddle. Section D represents the perfect weight bearing area for the saddle.

  • The saddle must sit behind the shoulder to avoid wearing away the cartilage of the shoulder and creating arthritic changes and inflammation during riding. Unfortunately, due to the position a polo player needs to be in to accurately play the ball and hit neck shots, all polo saddles are placed over the wither and shoulders of the horse.

  • The panels must have an even contact with the horses back. If you slide your hand from front the back of your saddle there should be no gaps or very tight spots between the horse’s back and the saddle. The most commonly seen problem in polo saddles is that they “bridge”, which means the front and back of the panel make contact with the horse’s back, but there is a gap in the middle (right where the rider sits and support is most needed!!) where there is no contact. This will cause horses to go “hollow” in the back.

  • The gullet of the saddle must not be too wide or too narrow and should follow the same angle as the horse’s shoulder to allow it to glide past it. The gullet also needs to provide wither clearance of at least two fingers with your weight in the saddle. Polo saddles are not adjustable, so however they happen to be made is how the horse wears them. You will typically find that they are either far too wide (made for a Criollo type pony with no wither) or “tent-shaped” and narrow, intended for a fine, high withered thoroughbred. Horses with a saddle that is too tight will often have a choppy front action as the shoulder cannot move backwards and saddles that are too wide will often result in a horse being heavy on the fore.

Image 2: The green lines show how this saddle’s gullet plate angle and the shoulder angle of the horse are not at all the same.

The spinal clearance width of the saddle must be wide enough that it is not resting on the vertebra. A horse needs at least a four finger width space between the saddle’s panels. If the panels are pressing on the vertebra, the horse will contract his back muscles in order to protect himself and will work in a hollow, inverted frame. Majority of polo saddles have a very narrow spinal clearance or tend to start wide in the front and taper off at the back of the saddle.

Image 3: The green lines show the width of space the spine needs. As you can see, this saddle’s channel is too narrow.

What makes the Ainsley MVP saddles so unique

  • An adjustable gullet plate that you can change to different widths yourself, which is very useful as your horse changes shape throughout the season due to weight and muscling changes.

  • A wide spinal channel clearance.

  • An advanced panel design which allows the saddle to fit behind the horses’ shoulder without compromising the player’s ability to hit neck shots.

  • A selection of panels, wool-flocked panels which can be re-flocked as needed as well as memory foam panels in different shapes to fit to the curve of the horse's back.

Signs that your saddle does not fit

  • White hairs that appear under the saddle area.

  • Dry spots that haven’t sweated when you remove your saddle after riding.

  • Hair that is rubbed up when you remove the saddle.

  • Lack of muscle along the spine and behind the shoulder blades/under the whither.

  • Behavioural problems such as bucking, head tossing, going “hollow” when ridden, not standing still to be tacked up and a reluctance to move forward.

  • Medical problems such as spondylosis aka “kissing spine” will result from a continuous bad saddle fit.

You may well be thinking that your polo pony and hundreds of others already go perfectly well, but if they are going well in a saddle that goes against every single rule of saddle fit, imagine how well they will go in a saddle that is designed to allow them freedom of movement and comfort. If high goal players such as David Stirling and Facundo Pieres who ride the best horses in the world are finding improvement in their horses (who are already at the top of their game) in Ainsley MVP saddles, you can be rest assured that yours will too. Before Ainsley Saddlery, no saddle making company had put much research into designing a polo saddle that takes into consideration the needs of both the polo player AND the polo pony – the results are speaking for themselves.

Visit the Ainsley MVP product page here

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