Pain Related to Horse Riding – A Saddle Fitters Persepective.

Sarah & Simbar Riding 100 miles in her ReactorPanel Saddle at the World Endurance Championship 2006

Sarah & Simbar Riding 100 miles in her ReactorPanel Saddle at the World Endurance Championship 2006

There are a number of reasons riders experience pain related to horse riding, it’s a common problem that most people think is part of the riding experience and can  involve the knees, ankles, neck but more commonly the back. This does not always need to be the case.

Lets first have a brief look at the back and pelvis.

  • Our spine has 33 vertebrae, 7 cervical vertebrae ( the neck) 12 Thoracic vertebrae to which the 12 pairs of ribs attach, 5 lumbar vertebrae ( the most flexible part of the spine and the most common area in which we feel pain), 5 fused sacral vertebrae ( the Pelvis ) and the 4 vertebrae which make up the Coccyx. The lumbar part of the spine are larger because they support the bulk of the weight of the skull and the upper body.
  • The vertebrae  are bound together  by two long ligaments running the entire length of the spine and smaller ligaments between each pair of vertebrae. There are also several groups of muscles attached to the vertebrae which support the spine and control movement.
  • Imagine the spine as a set of building blocks arranged on top of each other, when posture is correct it will be stable and balanced and muscle activity needed for movement to rebalance will be minimal. Therefore if you sit unevenly it takes more, uneven muscular effort to maintain balance and individual muscles then can become sore. Balancing the upper body above the horse is one of the crucial key points for good riding.
  • When riding the pelvis is our centre of movement, it consists of a bony ring with two large wings ( the Ilia), the bottom of these wings are the seat bones joined by the sacrum, this forms the sacro-iliac joint. Movement of the pelvis in relation to the movement of the horse causes movement in the lumbar spine and the hip joint.
  • Although there are subtle differences in the width of the pelvis in male and female riders this only plays a minor role in riding as the width is not in the seat bones but between the hip bones and the Iliac crest. The width of  male pelvises is pretty uniform while female pelvises can vary hugely in relation to the bones themselves.  That is why choice of saddle seat shape and in some cases twist can be very important for female riders.

So maybe now we can see why a pelvis which is out of balance for whatever reason can cause pain in the back, the neck and the legs. Here are some causes of an out of balance pelvis.

  • Uneven rider, due to trauma or physical irregularity – for example if we have had a fall the pelvis can be misaligned.
  • Compensations and muscle memory caused by a previous injury or pathology – when injured we learn to use our body differently and this can become a habit.
  • Uneven horse- riders frequently compensate for an uneven horse sometimes without realising it.
  • Uneven riding style – riders and horses usually prefer one rein over the other, this can cause asymmetries if they always ride and that rein/diagonal.
  • Lack of body awareness in the rider can mean that they can ride unevenly without realising, for example riding with an ill fitting saddle or uneven stirrups.
  • Riding nerves causing a tense body- for example sometimes nervous riders forget to breath.
  • An ill fitting saddle
  • Prolonged tense muscles can also cause bodily misalignment as well as bodily misalignment causes tense muscles- so some times it’s a case of what came first!

Now on to the saddle.

Typically an ill fitting saddle will move around and be unstable. Imagine when you drive your car, hands on the steering wheel at  the 3 and 9 position ( imagine a clock face) will feel stable whilst hands at 4 and 8 ( a too narrow saddle has the same effect) or 10 and 2 ( a too wide saddle) will feel unstable and wobbly.

  • If the saddle is too wide it will usually tip the rider forwards, slip backwards and lift at the back. A saddle which is too wide will also often slip to the opposite side to where the horse or rider are strong making it difficult for the rider to stay in balance as they are thrown forward and their legs sent backwards, therefore muscular compensation  gives rise to back and neck pain as they strain to remain upright and evenly balanced side to side.  
  • A too narrow saddle will tip the riders centre of gravity backwards, legs will be forced forward sitting the rider in chair seat. Again the saddle will be unstable and often will run forwards over the shoulder.
  • Saddles where the tree shape does not suit the horses back profile are also unstable even if the width fitting is correct and saddles which are over flocked through the middle of the panel.
  • Remember that saddles which are placed on a horses back, ungirthed and without the weight of a rider often look fine when on a static horse but the fitting errors become apparent when the horse is ridden and lifts its back.
  • All horse and rider combinations are unique and some times it is our confirmation rather than the horse’s that causes the issue.  For example, a rider forced into a saddle where the seat size is too small for them will mean they sit on the cantle rather than in the seat. A long legged rider would also need to be accommodated in a larger seat size or more forward flap to ensure their knees do not go over the knee block.
  • The choice of saddle is very important. Tree shape and seat profile can also be modified to suit rider confirmation, when buying a saddle make sure that you have the opportunity to try the saddle over a reasonable period of time to make sure that the seat is comfortable for you as a saddle which fits the horse well can also cause you pain if it doesn’t fit you!

   It is quite common to fit riders who say, “ my balance isn’t what it used to be,” “I’m crooked” “ I’m not a very good rider” when after the new saddle is fitted it becomes apparent that the saddle balance was the issue all along.

 Some common problems and suggestions on how to address them

“My Saddle Constantly Slips to One Side”

All horses and riders are asymetric, that is why some of us are right and some of us left handed. Whether this causes a problem, with the saddle fit depends on severity. A saddle which does not fit correctly be it too narrow, too wide or just on the wrong shape of tree will automatically be moved to the horses weaker side, over time this can cause wasted muscle as the saddle moves or weight is distributed unevenly.  If a rider has a crooked pelvis from a fall, a car accident or just because they sleep in a position that pulls the pelvis to one side or for any other reason, over a period of time even if your horse is fairly straight and correct in its skeletal and musculature the rider will eventually make the horse crooked to fit there own unevenness, these riders often sit unevenly in the saddle or put more weight in one stirrup than the other, stirrup leathers can then also stretch, accentuating the problem. The same thing can happen with a straight rider and a crooked horse. Over time a flocked saddle which is moving to one side only will bed unevenly and therefore accentuate the problem.

To fix the problem we recommend the saddle is checked and adjusted if required by an experienced saddle fitter. Horse and rider be checked at the same time and any adjustments carried out by a qualified Chiropractor,we work with a lot of Chiropractors and body workers all over the country and are happy to recommend one if you are having problems finding someone, please contact us and we can advise.

We can then revisit and check the saddle and address any uneven flocking once horse and rider are even. If a period of rehab is recommended or the physical characteristics of horse and rider mean than the unevenness cannot be addressed quickly then the saddle can be girthed accordingly to accommodate the asymmetry or in more extreme cases we recommend a correction numnah.These are temporary measures and are designed to keep the saddle straight during rehab. For more details please see our information page Remedial Horse Help.

If the asymmetry is extreme and untreatable then we would recommend a ReactorPanel Saddle as asymmetries such as Scoliosis of the spine are more easily addressed.  Just because your have scoliosis of the spine does not however mean that you need to have a asymmetric saddle for life. A customer and great friend of mine who has this disability initially had her saddle set asymmetrically to help while she learn to ride her horse straight. A year later after a great deal of hard work and perseverance on her part we put the saddle straight and both she and her horse have ridden straight since. She can even ride bare back and now has no pain when riding.

 “My Back Aches and I Cannot Get My Legs Underneath Me to Sit in Balance”

If the saddle does not go to one side consistently and horse and rider are both straight and the rider still gets backache,  saddle balance and fit will need checking as this could be the cause. 

Saddles tipping back because they are too tight makes the riders back work very hard to readdress their position, the lower leg will shoot forward making a balanced position with the rider on his or her “three point seat” impossible giving rise to Back and thigh pain.  Also this can be the cause of saddles shifting from one side to the other or moving forward up the horse’s neck .They also will place the riders weight in the rear of the saddle which could over a period of time waste the back muscles.

Saddles that are too wide can tip forward, move around and slip backwards. Again creating problems for horse and rider, the riders weight will be thrown onto the shoulders making it difficult for the horse to come off the forehand, the rider will pitch forward and the legs can be forced backwards again making a balanced position where the rider has full independent movement of all four limbs impossible. The rider flights to stay uprignt and this will can rise to back, neck and shoulder pain .

Again a visit from the Saddle fitter can help.Adjustments can be made if the saddle is adjustable and  when that is not the case and the problem is a saddle that is too wide, the problem can be remedied with a correction numnah with front shimms. Unfortunately a saddle that is too narrow will have to be replaced.

“My Saddle Fits My Horse and I’m still Uncomfortable”

  Riders who have experienced long term back or knee pain can ride pain free if fitted with a well fitting saddle of a style and shape to suit their riding. When choosing a saddle take into account the riding position which is most comfortable to you, for example is it comfortable to ride long or short. Some of our customers who do not wish to jump find a jumping saddle more comfortable as it accommodates their knees better if they are tall and the horse close coupled and in cases when a straight cut or dressage flap can stretch the muscles in the pelvic sling in a way which can be uncomfortable for some riders. A saddle which is too small or that has the wrong shape tree for the rider can also cause a problem as it can make it impossible for the rider to “sit deep” and therefore remain in balance. Also the physical characteristics of some riders make some saddle trees more comfortable than others and some riders require specially designed seats. This is why we offer a 14 day trial on new saddles, the only way to find out if the saddle is the right shape and design for you is to ride in it for an extended period of time.

 Pain related to horse riding is not just “one of those things” and often we can help, even customers who have always felt uncomfortable in the pelvic area can be comfortable if the right seat is made for them, we all want comfort for our horse and quite often rider’s needs are ignored in favour of the horse’s comfort, we are very experienced in helping riders find comfort as well as their horse,  for more specific advice feel or help free to call or email us any time.

Gini Woodward copyright 2010


3 comments on “Pain Related to Horse Riding – A Saddle Fitters Persepective.
  1. Teri says:

    Thank you for this article, having struggled previously I am now in one of your saddles which, a, puts me in the correct position thereby highlighting what I need to work on both for myself and my horse

  2. Lyndon Tilbury says:

    A great read. I need all the help I can get having taken up riding at the ripe old age of 63. I busted my hip and pelvis in 96 and my Osteo says it it out of alignment. So being shouted at whilst riding around the school in pain is not the answer.

    • Gini Woodward says:

      thank you for your comments Lyndon and yes being shouted at when you are in pain is no joke, ): if you would like any furthur advice please feel free to email me privately or call for a chat. (:

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