Check out my all time favorite picture of Red. He was off to find his herd, one fall afternoon a couple of years ago. I think he looks absolutely glorious. As I admire my Red Horse, I also notice some significant confirmation issues as he moves in his most typical posture - head up, low back. Red is an "upside down horse." He has a "sway back", high withers, and a forward tipped sacroiliac. This has serious implications for saddle fitting, health, gait, ability to collect, and performance in all disciplines.
Dr. Lauren DeRock has described this condition as the Sacro-Sciatic Syndrome. Dr. DeRock is a vet in Clovis, Calif. who specializes in helping upside down horses. If you visit her site, please read her article "How Horses Work" (I can't link to it). Red was extremely girthy, crooked and stiff, stumbled, and I ALWAYS thought my stirrups were uneven. He still hates to canter. Here is an excerpt by Dr. DeRock describing the symptoms of Sacro-Sciatic Syndrome:
HERE ARE SOME SYMPTOMS OF THE “SACRO-SCIATIC SYNDROME” – SEE WHERE YOUR HORSE MIGHT FIT SOME OR ALL OF THESE:
1) Pain at the base of the neck
a. Put your fingers on either side of the last neck vertebra close to the shoulder and apply deep pressure.
2) “Girthiness,” “Cold Back.” Pain and discomfort anywhere around the girth area, chest area, and withers.
3) Pain at the Poll Joint and down the rest of the neck
4) Pain down the back, especially at the 16th rib (they have 18), about 3 to 5 inches lateral of the midline of the back, in the lumbar area, at the croup, and sometimes all the way down the back of both hind legs to the stifle. Eventually, I believe these horses will develop Sciatic Nerve pain.
5) Performance problems will often be noticed first at the canter, because the Sacro-Iliac joint is locked up as well, and the horse cannot flex his pelvis correctly. The horse may even start to buck or bolt. Your regular vet will think of hock problems. DJD in the hock joint is one of the symptoms that will eventually come out of this.
6) Sometimes the horse will actually seem to have a flat tire, and fall out under you now and then. It will leave you wondering, “What was that”?
7) When you ride, you will often feel that the stirrups are always uneven (a sure sign of crooked motion)
8) The horse fails to “track up” and often his hind legs stride very close together and may even interfere.
9) The horse gets very uncomfortable, anxious, won’t collect (temptation to use gadgets) or your horse constantly leans on the reins (temptation to use a more severe bit –PLEASE DON’T)
10) The horse may drag his hind feet, and/or drag his front feet and stumble. Because he is jammed in C7 to T4 he can’t get out of his own way. Couple this with some less then desirable shoeing, and you have an even greater problem. I have many times treated horses that have been EPM suspects. However, if the horse responds and is better with one treatment, as is often the case, it wasn’t EPM.
It looks like the toe is jamming up, right up the front of the leg (sore fetlock bones), up to the hock, on up to the patella, on up to the hip and spine and creating a bumped up rump that comes with a pelvic tilt he creates trying to get off that dang toe. All the hurting places mentioned are all in line on the path of pathology from the jamming up toe....make sense? All this pathology jamming up with every step, over the years has caused aggravation and given birth to the arthritis and if Red heard this, he's say..."Now you're talking!....get me balanced please!"
When I first saw Red, it was instant love and a sense of "that is MY horse." I did not have a clue about the far reaching implications of his confirmation (would not have mattered). I did recognize that he had a sway back, researched it, and read that such backs do not limit a horse's performance but provide challenges for saddle fitting as the bars of a saddle will bridge the sway and create pressure points. The actual implications are far more complex than suggested by my early research. The rest of this article will be about my choices in saddles and pads. A follow up entry will consider remedial training and treatment options.
Before he came to be with me, Red had always been ridden in a honking big western saddle. I'm guessing there was little regard for fit. He bears the scars (white hair where skin was injured) of that lack of regard or lack of knowledge. For several years Red had been owned by a gentleman of substantial girth who used him extensively as a trail horse. While Red reportedly was once trained to barrel race, he was NEVER taught to collect. A long back put him at risk for serious problems and his lack of collection has hugely contributed to his current physical challenges.
Well, knowing that I pack around some substantial pounds, I did not want to add to the weight Red had on his back. My first saddle purchase was a Fabtron synthetic saddle from a local shop. This let me ride immediately without guilt but really did little for his back.
Burning through the internet I found a number of saddles that would be safe for Red's back. My search led me to learn about flex paneled saddles, treeless saddles, and hybrid saddles with partial or foan trees. Most were too expensive for my budget (less than $1000.00). Drool over this baby, the Pleasure Plantation made by Evolutionary Saddles. These folks have an excellent fitting program and have had great success fitting their flex paneled saddles on sway backed horses. I found another tempting saddle with a foam tree, the MacKinder Endurance Saddle. Yummy, kind to equine backs, and again outside of my budget.
About then I found an online article (can't currently locate it) stating that the Austrailian College of Equine Chiropractic suggested the Wintec CAIR system for sway backed horses. Within my budget! I found a barely used Wintec Pro Dressage saddle with CAIR on ebay. I have absolutely LOVED this saddle. Red's opinion can be measure by the disappearance of his saddle avoiding moves. He now stands like a rock to be saddled.
While well satisfied with our Wintec,I wanted a second saddle for trails. Bob Marshall
Treeless saddles combined with Skito pads for sway backed horses were highly recommended on several websites. Also beyond my budget. I settled on the Barefoot Saddle. Affordable and beautifully made, I have LOVED my Barefoot. If you choose a treeless saddle, it is CRITICAL to have an appropriate saddle pad. While the new generation of treeless saddles are incorporating foam panels to protect the spine, this function is also met by the saddle pad.
By now I had turned into an ebaytack addict. I'm still trying to reform. I own three saddle pads - a Supracor Cool Grip endurance pad, a Skito Barefoot Saddle Pad, and a HAF pad. I long for a Saddleright Pad. All of these pads share an essential function - the capacity to distribute the rider's weight evenly over the horse's back while protecting the spine. These particular pads serve an additional function of providing excellent protection for Red's high withers. My favorite of the three is the Supracor and I use it with our Barefoot and Wintec saddles.
These days, Red never appears to be in pain and shows calm, willing behavior when saddled. Yet I have much to learn about how to work with Red's upside down confirmation. We need to continue to work on collection, strengthening his back, and find sources of treatment. If any readers know of helpful resources, I'd love to have a link so I can check them out.