Forgotten wisdom from over 100 years ago, is a guide that the saddle industry needs to be using as a foundation for future training.

After over 25 years of working to improve the way saddling is done, to protect ridden horses, we think that what we do is completely logical, simple, normal and we wonder….why doesn’t everyone do it this way!  Yet…. we are still considered by many in the horse industry to be radical, controversial and crazy.  These are just the polite descriptions………..there are many more! 

As we move into a new decade in 2020, there are glimmers of hope now that other people, are doing more research of their own and I have no doubt that they will come to the same conclusions as us.

Carol Brett and I, co-founders of the BALANCE organisation, kick-started a bit of a revolution in the level of interest in saddle design and saddle fitting back in 1993.  It wasn’t our intention to do this, but the reaction to the publication of some of our work seemed to send shock waves around the horse world, because we had dared to challenge the status quo and had, unwittingly, exposed some major flaws that were causing significant damage to riding horses all around the world that had been going unnoticed for many years!

Our experience lay in the training of horses and riders and we both had a particular interest in what makes for efficient movement and performance in both the equine and human.  It was this interest and the recognition that saddles seemed to be creating a disturbing level of interference with bio-mechanically correct movement, which pushed us into studying the issue further.

The result of all of this was the creation of what we thought, was a new approach to fitting saddles and a new approach to judging saddle design features as either horse friendly or not.  As our organisation was called BALANCE, this ‘new’ saddling method became known as The BALANCE Saddling System.

At the time (1993) there was no proper training for saddle fitters.  Horse owners basically assumed that the people who sold saddles knew what they were doing and as so few people were aware of the impact that saddles were having on horses, the saddle industry was muddling along quite happily.  There was no deliberate intention to damage horses, but the reality was, that a lack of equestrian knowledge and education, a lack of awareness and for some, a lack of interest, saddle makers, sellers and fitters were using methods that were creating problems for horses that ranged from a mild discomfort to devastating damage and long term disability.

The recognised official influence on the saddle industry was the Society of Master Saddlers.   This Society formed in 1966 to serve as a Trade Association for the craft retail saddler.  To protect and promote their trade.  They were not involved in training /educating their members to study the way saddles affect horses.  Consequently, the standards of saddle fitting were highly inadequate.  Some basic ‘rules’ tended to be observed, the main focus tending to be making sure that the saddle had plenty of clearance (height) over the withers and that the underside was as close a match as possible to the shape of the horse’s back.

By contrast….The BALANCE Saddling System was very different.  The focus was on allowing the horse to try and then ‘choose’ (by demonstrating a preference) the saddle that was most comfortable and allowed the best movement it was capable of offering.  The System proved to be a fantastic Remedial Saddling method as well as a brilliant Maintenance Saddling method.  Horse owners who adopted the BSS were amazed by the positive changes they saw in their horses. These included:

  • the transformation of stiff, crooked and resistant horses into free moving and happy horses. 
  • Lame horses into sound ones; horses with chronic dis-ease often recovering.
  • Apparently untalented horses being revealed as special and generous.

At that time, both the saddle industry and the BALANCE co-founders thought that the BALANCE Saddling System was a completely new way of fitting saddles.

However, in the early 1990’s Carol Brett came across a copy of a little book called Animal Management, which was produced in the Veterinary Department of the War Office for the first time in 1908.  

This is a wonderful book that was written as an instructional guide for those responsible for the management, health and performance of animals used by the army in war-fare.  From riding horses to pack mules, camels and Oxen. 

The information is fascinating and most of it is as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century.  In reading the book, it became clear, very quickly to Carol, that the person/people who wrote this book had a deep understanding of what was needed to keep the animals healthy and functioning well despite harsh conditions.

Carol and I thought that we had stumbled across a better and new way of fitting and using saddles and a new understanding of the importance of getting the saddle and saddling method to support the structures and functional anatomy of the horse…..   However, in reading this little hand-book, first produced over 100yrs ago, we could see that what we were advocating wasn’t new at all   ……….. it was ‘old’ wisdom that had been diluted and forgotten since the owning and riding of horses had shifted more and more into the hands of people who had little to no deep equestrian knowledge or experience.   

So, below, I offer you a copy of just some of the important text from this fabulous resource.

Those of you who are familiar with the BALANCE Saddling System will recognise the same approach in the text below.

  • The need for the back to be well muscled and developed to carry a saddle (and rider) safely.
  • The speedy and significant loss of muscle and therefore, the loss of support for the saddle that can happen when the horse is not well.
  • The fact that sufficient padding is necessary between the saddle tree and the horse’s back in order to protect it.*.
  • The folding of the Army Blanket in its simplest form (when the horse was well muscled) created a greater depth (layers) under the front of the tree than the back.
  • The understanding that, in order to use padding in this way (more under the front than at the back) the tree had to be wide enough to accommodate the method.  This would have meant that, by necessity, the saddles would have looked unbalanced (too wide for the horse) before the blanket had been put underneath them!!!!!  Does that sound familiar?

*Army saddles were made without padded panels and therefore the army blanket was used instead of flocked or foam panels, but the fitting principles are exactly the same as those adopted by BALANCE back in the early 1990s and still form the reason behind the success of the BALANCE approach.

Military saddle showing the shaped wooden ‘bars’ that needed to sit on the folded Army Blanket

Excerpts of TEXT taken from Animal Management 1908

(book text in black, with specific passages highlighted in blue by me!)

It is safe to say that the pressure is never the same at any two points over the back; it is greater here and less there, depending upon the fit of the saddle tree, so that we never expect to see the whole length of the skin of the back die as a result of pressure, but only those parts where the tree has been particularly ill-fitting and the pressure the greatest.

Relating to the tree

It is obvious that so long as there is good a deep muscle bed beneath the skin the chances of completely cutting off the blood supply are very small; as the muscle becomes reduced in bulk the saddle is brought day by day nearer to the skeleton, and the unyielding saddle on one hand and rigid bone on the other very soon complete the destruction of the skin.

The muscle of the back may be regarded in the light of so much extra stuffing in the saddle, it saves the bones and skin from injury; it takes the jar and concussion, and forms an elastic cushion for the saddle to rest on.

Muscles a buffer to bones.

In saddle fitting the muscles of the back act as a buffer to the bones beneath, and so prevent injury; where a part of the back has no muscle to protect it, there the saddle cannot rest, or if it does, injury results.

The importance of having well-nourished back muscles is very great; where they are large and well developed we may be certain the parts beneath are sufficiently protected, where they are impoverished and weak the animal is in hourly risk of injury.

Back shows waste soon.

When horses are working hard and underfed, one of the first places to show muscle waste is the back.  The muscles, previously convex, now become concave until well-marked gullies form along either side of the spine, while the ribs previously hidden are now in view and can be distinctly counted.

Changes in shape of back.

The whole shape of the back is altered; it is as if some new structure had taken place of the old, and all this is explained by the melting of the muscles on the back bringing the skeleton beneath into view.

It is this metamorphosis of the back which has to be so anxiously watched on service.  It is this which renders all previous saddle fittings useless, for the impoverished back is as different from the well-nourished one as anything can possibly be; it is as though we compared the skeleton to the living subject.

We dwell upon and emphasize this question of back muscle; it is the foundation of a clear conception of sore backs and their causes, and it is the basis for all preventative measures.


A blanket beneath the saddle is a most admirable method of protection.  It does not lend itself like a panel to graduated variations of thickness, but on the other hand, it can be dealt with by a person without any instruction in the trade of a saddler, and the changes he can effect by altering the method of folding may be brought about in a few minutes

Thick and thin blankets.

A good thick blanket is economy, a thin blanket an abomination; a good blanket folds, a thin blanket wrinkles; a good blanket saves a back from bruising, and lasts some time; a thin blanket has a short life, and is never satisfactory when horses are losing condition.

Uses of a blanket.

The great recommendation of a blanket is that so many useful adjustments may be made by alterations in its folding when a back becomes worn or injured, and this will even be the chief recommendation of a blanket under a military saddle.  In fact, a blanket is the only means of immediately replacing artificially the amount of flesh a horse loses, and so enables us not only to prevent the ribs from becoming bruised through the whole weight of the rider being brought closer to the body, but also to keep the arches of the saddle clear of the spine.  We must not forget that every ounce of flesh lost on the back brings the saddle nearer to the delicate parts below, and increases enormously the liability to injury.

Folding the blanket.

The saddle blanket is not a square and the method of folding usually adopted in the Service is to make three folds of equal width in the length of the blanket, turning over two feet of one end and passing the opposite end into the pocket thus formed; it is then placed on the horses back with the thick end near the withers.

When speaking of the front arch, we impressed the necessity of it being wide enough to admit the blanket, numnah and whatever else may be placed under the saddle.

No more folds should be placed in the saddle blanket than are necessary.

What thickness of material shall be placed beneath the saddle?  This is governed by two conditions, (a) the amount of flesh on the back, (b) the amount of work a horse is performing. 

Assuming that the conditions are service conditions, viz.: a moderate amount of flesh on the back and an immoderate amount of work to be performed, then the golden rule is to have ample material beneath the saddle in order to prevent the parts becoming bruised through heavy weight and long hours.  Weight transmitted through a thick blanket and good numnah is distributed; that which is transmitted through a thin protection is concentrated.

Considering that this amazing book was published for the Army it is a bit sad that the current branches of the Army who use horses, don’t put the wisdom into practice today.

In the late 1990’s Carol had an opportunity to spend some time at the stables of the Kings Troop in London.  She observed the horses there being saddled with traditional Army Saddles (very similar to the picture above) and blankets that were not folded as recommended in Animal Management 1908.   She queried this with the officer in charge and asked if they had seen the book. “Oh, yes, I think we have an original copy in the Museum” she was told.  “Have you ever read it?”, she asked….. “No” was the reply!

Carol explained the recommendation for using a greater number of layers under the front of the saddle than the back, to give the horses more protection, assuming that this information might be of interest. However, the officer told that “it wouldn’t be practical, because it was too complicated for the men to get right”.  Carol came away from that encounter with a feeling of “what’s the point?' and a little unnerved that people who could not be relied upon to fold a simple blanket were walking around with guns!

Back in the days when Animal Management was written and used as a respected reference, the soring of a horse’s back or girth area was practically a court martial offence for the soldier responsible.  It is a great pity that this attitude has been diluted to allow standards to slip to the level of those who either don’t care or are too ignorant to pay attention.

If you get the chance to buy a copy of Animal Management, there are still copies to be found in 2nd hand book shops and I think that most people who own horses would find it a fascinating read.   Even relevant to the impact that the rider has on the horse.

In the section on how to load pack Mules in the safest and most efficient way, there is a reference that every rider should be aware of.  How many riders do we know who pay enough attention to their lateral balance and the even loading of their stirrups to the extent that the horse needs and deserves?

Here are two more other short passages from Animal Management that might focus the mind on that issue.

Balance of weight. In the ridden horse (referring to injury to the side of the withers or back)

            The cause is the want of proper adjustment in the balance of the weight carried.  A sword and shoe case on the near side of the saddle will not balance the rifle on the opposite side.  A nosebag and feed added to the weight of the sword will help matters, but when the feed is eaten the rifle again causes the saddle to heel over, and to press the side more deeply into the back.

There are few things which require more attention than the question of the balance of weight, pound for pound, ounce for ounce.  There should be the same weight on the off side as on the near, in fact, to secure this adjustment it would even be better to add weight to the light side to bring matters into equilibrium, so important is it that the weight on a horse’s back should be equal on either side of the spine.

            The proper adjustment of weight is not a difficult matter, but the patching up of a back injured as we have described is far more difficult. 

Balance of weight. In the pack horse

            A want of equilibrium in a load is a most serious source of trouble, and one which a few moments attention would rectify.  If an animal has a pack of 100lbs (7stone 2lbs or 45 kilos)pounds to carry it is certain he will carry it with more ease, less expenditure of energy, and with less risk of injury if it is so disposed that 50 pounds hang on either side of the body than if one load weighs 52 pounds and the other 48 pounds.  When the difference in weight is 10 or even 20 pounds the risk of injury is enormously increased. 

Badly arranged loads, or what is more common, the thoughtlessness of soldiers, largely account for this want of equilibrium; when all the odds and ends left on a camping ground are hung indiscriminately on the nearest mules, and the baggage guard hang their rifles on any available projection in the load, the disturbance of balance can be readily understood.  Of such supreme importance is the matter of load equilibrium that it would be far better to add a stone or a packet of sand to the light side rather than permit unequal loads to exist; but as a rule this is unnecessary, the picketing gear, nosebag, etc, of the mule is always available for small adjustments.  The transport animals of an army shall be regarded as worth their weight in gold, no care or supervision can be too great or too strict. 

One last pearl of wisdom from the book, that applies today, just as it did to the Army horses referred to in the Manual, but is often forgotten by riders today…..

Removal of saddlery from hot backs.

            There is a time-honoured custom in the service not to remove saddles while the backs are hot, but to loosen the girth and let the back dry with the saddle on.  Sometimes the saddle is taken off and merely the numnah left on, and this is the right method.  Every endeavour should be made to dry backs as soon as possible.  If wet backs are exposed to the air it is not uncommon for many small swellings to form, which, as a rule, go down in a few hours, but occasionally become fairly permanent and get rubbed.

Animal Management was written at a time and in a context where the safety and health of the horse meant the difference between life and death.  Winning and defeat.  Most of us are not driven by that kind of focus today, and so the motivation for paying attention to the impact that saddles and riding have on the horse has to rely upon a moral and ethical duty of care by the rider to DO NO HARM to the horse.


©Copyright.  Lesley A Taylor 2014

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