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Effects of Asymmetry on Performance

Look for asymmetry when the horse is moving, too: the horse’s tail, again, may be carried to one side, and the horse may take a slightly shorter stride with a hind or front leg. Sometimes this isn’t apparent until the horse lengthens his stride. This can be difficult to see, and it helps if you scrunch your eyes so that the horse is no longer in focus, minimizing visual distractions so you see the legs more or less in silhouette. Under saddle, some horses also “bobble” and lose their balance in lengthened or extended trot. Many horses will drop a shoulder on the inside of a turn, and this can be just a balance issue but some horses are struggling with an asymmetry such as a high/low shoulder, and these will also tend to drift out of a turn in the other direction. These horses need help from their riders, who also need to be body aware so that, among other things, they can feel if the horse is “dropping them in a hole” and correct the situation. Many times, rider difficulty originates from an asymmetrical horse dropping the saddle off to one side. Apart from creating rider discomfort, this position of the saddle can throw the rider off-balance, and may in turn unbalance the horse enough to present control problems. It will at least make him uncomfortable. An out-of-position saddle can also contribute to horse and rider back problems.

Asymmetry and Saddle-fit
Even straight horses can experience saddle fitting problems, and asymmetry will definitely complicate the equation. If your saddle is asymmetrical too (and this is depressingly common), the problem is compounded. Sometimes asymmetry in the saddle is caused over time by the horse’s own asymmetry, and sometimes it’s the reverse. No matter — both need to be addressed. At the least, a poorly fitting saddle can cause the horse to contract his back muscles. This discourages him from working through the back, may prevent striding up, gives the rider a more uncomfortable ride, and increases wear and tear on himself. But there can be a variety of more obvious symptoms, ranging from sore back, to grooming sensitivity, behavioral challenges, and numerous under-saddle difficulties from stiffness to bucking, tripping, rushing, and dropping a shoulder when turning. Horses will often let the rider know if the saddle is uncomfortable when the girth or cinch is tightened. Some horses will just try to move forwards as you tighten the saddle, a few will actually try to lie down, and there are a myriad other ways the horse expresses discomfort. If your horse is asymmetrical in the shoulders or back, he will almost certainly have saddle-fitting problems. If there are pressure points or hollow areas between the horse and saddle., adjustment requires that the hollow areas be partially filled (neoprene or other closed-cell foam “shims” can help) to lift the saddle enough to ease the pressure around the tight spots, which are usually on the other side of the back. Many people do just the opposite—padding the tight spots, which just makes them tighter.
Assuming the saddle is the cause of the horse’s asymmetry, the ideal solution is to get a saddle that fits in a way that doesn’t interfere with the horse, but don’t just assume that all saddlemakers will fit your saddle correctly. My experience has been that too many of them don’t truly understand how the fit affects the horse at all! Sad but true… In my opinion, if the rider plans to assist the horse to become more symmetrical, a symmetrical saddle with a temporary adjustment to saddle fit (this is addressed in another issue) is probably the most productive solution.

Asymmetry and Riding
Now, fitting the saddle well is a great start, but the rider still has to help the horse use himself properly to correct the asymmetry. Finding an instructor who understands what the horse needs is a plus. But the instructor should also be able to help the rider develop body awareness so he/she can feel and understand what's going on with the horse. It’s important that the rider should sit balanced over the horse’s centre so that he has a better chance to move in balance. This may be easier said than done if the rider is not sufficiently aware of and in control of his/her own body as well as the horse’s body. The whole situation is aggravated if the rider is asymmetrical as well, as most of us are, so it helps to have an instructor who can identify even subtle asymmetries in the rider and help minimize them. I would also highly recommend riders seek out movement education classes (Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Somatics, Pilates, etc.…) to enhance their flexibility and body awareness.


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Last updated July 29, 2001

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