Saddle sores are caused primarily by friction between the horse and the saddle or harness. In some cases, the friction is the result of faulty conformation of the horse. If the withers are too low, for instance, the saddle may sit too far forward. If they are too high, the saddle may compress the withers. A narrow chest can make it difficult to adjust the saddle tightly. A thin horse has poor padding between itself and the saddle, making it a likely candidate for saddle sores.
Most often, working conditions and saddle fit are the cause. A poorly made or poorly adjusted saddle, a rider or load sitting in an unbalanced position, excessive uphill and downhill riding, or wet skin caused by rain or sweat are the primary offenders. A combination of any of these factors greatly increases the chances of saddle sores.
How are saddle sores diagnosed?
Saddle sores are usually easy to recognise. The most common type of saddle sore is a simple inflammation of the hair follicles. This causes heat and is painful to the animal when touched. Left untreated, the area may swell, blister and develop pus. The final stage of this development is necrosis (death of the tissue). The necrosed skin (dead skin) must be removed before healing by granulation can take place.
The withers are more likely than the back to develop chronic saddle sores, because they are the most prominent point on which a saddle sits when the saddle is ill fitting. A chronic saddle sore is generally recognized by the total absence of hair and the presence of calluses, caused by damage or destruction of the hair follicles in the area. If the follicles are not destroyed completely and sufficient rest is given the hair will eventually grow back, the new hair is generally white in colour. Hard nodules around the base of the hair may further characterize saddle sores. Any saddle sore on the withers may lead to inflammation (swelling) of the wither and should be treated immediately.
Saddle sores that are caused by a tear, cut or split are equally as serious, these may occur, for instance, when a saddle or harness sticks to the skin and then is suddenly moved. This normally results in extremely painful swelling of the deep layers of skin, sometimes accompanied by rupture when the saddle or harness is removed. These injuries are known as galls, and are most painful when located on the withers.
How are saddle sores treated?
Particularly with open sores, a veterinarian should be consulted. Antibiotics may be given to combat infection, and antiseptics applied to open wounds.
A saddle sore on the withers must have immediate attention, since it is an indication that pressure is being applied to the spine. Continued work under the conditions, which caused the sore, can lead to damage of the bone itself. If the wither has swollen, draining of the excess fluid may be required and an injection of corticosteroids in the hope that the swelling will not return
In all cases, total rest from any work, which would involve the affected area, is necessary. For sores that are not advanced, a massage with stimulating ointments is useful. Provided that treatment is given before the condition becomes advanced, the horse should recover.
As always prevention is better than cure, so always ensure your horses back and girth area are clean, dry and have no sign of damage and that your saddle and girth are correctly fitted and clean.