Secret Language of Sweat Marks

Who has never had a saddle fit issue is a one lucky person! When I was buying my first ever saddle in 1995 I had to trek many miles to a saddler and all I had to give him was the hight and type of the horse. He was a 16.2hh high wither Trakehnner and got his jumping saddle on that information alone :-/ No fittings, not even a photo of a horse for the saddler.

Thankfully, it’s a different story nowadays. We have some great saddle designs that can be fitted to both the horse and the rider well and come with some very good advice too.

As a horse owner or even as an occasional rider you want to know (don’t you?) how is your saddle doing on your horse’s back. There is a science to the saddle fitting and saddle check process and I will get back to it very soon but in this post I would like t odraw your attention to the secret language of the sweat marks that your saddle leaves on your horse’s back after you’ve ridden.

sweat marks
This horse’s saddle slides to the left matching his general motion pattern which you might happily classify as Right Banana… His dominant right foreleg and shoulder and crooked way of going also pushes the back of the saddle into right side of his spine every time he turns or circles. Small yellow circle on the side of the wither shows area of discomfort on palpation. A good saddle fitter can address all these issues but horse’s and rider’s training are both very important here.  

A few things you can “read” from sweat marks:

– are sweat marks symmetrical (if not, which way is the saddle sliding as the horse works)

– where are dry patches and are they the same on each side of the spine; does it look like saddle pannels come in contact with the spine?  (a well fitted saddle should not put pressure on the area right next to the spine as that’s where the spinal processes are – not to mention the nerves – and where the sensitive supraspinous ligament lies).

If you give your horse little squeezes along the spine like on the photo below (imagine squeezing lemon but be gentle, some horses react strongly) you will see how even small pressure causes the horse to drop their back and lift the neck away from your prods. Imagine a piece of tack interfering in similar way just as you are working on encouraging your horse to relax and round his back…


– are the patches regular and matching saddle pannels or are there areas of dry then wet and again dry which might suggest that the pannels don’t sit flat and even. This will mean your weight is not distributed evenly and pressure spots might be a problem.

If you are having problems with tension in the horse’s back or neck always simultaneously check 2 things: your own riding (be cruel) and the saddle (play a detective).

More on saddles soon 🙂


10 thoughts on “Secret Language of Sweat Marks”

  1. Really interesting read, especially today as the weather here is very hot and there were certainly sweat patches beneath Jay’s saddle today. They looked pretty even, which is obviously great, but wish now I’d paid closer attention. So where the right hand arrow (looking directly at the picture) is pointing and you say it’s pushing the saddle towards the spine, would you say the saddle is interfering with the spine looking at this sweat patch, or that it’s just uneven but not actually causing any discomfort? Hope you see what I mean. Naturally completely even is what you’re always after, of course. Elaine

    1. Hello Elaine,
      Thank you for stopping by 🙂
      In this particular horse, there was a stronger reaction (hollowing and discomfort) to palpation after the ride on the right side where the saddle appeared to be pushing in.
      It is as much a training feedback as it is saddle fit feedback. This particular horse works crookedly and needs a schooling programme now to help him. The saddle has a narrow gullet towards the back which doesn’t help as every time the saddle moves to the right, the panel comes in contact with the spine which shouldn’t be happening.
      You can see the photos of the saddle here:

      I wouldn’t go as far as diagnose the actual issue as I am not a saddle fitter nor an equine physio but I think as an instructor I like to have some indications of where to look 🙂
      I also find this method really rider-friendly when it comes to explaining the basic saddle fit.

      If you take a photo of Jay after a sweaty ride please feel free to email it to me and we can discuss what we see!
      aspire @

  2. Thanks for responding Wiola and for providing a link to the picture. I think our saddle is narrower at the tail end. I will certainly take a photo of Jay’s sweaty patches (!), hopefully tomorrow as Katie and YO are going out for a long energetic hack. Thanks for offering to have a look at them :0)

  3. My pleasure 🙂 When you take the photo try to position the camera as central above his spine as possible. He also needs to be standing square (or square ish). You might also want to compare at some point the “hacking out” saddle marks and “schooling marks” and see if there are any differences when your horse is asked to work on circles to when he is simply going forward on mostly straight lines.
    Looking forward to your photo!

  4. Here’s a pic of Jay’s back taken this morning after a jumping session. He did have a saddle pad on under his saddle. Katie said she’ll ride without one tomorrow! He’s not the best at standing square although this is pretty good, just his left hind was a little further forward than it should be and typically he moved his head as I took the shot! At the moment, Katie is having trouble on the right rein – bending. He’s always been a bit dodge and he regularly has a chiro session which helps but after their last riding lesson he’s been as stiff as a poker which is a bit worrying :0(

    1. That is a little worrying…The way he is standing on this photo makes him look like he tends to lean on his right shoulder with preferred neck position slightly to the left (I know he is looking at you there). Does your saddle slide a little to the right OR when you ride do you feel (or visually are) sat more on your right seat bone than the left?
      Does he cut corners on the right rein?
      I would try some in-hand exercises with him: leg yield on diagonal away from right to left, turns on the forehand from right to left (encouraging right hind leg to cross over deep under him and across), leg yield on circle in hand on the right rein asking for 1-2 steps away then again forwards on circle etc so he learns to take weight onto the left shoulder. I will try to PM you a video with some suggestions on how to perform this 🙂

    1. Hi Elaine, the link worked 🙂 Pretty good shot but I can’t see any sweat patches at all on him sorry! However, what I see is that there is some muscles atrophy behind the top of his shoulder blades. It could be the play of light and shadow on the photo but it looks like there is larger hollow behind his left scapula. This can happen from a saddle that fits too snugly (too narrow) behind the shoulders and restricts the motion of the scapula. I would have a chat with your saddle fitter, I am by no means an expert in this field so it’s just a suggestion.
      Thank you for posting the saddle photo to Aspire’s Facebook page – it looks nice and wide at the back 🙂
      I will try to send you a private message via Fb with some suggestions for exercises to improve right bend and overall suppleness.
      Have a great weekend 🙂

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