Learning to read sweat patterns and pressure marks

Part of driving our equine friends is making sure our harness fits them correctly. Not just our harness, but also our vehicles.

Learning to read the sweat patterns and the swirls, broken hair and pressure marks on our horses, ponies, donkeys and mules can be the difference between having a happy driving animal and having a soured, sore and achy one.

What are some parts of the harness that can cause problems?

The Saddle

The saddle is actually important fit wise. Not that the driving saddle actually does much when we are driving, but if it’s not fitting correctly it can l do so much damage to the animal’s back.

Sweat patterns can tell us a lot about how the saddle is fitting. If your horse is evenly sweaty under the saddle area that is a good sign that it’s sitting nice and even on their back.

If you have a dry spot within the sweat pattern that dry spot is typically a pressure point. Below you can see a photo that shows two dry spots in the sweat pattern. Typically when they appear in this spot on the horse’s back it is a sign that the tree is too narrow. A narrow tree can also cause muscle wastage in that same spot, behind the shoulder blade, high on the back. This is because the tree ENDS right there and if your pony or horse is very wide the ends of the tree can create some pressure there, leaving dry spots.

I photo shopped two dry spots onto this photo. The dry spots are circled in red. If a horse is driven for a length of time with a tree that is too narrow these pressure points can turn into muscle wastage and then finally the hair follicle in those areas will die and the hair will turn white.

The white hairs on this horse’s back show where the pressure was from the riding saddle his human was using. It takes quite a lot of time to do enough damage to the hair follicle to turn it white.

If you end up with a pressure pattern that is the exact shape of the saddle, turning the hair on both sides of the spine white, that means your girth is too tight OR your vehicle is not well balanced, putting too much weight on their back. It can also mean your shafts are too wide for your equine. Too wide shafts will put a lot of pressure on the saddle of the harness.

If you are getting white spots or dry spot or pressure marks in the exact shape of the saddle please either loosen your girth, check your cart balance or have someone help you with your shafts. I have photo shopped the white marks on this mare’s back to try to show where these will occur.

Also, the white hairs happen last. So before the hair turns white you will have dry spots and pressure marks under the saddle. That is why it’s so important to be looking at the sweat pattern when you take the harness off.

Now, I’m going to talk about an unpopular subject, back pads. It’s said that a well made saddle will not need a pad. I do think that is true, to an extent. If you are a show ring driver and using a quality, well made harness you probably do not need a back pad. However, if you are driving for pleasure, over varied terrain, for long amounts of time, there is absolutely no harm in adding a back pad. The driving saddle is typically quite narrow and often people have their animals girths too tight, creating a lot of pressure in a narrow band. Why not add a bit more padding and more width to that area to help disperse that pressure? Not to mention the shifting of balance of a two wheeled vehicle. There is less harm adding a back pad than there is NOT using one.

The Hip Straps

Sometimes the double style hip strap can rub back and forth excessively on the top of the equine’s hip. You will find broken hairs in that area if this is occurring. I have found this happens if you are climbing lots of hills, going up and down, engaging the breeching often.

Another reason this will happen is if your hold back straps are wrapped around the shafts in such a way that there is downward pressure on the hip straps.

Photo on the left: Hold back straps make a nice straight line Photo on the right: Hold back straps putting pressure on the top of the hip

The ideal set up is when the hold back straps make a straight line from the body of the breeching forward to the footmans loops. If your footmans loops are put in the wrong spot on the shafts, too close to the vehicle or in front of the shaft bend, then you will end up with your hold back straps pointing down towards the ground, putting excess pressure on the top of the hip, especially when your equine needs to slow the vehicle or when you are going downhill.

If your hold backs are adjusted so they are straight and you are still getting some rubbing consider switching your turn back strap to the Pleasure Harness style. The hip straps are sewn together and don’t rub!

The Pleasure Harness style turn back strap.

When your cart is causing pressure marks

Sometimes your shafts are too narrow and can cause pressure/rub marks on the animals sides.

You can clearly see the round rub marks on this mare’s sides from the shafts constantly rubbing!! As you can imagine, they were also pinching her in the ribs. This would make the pony reluctant to swing through the ribs correctly when turning and maneuvering. If your shafts are too narrow then please look at getting a wider set!

Looking at Harness Marks

You don’t have to have sweat to see if there are any issues cropping up under your harness. You can look for broken or ruffled hairs. Keep in mind that these can occur if you aren’t being careful when harnessing, especially in the winter with all thick hair. So be sure to slide your saddle back into place, with the direction of the hair. If you plop it down or slide it forward you will cause the hair to lay all ruffled under the saddle which can create pressure!

The saddle is sitting very well on Zorro’s back. You can see where the hip straps were laying but they weren’t rubbing. When he had the two skinny hip straps the hair on his hips was all broken when we would get home from a drive.

If the girth were rubbing you would see broken or swirled hair where it was rubbing. If your girth is too tight you will see that happening, especially when they have thick long hair. Please be sure you are being careful and smoothing the hair under the harness parts when you are driving in the winter.

If you take the time to study sweat and pressure marks when you remove your harness each time you drive, you can save yourself and your equine lots of heart ache and pain later. If you have questions about your harness fit feel free to email me at marketing@chimacumtack.com. I am always happy to take a look at photos and video clips and do some trouble shooting with you!

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