A New Understanding Of Saddle Fit

A recent study showed the importance of assessing your horse’s saddle fit when he’s moving, not just while he’s standing still.
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You know that saddle fit influences your horse’s comfort and performance. But new research shows that even established industry fitting standards may need some tweaking to better alleviate back pressure and improve gaits.

That’s the bottom-line finding of research led by Rachel Murray, VetMB, MS, PhD, MRCVS, Dip ACVS, associate of European College of Veterinary Diagnostic Imaging, who works at England’s Animal Health Trust. Specifically, Dr. Murray and colleagues compared pressure, limb protraction, knee and hock flexion, and back width between saddles fitted to industry guidelines and one specially designed to reduce pressure along either side of the thoracic vertebrae known as T10 to T13. (Previous research had shown that a horse’s back, or thoracolumbar, width increases after exercise when his saddle fits properly as well as when horses are ridden more correctly with a more skilled rider.)

The study included 13 international-level dressage horses, aged 8 to 16 years, with no existing lameness or performance problems. They were each ridden in the study by their usual professional riders. For the control portion of the test, they were ridden in their normal saddles, which were evaluated and fitted by four qualified saddle fitters.

The test saddles had modifications over typical saddles. The tree shape, alignment of the girth billets and shape of the panels were adjusted to accommodate the horse’s musculature (thoracolumbar expansion) during exercise versus while standing. The solid arm of the panel was shortened to reduce the area of potential restriction at the front of the saddle and the stirrup bars were attached to the exterior of the tree. The panels were lined with pressure-absorbing material.

Researchers used a pressure mat under the saddle panels as well as high-speed motion capture to evaluate the effect of the two saddles on the horses while being ridden at sitting trot. In addition, the thoracolumbar width was measured before and after exercise.

The researchers found that peak pressures were significantly less with the test saddles than the control saddles. In addition, the test saddles allowed greater limb protraction as well as greater knee and hock flexion. The post-exercise thoracolumbar width was also significantly greater with the test saddles.

Dr. Murray explains that the most significant takeaway from the study is the understanding that when a horse works correctly, his back expands under the saddle. “If the saddle does not allow this expansion/lift, the horse will be discouraged from working correctly and encouraged to work with a hollow, potentially dipped back, which can affect the movement of the forelimbs and hind limbs as well as restrict back movement,” she says.

Standard saddle-fitting guidelines don’t necessarily take this into account. Therefore, she adds, it’s important to assess saddle fit not simply when the horse is standing still, but also during exercise.

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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