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Equestrian Trade News.

Anne Bondi, October 2016. V1

Horses, saddles and riders: the saddle fitter as educator


Today, considerably fewer people grow up with the horse as part of their daily lives and many
of todays horse owners do not have a family tradition of handed down wisdom. This lack of
natural horsemanship training has led to an increase in the number of horses that are managed
by inexperienced owners. Welfare problems generally occur due to horse owner
mismanagement as a result of ignorance rather than intentional abuse. However, ignorance of
good practice is as just as likely to create welfare concerns as deliberate malpractice. It is
therefore important that professional equine industry practitioners should identify
opportunities to educate their clientele as part of their service. Saddle fitters are uniquely
positioned to play a pivotal role as key educators.

Problems due to poor saddle fit, associated back problems and loss of performance in the
horse are unfortunately widely documented. Although saddle fit problems have long been
recognised as an important clinical performance-impairing problem in the equine athlete,
methods for the objective evaluation of saddle fit and investigations of the influences of illfitting saddles are lacking. A great deal of money is spent trying to define poor equine
performance, but the effects of the saddle are frequently overlooked. The vast majority of
saddles are not optimally adjusted for the horse on which they are used; the frequent use of
saddles unsuitable for a given animal seems to indicate the riders lack of attention to this
crucial area. The saddle fitter can help to improve this situation by raising awareness of the
issues and discussing the current principles of good practice with their clients.

Horse, saddle and rider interaction

The effects of movements of the saddle and of the rider are undoubtedly of great importance
to the way in which the horse moves and performs, but remain poorly understood. Saddles do
not move with the horse when ridden, but instead create complex torque patterns that are
instigated by the movements of both horse and rider. Although a saddle may have a relatively
small weight or mass, the combined torque applied to it by both rider and horse can create a
very large effect, which has yet to be measured. An ill-fitting saddle disturbs horse / rider
communication, which impairs the ability of the horse to move in a regular, consistent
pattern. In forcing the horse to search for a more comfortable movement pattern, motion
instability is further increased. An ill-fitting saddle therefore has the potential to make even a
skilled rider appear uncoordinated, presenting a further challenge to the saddle fitter.

Effects of loading

The weight ratio between horse and rider is an important consideration, but currently there
are no reliable, evidence-based guidelines to assist the saddle fitter in assessment of
appropriate loading. Increased rider weight increases the risks associated with poor saddle fit.
Rider weight compresses the saddle onto the back, which may alter the saddle balance. The
same saddle may be used by different riders with a wide range of weights, so the saddle fitter
should always check the circumstances under which the saddle is to be used. Saddle fit under
different weight ratios should be reviewed and temporary balance pads may be required to
support the saddle and provide sufficient lift. Communication between the saddle fitter and
the horse owner is of particular importance in these circumstances.

Asymmetry

Recent studies have shown that a disturbingly high proportion (75%) of horses that were in
normal work and believed to be sound by their owners were, in fact, lame. Horse owners
were found to be able to recognise lameness in only 11% of cases and sore backs in only 4%
of cases, thus providing further evidence that horse owners and riders need expert assistance
with the early detection of musculoskeletal injury. A saddle fitter who trains to recognise gait
irregularities could contribute greatly to the prevention of the vicious cycle of lameness, back
pain and saddle fit issues.

Rider asymmetries are common; several studies have recorded asymmetric posture in 100%
of the riders that they evaluated. Rider asymmetry may be caused by gait asymmetry or a
crooked saddle or it can be a contributory factor to the asymmetry conundrum, therefore it
is important that the saddle fitter should also have analytical skills in rider performance.

When saddles move asymmetrically, the rider tends to collapse to the opposite side, e.g.
when viewed from behind, if the saddle moves to the right, the riders seat slides to the right
and the spine flexes to the left. It has been shown that asymmetric saddle movement is often
an indication of hind limb lameness, occurs most commonly towards the lame side, increases
in circles compared with straight lines but is not related to the degree of lameness. In some
cases, the saddle moves one way on one rein and the opposite way on the opposite rein as the
lameness alters in severity with the changes of direction. The rider can also affect the extent
of lameness according to which diagonal they select in rising trot. This highlights the
importance of viewing the horse, saddle and rider from behind, from both directions and at all
gaits during saddle fitting evaluations.

Riders are often unaware of the presence of asymmetry in the saddle or how to carry out
simple, routine checks for this, providing another valuable opportunity for the saddle fitter to
teach basic principles of good practice. A study of saddle asymmetry showed that 45% had
asymmetric panels and that all of those were in use on horses that were assessed as lame.
Although there is anecdotal evidence of its occurrence, further work is necessary in order to
ascertain how repeated asymmetric movement of the horse may create asymmetry in the
saddle by self-moulding it to accommodate the shape and movement of the individual
horse and whether or not interventions should be carried out to resolve this. An asymmetric
self-moulded panel may be more comfortable for the individual horse and changing the
status quo could result in a less comfortable fit for the horse. However, the potential
deleterious effect on the back health of the rider caused by an asymmetric saddle must also be
taken into consideration by the saddle fitter.

Back shape

Changes in back dimensions occur throughout the year. Recent studies have shown that the
presence of gait or back asymmetry can reduce back dimensions. Improved saddle fit, similar
or increased work intensity, season (summer versus winter) and increased bodyweight can all
increase back dimensions. Saddle fit should therefore be professionally reviewed several
times a year, ideally at least every 3 months, but especially if there has been a change in work
intensity.

The back dimensions of horses working correctly increase transiently with work. However,
back width only increases with good saddle fit; if a saddle does not fit properly before
exercise, this increase in size does not occur. It is important therefore that saddle fit should be
assessed both before and after exercise to ensure correct fit.

Force measurements

The use of an electronic force sensor placed beneath the saddle is a popular technique for

measuring force applied to the horses back; however, used in isolation it is insufficient to
accurately assess saddle performance and may lead to false conclusions. Force sensors
register only force that is applied perpendicular to their surface, therefore the shear
component escapes detection, resulting in under-estimation, particularly where saddles
exhibit considerable movement or where horses have steeply contoured back shapes. If the
sensor indicates asymmetric loading, it cannot identify whether the source of the asymmetry
lies in the crookedness of the rider, poor saddle fit or lameness of the horse.

Translating research into practice

Although dissemination of research is critical to the raising of industry standards, there is a


gap where key messages are not always translated into practice. An additional problem is that
industry standards do not yet exist in many crucial areas, making it difficult to advise on
many aspects of current practice. The saddle fitter therefore has a crucial role to play in
communicating with other professional practitioners, thereby creating a feedback loop that
will help educate their valuable clients the horses and riders that rely on them.