Thermography Aids in Saddle Fit Evaluations

Thermography Aids in Saddle Fit Evaluations

Many of the horses showing signs of uneven pressure via thermography were ridden with shared saddles, which can be a particular welfare concern, Brass said.


Over the past several years, researchers worldwide have stressed the importance of having a properly fitting saddle. But how to recognize a poor saddle fit is still a subject of concern. Recently, Brazilian researchers explored how the use of thermography (examining a horse through a pictorial representation of skin temperature) can help reveal saddle fit problems—particularly with jumping saddles.

“A correctly fitting saddle would allow the horse and the rider to perform at their best,” said Karin Erica Brass, DVM, PhD, of the department of large animal clinics at the Federal University of Santa Maria. “Thermography, when used correctly, can reveal high-pressure areas between the horse and the saddle which might be causing the horse pain and reducing its performance.”

Brass’ master’s student, Tiago Arruda, DVM, MSc, and associate researchers carried out thermographic readings of 129 jumping horses and the 62 saddles that were used on those horses. Many of the saddles were shared between horses, she said.

Thermographic “hot spots” on the images of the horses’ backs revealed an uneven (asymmetric) pressure across the back and spine in 55.8% of the horses after only 15 minutes of exercise, Brass said. And 39.5% of the horses had hot spots on their backs, visible through thermography, before exercise had even started. “This suggests a possible chronic lesion caused by a poor saddle fit,” she said.

Only two horses (1.6%) showed any signs of resistance (such as biting, kicking, or flexing up the back) when they were being saddled, Brass added.

“You can’t always rely on the horse to ‘tell’ you that something is wrong,” Brass said. “Thermography offers a way to look into the kinds of asymmetric pressure and possible pain that the horse could be experiencing under its saddle.”

Many of the horses showing signs of uneven pressure via thermography were ridden with shared saddles, which can be a particular welfare concern, Brass said.

“Every horse has its own body conformation,” she said. “One saddle can fit several horses, but not all of them.”

Brass concluded that thermographic evaluations of jumping saddles could be part of a “new age” of equine welfare and performance assessment.

“In the old days horses were mostly seen as working animals,” she said. “Today, there is a much higher demand for superior individuals as athletes than before. And that goes along with a superior fit of saddle and a reliable method of detecting poor saddle fit.”

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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