Study: Ill-fitting Saddles Behind Horse, Rider Back Pain

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Study: Ill-fitting Saddles Behind Horse, Rider Back Pain

The seat of the saddle tips back. The panels of the saddle have contact with the horse’s back at the front and the back but not under the middle of the saddle. This is called bridging and causes focal pressure under the front and back of the saddle.

Photo: Animal Health Trust

Ill-fitting saddles are not only associated with back muscle asymmetry, a stilted gait, and equine back pain, but they are likely also associated with rider back pain, according to results from a recent study looking at saddle fit, back shape, and horse and rider health.

However, identifying the order of cause and effect is complex. The study results strongly suggest that saddle fit should be checked regularly, and that riders and trainers should be encouraged to learn how to identify ill-fitting saddles. In addition, the study highlights the importance of being able to recognize lameness, saddle slip, and rider crookedness.

The study1 was conducted by Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England, and Line Greve, a PhD student at the AHT, and was supported by World Horse Welfare (WHW).

Although sports horses are becoming increasingly valuable, previously there was little objective exploration of the horse-saddle-rider interaction. In particular, there was little work on the potential consequences of a saddle not fitting the horse, or the saddle not allowing the rider to sit in a position in which they can ride in balance.

Dyson and Greve performed a clinical assessment of each horse and rider, and subsequently collected data from the same riders via an online questionnaire; the riders were not aware of the link between the two initiatives. The horses were selected from a variety of work disciplines, were in regular work, and were presumed by their riders or owners to be sound. The team assessed horses' back asymmetries and observed any lameness present, and evaluated saddle slip, fit, and management, as well as rider straightness, from both the clinical examination and questionnaire responses.

The seat of the saddle tips backwards which, with a rider, results in abnormal pressure under the back of the saddle. The pads tend to ruckle up behind the saddle.

Photo: Animal Health Trust

A total of 205 riders responded to the questionnaire. Study results included:

  • The researchers identified ill-fitting saddles in 43% of horses during the clinical assessment;
  • They observed saddle slip in 14.6% of horses, which was significantly associated with hind limb lameness or gait abnormalities.
  • Only two riders had linked their horses' saddle slip and lameness, despite strong associations between a history of lameness, history of back problems, and history of saddle slip;
  • Thirty-eight percent of riders reported back pain and, in the clinical assessment, this was associated with ill-fitting saddles and either a reduced airborne phase of the step in all four limbs or a stiff, stilted canter, suggesting pain;
  • Rider back pain was also associated with rider crookedness;
  • Well-fitted saddles were associated with frequent saddle fit check; and
  • Horses ridden by expert riders were less likely to have back asymmetry compared with those ridden by non-expert riders.

“Ideally saddle fit should be checked more often than once a year to reduce the instances of ill-fitting saddles,” said Greve. “Yet this isn’t the whole solution because, worryingly, 30% of horses that had their saddles checked at least once yearly still had an ill-fitting saddle.

"What is unknown is whether these saddles had ever fitted correctly or whether a properly qualified saddle fitter was responsible for the fitting," she continued. "It can only be of benefit for riders, trainers and other associated professionals to become more educated about the complexity of the links between lameness, saddle slip, ill-fitting saddles, and rider crookedness.”

The full results of the study will be presented at the second Saddle Research Trust International Conference, to be held in Cambridge on 29th November 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University. The conference is supported by WHW and is approved by the British Equine Veterinary Association. To find out more and to download a copy of the program visit SaddleResearchTrust.com.

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