The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

4.2.2022 My Learnings From The Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference

I was grateful to be able to watch the replay of the Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference, which was presented online on 11th December 2021. Here I share with you some of my learnings from the conference. Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

Dr Sue Dyson

What can we learn from the observation of horses’ behaviours during tacking-up and mounting?

We have all seen or heard of a horse who is grumpy to tack up. It’s often assumed that this is normal for that horse, and for horses in general. However, it’s been found that often, the behaviour of the horse during tacking up improves once underlying pain issues have been resolved and the horse is more comfortable.

Therefore Dr Sue Dyson et al put together a study to develop a protocol to assess the facial expressions and behaviours in horses during tacking up and mounting. Collaborators in this study were Jenny Routh, Ann Bondi, Dee Pollard, Julia Kidd, Catherine McConnell, Tate Preston and Karen Sweet. They wanted to describe the spectrum of behaviours that were seen, as determined by an expert, to find out what owners saw, thought, and remembered of their horse’s behaviour, and to compare what the owners remembered with what actually happened. The team also wanted to look into factors which could influence behaviour, including hypersensitivity of the girth region, muscle hypertension, pain in the thoracolumbar region, poorly fitting tack, saddle fit in relation to the rider, the rider’s position and balance, the movement of the saddle during ridden exercise, and gait abnormalities.

The protocol was developed using a review of the literature, and personal observations. A pilot study was used to refine the protocol. The end result was a list of 64 behaviours during tacking up. These occurred during approach with the tack, bridling, placement of the saddle, and girthing. In addition, there were 19 behaviours during mounting, and 13 behaviours when the horse and rider moved off after mounting. There were also additional observations. For example, on bridle placement, there might be increased frequency of partial eyelid closure, blinking, or transient eye closure. On placement of the saddle, the tongue might be out, and on placement of the saddle or during girth tightening, there might be rubbing of the nose or the teeth against the wall, chewing, or licking the wall or door.

The researchers went to 11 different sites and observed 193 horses, belonging to professional and amateur riders. The horses behaviour was observed as the history was taken and the behaviour questionnaire was completed. The behaviour questionnaire contained yes / no questions, such as ‘Does your horse show abnormal behaviour when tacked up or mounted?’. It also contained specific questions about approaching the horse with tack, behaviour during bridling, placement of the saddle, girthing and mounting. If the owner said that the horse sometimes showed the behaviour, then they were asked whether this happened less than 50% of the time, or did it happen 50% or more of the time. If it happened less than 50% of the time then the answer was marked as ‘No’, if it happened 50% of the time or more then the answer was marked as ‘Yes’.

For example, questions around putting the bridle on included:

Reluctance to open mouth for the bit? Yes / No

Puts head up to avoid bridle being put on? Yes / No

Elevates head above normal resting position? Yes / No

Lowers head below normal resting position? Yes / No

Tosses head up and down? Yes / No

Repeatedly chomps on the bit or audibly mouths the bit? Yes / No

Tries to evade the noseband being tightened? Yes / No

Teeth grinds? Yes / No

Yawns (separates the jaws with the mouth wide open)? Yes / No

Puts it’s ears back behind the vertical? Yes / No

Exposes the white of the eye (the sclera)? Yes / No

Has an intense stare / glazed expression? Yes / No

Other (please specify)? Yes / No

The horse was then assessed clinically by Sue Dyson. She looked for back muscle tension and / or pain, hypersensitivity of the girth area, and myofascial trigger points. She assessed the static saddle fit for the horse (the fit of the saddle with the horse standing still), including the clearance of the spinous processes, the tightness of the tree points, the position of the tree points relative to the scapulae, the orientation of the seat, and any bridging. The horses were also assessed in hand to look for lameness before they were tacked up. The horses were assessed ridden for the presence of lameness and gait abnormalities in canter, by Jenny Routh. Abnormal movement of the saddle from side to side, bouncing of the saddle, and saddle slip, were assessed by Anne Bondi. Anne Bondi also assessed the saddle fit for the rider, the rider’s position in the saddle (were they sitting on the front, middle, or back of the saddle), and the balance of the rider. Sue Dyson used the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) afterwards to assess video recordings of the ridden work of all the horses in the study. Each horse was given a lameness severity score which included the lameness score (in hand and ridden, from 0 to 8), and the RHpE score (from 0 to 24). A RHpE score of 8 or more indicates musculoskeletal pain.

The assessment of behaviour during tacking up and mounting was also assessed using a standardised protocol. Riders were instructed to tack up and mount as they normally would. Researchers noted whether the saddle or the bridle was placed first, whether or not the horse was tied up, and all abnormalities of behaviour were recorded. It was regarded as normal behaviour if there was a transient increase in the frequency of partial eyelid closure, blinking, or eye closure and putting the ears back as the headpiece of the bridle was placed behind the ears. Also regarded as normal was the behaviour of mouthing the bit several times immediately after the bridle was put on.

Results showed that 67% of riders put the bridle on before the saddle, 33% put the saddle on before the bridle. 9% of the horses moved to the back of the stable when the rider came in to tack up, and 3% were difficult to catch. The most frequent sum of abnormal behaviours during tacking up was 10/64. The middle 50% showed between 7 and 13 of the 64 behaviours, and there was a range of 0 to 33. 52% of the horses showed an equal frequency of abnormal behaviours between bridle placement and saddling and girthing, 34% showed more abnormal behaviours during saddling and girthing, and 15% showed more abnormal behaviours during bridle placement.

Looking at the most frequent abnormal behaviours, 11% of horses put their head up to avoid the bridle being put on. 45% of horses showed an increased rate of partial eyelid closure, blinking or eye closure, and 17% were reluctant to open their mouth for the bit. 67% repeatedly chomped on the bit, or audibly mouthed the bit on a continuous basis throughout the bridling procedure, and 7% tried to evade their noseband being tightened.

The evasion of noseband tightening was more common in horses wearing potentially mouth-restricting nosebands, such as the crank cavesson, the crank flash, the grackle, the drop, and the micklem, compared with horses wearing correctly fitted cavesson nosebands. Horses wearing potentially mouth restricting nosebands were more likely to put their head up to avoid the bridle being put on, or to toss their head up and down, compared with correctly fitted cavesson nosebands.

There were some variations in behaviour depending on the phase of tacking up. Tail swishing, for example, was seen in 20% of horses during saddle placement and in 34% during girthing, compared to just 10% during bridling. Some features were only seen during saddle placement or girthing. These included turning the head to the girth riding saddle placement (11%) and during girthing (40%), attempting to bite during saddle placement (5%) and during girthing (15%), kicking (5% during saddle placement and during girthing), and rubbing the nose on the wall (8% during saddle placement and 21% during girthing).

What might cause these abnormal behaviours? Some behaviours are classified as stereotypic. These behaviours are repetitive, with no obvious goal or function, and are frequently associated with stress. These behaviours include head tossing, the tongue coming out, rubbing the nose, and licking. It’s been reported previously that horses with stereotypic behaviour are more likely to show yawning, compared with horses who don’t show stereotypic behaviours. There are also pain related behaviours, which include the ears being back, an intense stare, and partial or complete eye closure. Previous studies have shown that an intense stare, together with the ears fixed backwards and a low head and neck position, is associated with a withdrawn and depressed state. Spontaneous blink rate has been linked to anxiety in horses. An increased in eyelid twitches (incomplete closure of the eyelids) has been linked to stress in horses. Aggressive behaviours include biting and kicking.

On the approach to the mounting block, 13% of horses moved sideways away from the mounting block. 4% of horses were reluctant to get close to the block, one horse refused to approach the block, and one horse reversed away from it. During mounting, 26% of the horses fidgeted, 17% swished their tail, 17% audibly chomped repeatedly on the bit, 12% yanked down on the reins, 11% exhibited repeated head tossing, and 8% had to be held. During mounting and moving off, 14% dipped their back, 12% moved off with a stiff back, and 2 horses ‘pronked’ (jumped up in the air).

34% of owners reported that their horse showed abnormal behaviours when they were being tacked up, which included turning the head to the girth and attempting to bite, kicking, and fidgeting. Some owners noted behaviours that they hadn’t noticed previously. However, when the video footage of the tacking up process was assessed, only 3% showed either no abnormalities, or showed abnormal behaviour for less than 5% of the time that they were being tacked up. 66% of the horses showed abnormal behaviours for 25% or more of the time they were being tacked up.

There was fairly good agreement between what the owners saw and what Sue Dyson saw in relation to potentially dangerous behaviours, such as attempting to bite, or kicking the stomach. There was poor agreement between what the owners saw / remembered and what Sue Dyson saw in the majority of other behaviours. This suggests that there are common abnormal behaviours which are either recognised by owners and are considered normal, or which are not recognised by owners. These behaviours include:

  • Chomping on the bit, ears back and an intense stare during bridling, saddling and girthing
  • Tail swishing during saddling, girthing and mounting
  • Fidgeting during girthing and mounting
  • Head tossing during girthing
  • Yanking down on the reins immediately after mounting
  • Spontaneously walking forwards before a cue from the rider

It’s possible that riders have become used to seeing these things, or that these behaviours are considered normal for horses, as opposed to reflecting abnormality. A key message is that recognition of such behaviours is important, because abnormal behaviour during tacking up and mounting may reflect anticipation of pain during ridden exercise. To improve our understanding of this, the relationship was analysed between equine behaviour during tacking up and mounting, and muscle spasm in the back, hypersensitivity of the girth region, saddle fit, rider position and balance, and lameness.

Saddle fit had the potential to compromise performance in 78% of the horses, with the tree points too tight in 67% and the pommel too low in 21%. 51% of riders sat at the back of the saddle, rather than in the middle. 49% of riders lacked balance, 40% of riders were too big for the saddle, and only 35% of riders were correctly positioned in the middle of the saddle, rode in balance, and were the appropriate size in relation to the saddle. Of the 193 horses were were believed by their riders to be working comfortably, 67% were lame when ridden, and 62% had abnormalities of canter. The most frequent RHpE score was 8/24, with 50% of the horses scoring between 6 and 9, and a range of 0 to 15. Based on the lameness grade of the movement in hand and the RHpE score, 70% of the horses had moderate lameness.

Abnormal behaviour during tacking up was 1.4 times higher in horses with moderate lameness than for non-lame horses. Horses with lameness in hand and ridden had 1.5 times higher rates of abnormal behaviour during mounting than non-lame horses. Higher behaviour scores during tacking up were associated with back pain, and with tight tree points of the saddle. Higher behaviour scores during mounting were linked with higher static saddle fit scores (the sum of all the saddle fit abnormalities).

The take home message is that abnormal behaviours during tacking up and mounting may be exhibited in anticipation of musculoskeletal pain during ridden exercise, which may be associated with ill fitting tack in some horses. The problem of ill fitting saddles for both horses and riders needs to be address. Owners need to be aware that these behaviours are not normal, and may be a manifestation of underlying problems, including lameness. Further education is is essential for improvement of equine welfare and performance.

In conclusion, what could we do if we consistently recognise abnormal behaviours in our horse during tacking up or mounting? We should seek professional advice, including assessing saddle fit (even if the saddle fit has been recently checked), checking for back pain and if it’s present then finding out why it’s there, and looking for lameness both in hand and ridden.

Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

February 4, 2022
Sue Palmer