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 www.saddleresearchtrust.com.
Dr Dittmann discussed her study on the prevalence of saddle fit issues in Swiss riding horses, and began by acknowledging co-authors including Selma Latif, Michael Weishaupt, and Sam Arpagaus.
In Switzerland there are around 80,000 horses, mainly used for dressage, jumping, and leisure. There are few saddlery companies, and fewer saddle fitters. There are very few unaffiliated competitions (most competitions require the rider to have the equivalent of BHS Stage 1 or 2), and having horses is expensive.
The Equine Back Health Study included 237 horse rider pairs, of which 196 have English style saddles. There was an online survey with 107 questions, and then an examination day with assessment of the saddle, rider, and horse, including saddle pressure measurements with their own saddle and pad. The horse’s back was checked. The saddle was checked for obvious damage, the quality of the panels, and the width of the channel. The balance of the saddle on the horse was assessed, and the fit of the head of the tree. The curvature of the saddle was checked, to assess for rocking and bridging, and the angle of the panels was checked in relation to the horse’s back. The riders then performed a ridden test in walk, trot and canter on the left and right rein using the pressure mat.
The researchers were looking for the prevalence of fit issues, to see if back pain was related to saddle fit problems, to see if there were higher pressures related to saddle fit issues, and to see whether problems with fit created the expected pressure distributions. The majority of riders were female, the majority of horses were Warmbloods, and most people had their saddle checked once a year (but some didn’t have their saddle fit checked at all).
In the survey, owners were asked whether they felt that their saddle fitted their horse. Roughly half felt that was definitely the case, and roughly half felt that was mostly the case.
The assessment, however, found that 23% had asymmetric panels (which was linked to a greater back pain score), 49% had inadequate panel quality (which was linked to higher pressures under the saddle), and 42% had a channel width below 6cm. 59% of the tree heads fitted, 24% were too narrow, and 18% were too wide. An ill fitting tree head was linked to a higher back pain score. The curvature of the tree was adequate in 79%, too small (rocking) in 7%, and too big (bridging) in 15%. There were higher pressures under the saddles that were rocking. The balance of the saddle was adequate in 76%, tipping forwards in 13%, and tipping backwards in 11%. The panel angle was adequate in 81%, too steep in 9%, and too shallow in 10%.
Overall, most of the saddles were adequate in most of the fitting variables. But when the results were put together, only 10% had no fit issue. 29% of the horses showed significant back pain. There was no correlation between the amount of pain and the magnitude of the pressure under the saddle, and there was only a limited correlation of pain and pressure magnitude with fit issues.
Relevant factors include that back pain can have many causes, and horses have differing levels of sensitivity. Not every ill fitting saddle leads to back pain, and back pain is not always caused by an ill fitting saddle. However, this study demonstrated that owners are lacking in awareness and understanding of saddle fit issues. As a result, a campaign has been launched to improve levels of education in this area through leaflets and videos.
Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at www.saddleresearchtrust.com.
© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021
Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion