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Saddle fit: The science behind keeping your horse comfortable

Until not so long ago, people would just put any odd saddle on their horse without it being properly fitted. Thankfully, this is no longer the case for the majority of the equestrian population due to greater awareness of the importance of a good saddle fit. An ill-fitting saddle can cause the horse discomfort and possibly affect their gait, performance or behaviour.

Why we need saddles?

Saddles act as an interface between horse and the rider. Without a saddle the area of pressure from our seat would be very small resulting in high pressure localised in a small area under our seat bones. The role of a saddle is to distribute this pressure over a wider area therefore reducing the peak pressure on the horse’s back. This is true for traditional saddles (with trees) but in treeless saddles or during bareback riding, the contact areas are much smaller resulting in areas of high pressure beneath the rider’s seat bones (1-3)

What happens if the saddle fits correctly?

An ill-fitting saddle can result in areas of high pressure under the saddle. Apart from possible muscle soreness, the horses can also develop compensatory strategies which might affect their gait.

Saddle width and pressure under the saddle

Saddles that are too wide have greater peak pressures in the cranial (front) region of the saddle while narrow saddles have greater peak pressures in the caudal (back) region of the saddle (4).

The effect of the width of the saddle on the peak pressure on the horses back

Too wide a saddle will result in increased peak pressure in the cranial part of the saddle (near withers). Saddle which is too narrow will result in increased peak pressure in the caudal (back) region of the saddle (4).

The effect of reduced peak pressure under the saddle

When the saddle pressure was reduced in the the region where we sit, the horses’ gait changed significantly. With reduced pressure in the T13 region (13th thoracic vertebra), the horses showed greater protraction of forelimbs and hindlimbs (5).

The effect of a reduced saddle pressure in T13 region of the horse’s back

A reduced pressure in the area where we sit increased protraction of forelimbs and hindlimbs by 17% and 22% respectively! (5)

The effect of saddle slip

A saddle that rolls (slips), possible due to uneven flocking, will influence the rider too! In horses that presented with a saddle roll to the outside, the rider’s seat was also positioned to the outside (with the saddle). In order to maintain balance, the riders were leaning to the inside. But when the saddle was adjusted (no longer slipped), the riders adjusted their position as a result and became more central (6). So a good saddle fit matters both to the horse and to the rider!

What about saddle half pads?

Half pads can alter the mean and peak saddle pressures (7) and the material also seems to be influential. For example, in a correctly fitted saddle, a gel half pad increased the saddle pressure in the cranial (front) region of the saddle while foam and wool half pads reduced pressures in the caudal (back) region of the saddle (8). Consequently, saddle pads can be useful when the saddle fit is not ideal and we perhaps need a temporary fix until a new saddle is ordered. However, the use of any type of pads should be discussed with a saddle fitter.

Summary of the science behind saddle fit

  • Getting  your horse’s saddle checked on regular basis and fitted correctly is vital for the horse’s comfort and performance.
  • An ill-fitting saddle will influence both the horse and the rider. 
  • Saddle pads can alter saddle pressures and fit and should always be discussed with a saddle fitter.

If you enjoy learning as much as I do and would like to know more about evidence-backed equitation methods, take a look some my other blog posts:


I would love to hear from you if you have any specific horse and rider training questions or if you would like to see any other topics in the near future. And if you are looking for logical, evidence-based training for riders and horses in Hertfordshire, get in touch – it will be my pleasure to help you on your journey.



References:

1 Latif, S.N., von Peinen, K., Wiestner, T., Bitschnau, C., Renk, B., Weishaupt, M.A., (2010) Saddle pressure patterns of three different training saddles (normal tree, flexible tree, treeless) in Thoroughbred racehorses at trot and gallop. Equine Veterinary Journal 42, 630–636.

2 Belock, B., Kaiser, L.J., Lavagnino, M. and Clayton, H.M. (2012) Comparison of pressure distribution under a conventional saddle and a treeless saddle at sitting trot, The Veterinary Journal, 193, 87-91.

3 Clayton, H.M., Belock, B., Lavagnino, M. and Kaiser, L.J. (2013) Forces and pressures on the horses back during bareback riding, The Veterinary Journal, 195, 48-52.

4 MacKechnie-Guire, R.; MacKechnie-Guire, E.; Fairfax, V.; Fisher, D.; Fisher, M.; Pfau, T. (2019) The Effect of Tree Width on Thoracolumbar and Limb Kinematics, Saddle Pressure Distribution, and Thoracolumbar Dimensions in Sports Horses in Trot and Canter. Animals, 9, 842.

5 Murray, R. ,Guire, R., Fisher, M.,  Fairfax, V. (2017) Reducing Peak Pressures Under the Saddle Panel at the Level of the 10th to 13th Thoracic Vertebrae May Be Associated With Improved Gait Features, Even When Saddles Are Fitted to Published Guidelines, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 54, 60-69,

6 Mackechnie-Guire, R., Mackechnie-Guire, E., Fisher, M.,  Mathie, H., Bush, R., Pfau, T. (2018) Relationship between saddle and rider kinematics, horse locomotion, and thoracolumbar pressures in sound horses J Equine Vet Sci, 69 (2018), pp. 43-52

7 Kotschwar, A.B., Baltacis, A. and Peham, C., (2010) The effects of different saddle pads on forces and pressure distribution beneath a fitting saddle. The Veterinary Journal, 42, 114-118.

8 MacKechnie-Guire, R., Fisher, M.,  Pfau, T. (2021) Effect of a Half Pad on Pressure Distribution in Sitting Trot and Canter Beneath a Saddle Fitted to Industry Guidelines,. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 96.

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