Saddle fit & management: implications for the horse & rider

Sue Dyson & Line Greve

Although sports horses are becoming increasingly valuable, there has been little objective investigation addressing the horse-saddle-rider interaction, particularly 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. Poor saddle fit has been associated with back pain in horses, although there are limited studies that have addressed this scientifically. There is evidence that hindlimb lameness may induce saddle slip and rider crookedness. Preliminary results of a series of studies of rider postural control and balance have shown that in addition to natural asymmetries, many riders also suffer from the effects of musculoskeletal trauma, which is an occupational hazard in equestrian sports. Rider asymmetries are perceived to be common, but there are little objective data. There is also little objective information about the relationships between rider health, saddle fit and horse health. The relationship between an ill-fitting saddle, a rider’s ability to sit straight and gait abnormalities of the horse remain poorly understood.

The aims of the study were to investigate associations between data about lameness, thoracolumbar asymmetries, saddle fit/movement and rider position obtained from veterinary assessments and provided by riders to identify: 1) key differences in rider perceptions and outcomes from veterinary assessment and 2) possible associations between saddle fit/management and equine back pain/asymmetries. A clinical assessment of horses and riders was performed and data was subsequently obtained from the same riders via an online questionnaire, without the riders being 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. Asymmetries of the back were assessed and any presence of lameness observed. Saddle slip, fit and management, as well as rider straightness, were evaluated from both the clinical examination and questionnaire responses.

For the clinical assessment the balance of the saddle was determined by assessing whether the lowest point of the seat of the saddle corresponded to the lowest point of the horse’s back. A saddle fitted in balance had the centre of the seat of the saddle horizontal; the lowest part of the saddle and the lowest part of the horse’s back were aligned and the panels had even contact with the back along their entire length. The suitability of the width and length of the saddle for the horse’s shape was assessed. The clearance of the spinous processes through the gullet, and whether the saddle stayed behind the scapulae during exercise or slid forwards over the caudal aspect of the scapulae at all phases of the step were noted. Unusual movement of the saddle from side to side, lift off the back or slipping forward were recorded.

A total of 205 riders responded to the questionnaire which was divided into six sections: (1) Horse details, (2) Health of the horse, (3) Training and work-related details, (4) Saddle slip, (5) Saddle details and (6) Rider details. Ill-fitting saddles were identified in 43% of horses during the clinical assessment. Saddle slip was observed in 14.6% of horses, which was significantly associated with hindlimb lameness or gait abnormalities. However, only two riders had linked saddle slip and lameness despite strong associations between a history of lameness, history of ‘back problems’ and history of saddle slip. There was a significantly larger proportion of horses with saddle slip with well-fitting saddles (73.3%) compared with horses with ill-fitting saddles (26.7%). A saddle which bridges may be more fixed in position than a well-fitting saddle.

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. Back pain was improved by riding in 58.1%, exacerbated by riding in 11.3%, and unaffected by riding in 30.6%. It is a common clinical observation that horses with a stiff back cause more jarring of the rider’s back and induces rider back pain.

Well-fitted saddles were associated with frequent (at least once a year) professionally assessed saddle fit check. Hard flocking and the presence of lumps and depressions in the flocking were more common in saddles whose fit was checked less than once yearly compared with those checked at least yearly. Saddles whose fit was not assessed at least yearly were associated with a saddle tipping back on the horse’s back, using an additional pad beneath the saddle and having asymmetries in back shape. Horses with saddles tipping forward were more likely to be ridden in saddles used for ≥ two horses.

Horses ridden by expert riders were less likely to have asymmetry of the back compared with those ridden by non-expert riders.

The results strongly suggest that saddle fit should be checked regularly by appropriate professionals and that riders and trainers should be encouraged to learn how to identify illfitting saddles. Worryingly, 30% of horses that had their saddles professionally 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. It can only be of benefit for riders, trainers, veterinarians and other associated professionals to become more educated about the complexity of the links between lameness, saddle slip, ill-fitting saddles and rider crookedness.