What causes saddle slip?

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Sue Dyson & Line Greve

The tendency for a saddle to persistently slip to one side is a well-recognized problem in sports horses. It can occur for a variety of reasons, including asymmetry in the shape of the horse’s back, riders sitting crookedly and ill-fitting saddles. This historically has encouraged owners to try changes in flocking, multiple saddles, numnahs and additional padding to try to diminish the saddle slip, but this has not always been effective. Saddle slip can cause abnormal wear of the hair or transient swellings under the saddle. A saddle which slips to one side can induce pain and impair performance, therefore identification of the underlying cause has important welfare implications.

At the Animal Health Trust (AHT) we have historically observed that in association with hindlimb lameness, saddles may slip consistently to one side. Abolition of lameness by diagnostic analgesia (nerve blocks) has also abolished saddle slip, implying that hindlimb lameness can induce saddle slip. We performed a prospective study from August 2011 to August 2012 aiming to improve our understanding of the relationship between saddle slip and hindlimb lameness. Our study included 128 horses, all ridden by at least two riders. This included both sound and lame horses. Seventy-one horses had hindlimb lameness, 38 [54%] of which had saddle slip when ridden by at least two riders. Thirty-seven out of 39 horses [97%] had saddle slip abolished when lameness was eliminated by diagnostic analgesia, verifying a causal relationship. In two horses the saddle continued to slip after resolution of lameness. Both horses had asymmetrically flocked (stuffed) saddles and when ridden with correctly fitting saddles, no saddle slip was apparent.

The normal riders of five horses sat crookedly and could potentially have induced saddle slip. However, a similar degree of saddle slip was seen when ridden by riders from the AHT, who all sat squarely when riding a variety of different horses without saddle slip. Those riders who sat crookedly tended to collapse consistently to one side and draw up their leg on the opposite side. One of the five riders who sat crookedly had sustained previous injuries and was aware of her crookedness, but the other riders were unaware, despite undergoing regular training. This indicates that trainers should perhaps pay greater attention to rider position. Assessment of the rider by a physiotherapist may also be helpful to address any physical problems that may predispose to crookedness.

We assessed symmetry of the back using a Flexible Curve Ruler and compared horses with and without saddle slip. Curiously there was a greater degree of asymmetry in horses without saddle slip than in those horses which did have saddle slip. This indicated that in this population of horses asymmetry of the back was unlikely to contribute to saddle slip.

This study showed that saddle slip occurs in a high percentage (>50%) of horses with hindlimb lameness. Saddle slip may actually highlight the presence of low-grade and subclinical hindlimb lameness. Saddle slip is usually blamed on saddle fit and horse shape. Our findings emphasize the need for education of owners, veterinarians, physiotherapists, trainers, riders and saddle fitters that saddle slip is frequently an indicator of lameness, not necessarily a manifestation of an ill-fitting saddle, asymmetric shape of the horse’s back or rider crookedness. It appears that saddle slip as a manifestation of hindlimb lameness has previously been underestimated.

We extended the study to a survey of 506 sports horses in normal work. Thoracolumbar shape/symmetry was measured at predetermined sites using a flexible curve ruler. Saddle fit and fit of any pads or numnahs were assessed. All horses were assessed trotting in hand and ridden by the usual rider. The presence of lameness (in-hand and/or ridden), saddle slip and crookedness of the rider was recorded. Statistics were performed to assess the relationship between horse-saddle-rider factors and saddle slip.

The frequency of lameness quadrilaterally reduced cranial phase of the stride or stiff, stilted canter was 45.7%. Saddle slip occurred in 12.3% of the horses. There was major left-right asymmetry of back shape in 0.6% of horses. One hundred and three of 276 riders (37.3%) sat crookedly. The saddle consistently slipped to one side in 30.3% of horses with hindlimb lameness, compared with 5.4% with forelimb lameness, 17.4% with stiff, stilted canter, 20% with quadrilaterally reduced cranial phase of stride and 5.6% non-lame horses. Nineteen horses (30.6%) with saddle slip had no detectable hindlimb lameness, however, 14 had a gait abnormality, particularly in canter, for example, crookedness, four-time canter, quality of canter worse on one rein compared with the other; or placing the hindlimbs unusually close together. The saddle had uneven contact in 93 horses (18.4%) and was unbalanced in 166 horses (32.8%).

Statistical analysis revealed that saddle slip was significantly associated with hindlimb lameness and gait abnormalities, with a risk of 52.6 times odds. This proves that hindlimb lameness is the most important cause of saddle slip. Paradoxically a saddle fitted with even contact and uniform flocking was more likely to slip (15.5 times the odds) than an ill-fitting saddle; similarly, a well-balanced saddle was more likely to slip (3.1 times the odds) than an unbalanced saddle. Saddles that bridge are more likely to be held in a fixed position than a well-fitting saddle.

This study revealed a startling frequency of lameness in the general sports horse population. Clearly many horses with hindlimb and/or forelimb lameness go unrecognized. This study reinforced our previous observations that saddle slip may be a sign of hindlimb lameness. It appears that saddle slip as a manifestation of hindlimb lameness has previously been underestimated. Many horses with hindlimb lameness go unrecognized and early recognition of lameness is important for appropriate treatment and rapid return to work. Detection of saddle slip provides an opportunity for the owner, riders and trainers to detect low-grade and subclinical lameness, with important welfare consequences.

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