The future of saddle fitting
In ETN’s latest CPD feature for saddle fitters, Dr Gerry van Oossanen looks at the future of saddle fitting and checking horse/rider interaction. Members of the Master Saddle Fitting Consultants (MSFC) Society who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz will receive CPD recognition.
Back pain is a significant cause of altered gait, poor performance and misbehaviour in the horse.
There are many similarities between animals and humans in anatomical and chemical ways of nociception (recognising pain). Therefore conditions which are painful in humans should be assumed to be painful in animals until behaviour such as aggression, kicking, grinding teeth and flattening the ears, or clinical/physiological signs eg. heart rate, respiration rate or abnormal locomotion, prove otherwise.
Modern techniques like gait analysis and thermographic imaging, as well as observing behaviour, are proven to be important tools in recognising and diagnosing pain and discomfort in animals. As a saddle fitter, you need to be aware of this to be able to recognise a problem promptly because saddle fit is well recognised as an important factor in the welfare and performance of riding horses.
However, evaluation of saddle fit is subjective - and therefore depends on the knowledge, experience and preferences of the saddle fitter.
The ridden horse must endure not only the static weight of the rider, but also the dynamic load when moving. Therefore the quality of the saddle fit, the pressure peaks under the saddle and how a rider sits and distributes their weight on the saddle are important aspects in developing or avoiding back problems and lameness.
Recent studies show that there is a high prevalence of ill-fitting saddles, mainly due to lack of using a professional saddle fitter on a regular basis (minimum twice a year). Ideally saddle fit should be evaluated before, during and after exercise because we know that back dimensions can change during work, with some horses more than others.
Repeated measurements of the horse and the saddle with the same rider can be very useful in order to maintain a good fit. Correct tree fit is necessary of course, but will only work when other equally important aspects such as gullet width, panel shape, thickness and especially the type of flocking, and the placement of the girth straps, are correct too.
The saddle should follow the movements of the horse’s mid-thoracic back. Besides the vertical movement of the rider, the components of the saddle force could mainly be associated with the movement of the forelimbs, the lateral flexion and unilateral contraction of the horse’s back muscles as well as with the rotation of the horse’s pelvis.
Discussion about what defines a well fitting saddle remains controversial. However, there’s general consensus that a saddle should neither traumatise nor injure the horse.
Since it became possible to measure saddle pressure, several studies have tried to define the upper limit of tolerated pressure. Earlier investigations related saddle pressure to the occurrence of back pain or to the fit of a saddle. These studies gave a good overview of what was to be expected when dealing with badly fitting saddles and demonstrated how diverse saddle problems and their potentially negative influence on the horse’s back can be.
The most frequently encountered problems are bridging, ill-fitting headplates and incorrect stuffing of the panels. Therefore, a good saddle fitter is also capable of rebalancing a saddle with flocking him/herself.
In horses, back muscle soreness is often accompanied by dry spots in the saddle area. Sweat glands are embedded in a dense network of capillaries. Due to high pressure, local ischaemia [restriction of blood supply to tissues] results in reduction of sweat production. Therefore, the associated symptom of dry spots can be used together with the more obvious signs like a saddle sore as an estimate of too high pressure load.
Many modern measuring techniques are now available to the public; some are useful, others are not and a waste of money. It also depends on how much you like gadgets and how much money you want to spend on them.
The cheapest and still a very reliable tool to measure a horse is the simple flexicurve. A more advanced version, which provides a similar but more objective picture, is the 3D-scanning device from Horseshape. However, it’s not immediately visible to your client on site.
Thermography is, my opinion and experience, the best tool for the modern – and future - saddle fitter. It’s a non-invasive, heat detecting technology that translates skin surface temperature information into colour images.
A thermal imaging camera is used to convert infrared radiation emitted from the skin surface into electrical impulses that are visualized in color on a video screen. Heat generated by inflammation is transmitted to the overlying skin via increased capillary blood flow and is dissipated as infrared energy.
By using an infrared camera, also known as a thermal imager, and a specially developed analyzing software program, the infrared energy can be measured.
The first advantage of using thermal imaging is that it’s an easy and small device to take with you. But most importantly, it gives you and your customer an immediate picture of what’s going on. It shows what the saddle does to the horse’s body. Of course, as with every tool, you need proper training to interpret the pictures correctly. The MSFC is to provide additional training for this in near future.
Studies have shown that measurement of pressure between the saddle and the horse’s back offers another alternative for assessment of saddle fit and horse/rider interaction. However, it’s only proven in a standardized set-up on a standing horse - and when calibrated every day! The repeatability was very poor when used in practical saddle fitting situations, and it’s therefore not advised as a reliable, useful tool.
According to a new study by equitation scientists, horses prefer to avoid rein tension rather than just get used to it. And beyond a certain force threshold, rein tension can cause conflict behavior. So when a horse owner comes to you thinking he or she has a saddle problem, look further.
Also look at the rider, look at the bridle and bit fitting. Many riders, including professionals, have no idea how much pressure they have in their hands – including big differences between their left and right hands. From studies, we know that too much and/or uneven rein pressure says something about the asymmetry of the rider and/or horse.
As a saddle fitter, you need to find the main cause of the problem and if the saddle and bridle fit correctly. A handy new tool in this respect is a rein tension device. Already widely used in The Netherlands by vets, trainers and Olympic competitors, when a rider sits more to one side, it can be seen in the graphs.
The device is small enough to take with you; you only need a laptop. It’s also easy to show and explain to customers and is especially useful combined with video of the rider. It works well with another new tool, the Visualise System from Centaur Biomechanics, too.
Examining saddle fit is perhaps the most important aspect of examining a horse with a suspected back problem. If the back problem is corrected but an ill-fitting saddle continues to be used, the problems will return. An ill-fitting saddle also contributes to lower leg lameness, making correction even more imperative.
Riders, trainers and other professionals involved in equine care and performance need better education to recognise ill-fitting saddles, lameness, saddle slip and rider crookedness, said Dr Sue Dyson during the SRT’s (Saddle Research Trust) latest conference. And I fully agree with that.