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Small adjustments can make big differences
Saddle fitters who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz will receive CPD recognition from the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS). Feature by Ken Lyndon-Dykes.
Modern saddles with flat seats allow for rider adjustment.
Ken Lyndon-Dykes: “The saddle influences the horse and the rider. The horse influences the rider and the saddle. The rider influences the saddle and the horse.”
Nelson Pessoa: “It isn’t what the saddle does for you, it’s what the saddle doesn’t do to you.”
Harvey Smith: “A general purpose saddle is nought and summat – take your pick!”
Thus it follows that when we think about the saddle in relation to the rider we must always remember that fitting the horse is the top priority.
Of course it is important that the saddle ‘fits’ the rider and that the design complements the needs of their chosen riding activity. The saddle must be suitable for the individual’s physique, afford comfort and have design attributes that can benefit the type of riding involved.
The saddle is a tool and it should assist the rider to achieve the very best of which they are capable in their chosen equestrian sport, discipline or recreational interest.
To achieve these goals, the saddle fitter requires comprehensive information about the type of riding in which the client is involved. It is just as important to get it ‘right’ for those who enjoy an occasional hack as it is for elite competition riders.
Saddle fitting demands a basic understanding of human anatomy as well as ability to assess riding skills. Rider ‘faults’ (unbalanced, sitting to one side, collapsing a hip, falling behind the movement, etc) inevitably impact on the saddle’s efficacy and thus affect the horse.
Having accepted the horse’s needs are always top priority, the saddle fitter requires accurate information about the rider. A small number of designs are better suited to either male or female riders. Height and the length of the rider’s inside leg are crucial factors.
The rider’s weight (ladies are occasionally reluctant to come clean!) is also fundamental - especially when considered in relation to the rider’s overall physique.
Balance is the prerequisite for successful riding at all levels: a rider who is top-heavy and has short legs will generally find it more difficult to remain in balance than the slim rider with long legs. Rider experience - novice, intermediate, advanced, international – is also an important factor.
Even for days out on fun rides, it’s important that the saddle fits horse and rider.
The saddle must allow the rider to remain (not force or clamp) in a balanced position at all times. Such is the huge diversity of saddles available today it is possible to equip virtually every rider with a really excellent tool - albeit with one notable exception: a rider whose substantial physique cannot be accommodated by their small, close-coupled horse.
Whatever type of riding is involved and at whatever level, during the fitting procedures the saddle fitter will shortlist a number of saddles and then ask the rider to try each of them (preferably in an indoor school, outdoor manege or fenced paddock) on both reins in walk, trot, canter and, in the case of a jumping saddle or a general purpose saddle used in part for jumping, over appropriate fences.
Depending on the number of short-listed saddles, this part of the fitting procedures can take a long time but it is crucial to selecting a saddle that fulfils the needs of rider and horse. Despite all the short-listed saddles having passed the off-load tests in relation to the horse, the saddle fitter may reject a saddle as unsuitable during these procedures. Finally, taking account of the comfort and performance of horse and rider, the saddle fitter and client then discuss the saddles that passed the ridden tests.
The industry invests time and money researching and developing saddle designs that benefit horse and rider. Way back when I was three-day eventing, the saddles we used across country were very forward cut, had big knee rolls and deep, deep seats. Thus it was virtually impossible to adjust position and, if a horse put in a very short or very long stride, the rider could be catapulted forward. It was also difficult to adjust over big drop fences and it’s fair to say that type of design failed to benefit performance.
It was my friend, the legendary show jumper Nelson Pessoa who told me we’d got it all wrong. It was he who designed the first less forward cut saddles with much flatter/shallower seats, small rolls and thin panels. Favoured by today’s riders, these design elements allow the rider to adjust position to suit changing circumstances – including emergencies.
Today’s saddles help the rider to maintain their centre of gravity over their base – fundamental to a secure position that gives the rider and the horse confidence.
Dressage requires the rider to sit on the seat-bones with a long leg in what is described as ‘the classical position’. Until relatively recently, dressage saddles had very deep seats that ‘clamped’ the rider into position. The high pommel and steep cantle ‘fixed’ the rider in what appears to be a good position but severely limits ability to influence the horse because the pelvis is tilted forwards, so positioning the seat bones against the forward flow of movement.
The dressage saddle allows for greater communication
Today, there are hundreds of dressage saddles with shallow seats that allow the rider more freedom. Virtually all designs incorporate long, straight-cut flaps and stirrup bars mounted sufficiently far back to allow stirrups to hang vertically to accommodate a long leg position. Some saddle designs incorporate adjustable stirrup bars which afford flexibility, but it is unwise to assume that every rider understands which bar position is most suitable for them.
The saddle must allow the rider to remain in a balanced position at all times.
Sometimes the client unwittingly creates potential problems: say the desire for a saddle “just like my friend’s” - when it is obvious to the saddle fitter it is unsuitable for the client and/or the client’s horse! The client who is influenced by someone whose knowledge of saddle-fitting is non-existent or very limited is another problem.
I often think a qualification in psychology would be helpful. It would certainly be beneficial when it is necessary to explain to a client that a particular riding fault is impacting on the saddle and thus the horse.
Small adjustments can make big differences and it is for this reason the saddle fitters benefit from developing their knowledge of human and equine anatomy, physics and ergonomics. And of course, saddle fitting demands keeping up-to-date with changes and developments. Everything evolves, nothing stands still.
Kay Hastilow is a Master Saddler and SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter.
About the author
Ken Lyndon-Dykes is an SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter, holder of a BETA Lifetime Achievement Award and former international three-day event rider who specialises in fitting competition and problem horses. A former SMS president, Ken gives demonstrations and talks to equestrian groups and undertakes after-dinner speaking engagements on a wide variety of subjects. Ken has worked in many countries and is frequently asked to act as a professional witness in equestrian-related court cases.
What the fitter needs to know…
A great deal of information must be found and assessed before trying saddles, says Kay Hastilow.
This is far from the ideal setting for trying saddles! A small, secure field or arena is much safer.
Over half of the Society of Master Saddlers’ 15 points of saddle fitting [the prescribed system taught by the SMS] are about gaining information that can help in your saddle fit. It will tell you many things that will influence the fitting, so here I have tried to explain what it is that we need to know, and its relevance.
First, you need names, addresses and contact details. It is the next section that starts to be of use to your fitting. Is a new or second-hand saddle required, or are you to check their existing saddle? Knowing this, you can have the right saddles, tools or aids with you.
Make sure that there are suitable facilities available for your fitting. At least somewhere under cover to assess the horse and try saddles (accessible to a motor vehicle - it’s not fun lugging saddles across a muddy field).
You need somewhere under cover to assess and horse and try saddles.
Also somewhere safe for them to try the saddles, at the minimum a secure field. The days of trotting along the side of the A9 are long gone!
‘Rider details’ will enable you to get a picture of the type of fitting that you are going to. Male or female? General age. Height and weight are the next questions, and this isn’t always easy…
Most know their approximate height, but whereas slim-ish riders will tell you their weight without any fuss, this is not so common from those outside that category. You might be thinking at this point that they are probably, let’s be polite and say plump, but saying that isn’t going to endear you to your client. I ask if they would describe themselves as slim, medium or cuddly, the latter being an inoffensive way of saying fat, but it gives you the general picture.
Use of saddle
You need to know what their main use for the saddle will be, and here you have to be clear on what you are asking. ‘Show jumping’ as a reply should be followed by the question ‘at what level?’ You don’t want a top-of-the-range minimalist jumping saddle when their highest ambition is the 90cm unaffiliated open at the riding club.
Likewise, dressage. A cuddly lady of a certain age is not likely to benefit from the very straight cut, very deep-seated saddle that their young, athletic and probably male trainer uses. She wouldn’t be able to sit securely or comfortably in it, and would probably be better in something with a little more room in the seat (i.e. not quite so deep) and a slightly less straight flap.
Again, ask the level of competition. They don’t need the dearest, most advertised saddle available if they’re doing walk and trot tests locally.
The same goes across the board. ‘Endurance’ can mean to some people a 10km ride, which to others is a gentle hack. While a good endurance saddle wouldn’t hurt at all in this circumstance, it really isn’t necessary as a nicely fitted GP will do the job just as well.
I believe it’s our job to guide riders as to what is the best, most suitable saddle for both their horse and their aims and ambitions.
For the person who does a ‘bit of everything’, find their level, and their favoured pastime. If they do more jumping than flatwork, but want to do dressage as well, consider (taking into account their physique) whether a GPX might be a better option than a standard GP.
Moveable knee and thigh blocks are an absolute boon in this situation as you can show your client how to position them for maximum support for each discipline. Likewise, if flatwork is their main pastime, but they wish to be able to jump a small fence now and then, a GPD may be a better option.
Make sure you know if they have a preference in the colour of the saddle, and if there are any features that they are looking for, such as type of knee blocks, long or short girth tabs etc.
Always ask about funds available. Manage expectations, as they may be way off the mark as to the cost of saddles. You really don’t want to be going to this call if they only want to spend £200 on a new saddle. Don’t forget to tell them how much you charge for your services, and your terms of business.
Next, we have the horse details. Height, type and age. This is where alarm bells can sometimes start to ring.
Having ascertained that the rider is of a cuddly build, weight unspecified, the last thing you want to hear is that the horse is a four-year-old, 15hh failed racehorse just out of training. You just know that’s going to be a challenge… The other description you don’t want to hear is that of an 18hh warmblood dressage horse working at PSG level, and your rider is 5ft, lightweight and not very experienced. That really isn’t an easy one to deal with.
Breed type should give you some idea of the shape you expect to fit, if not the actual width. General prompts are helpful, such as Thoroughbred type? Middleweight hunter type? Cob? Native? Don’t take too much notice of the owner’s opinion of shape and fit though, as these can be way off the mark… Like the Arab who’s a “high wither, narrow fit”; unlikely - spindly legs do not equate to a narrow fitting saddle in most cases.
At a fitting, I still take a description of the horse using main body colour, markings and whorls. If you have a microchip reader and your client has the passport with them, you can check the microchip number, but the one thing that I wouldn’t rely on is photographs.
Colours change throughout the year, and throughout a horse’s life, and photo colours aren’t always totally accurate. They can be useful to have on your files as back-up, but they’re not good enough on their own. Sometimes, the old ways are the best.
The history of the horse is vital knowledge. How long have they owned the horse? What has he been doing, and what will he be doing from now on? What level of work is he in? Unfit, but just starting serious work; fit, but will be doing less in the future?
All of this will tell you whether the shape he is today is standard for him, or if you might reasonably expect changes, possibly considerable. This will really influence your advice to the client, and the saddle that you fit.
Injuries to both horse and rider should be noted. Most riders carry old injuries, and this can affect their straightness and balance which will, of course, influence the way the horse goes, and how the saddle sits.
The truly sound horse is a rarity and, as we know from the work done by Sue Dyson MA Vet MB PhD DEO FRCVS et al, this can really affect the fit of the saddle. If the horse has had an injury or lameness, then you will be more aware that there could be some slight asymmetry of movement, which could - and probably will - affect the way the saddle performs.
Conformation, back assessment and run-up are three parts of a saddle fit which are often missed, yet these are vital for you to know all that you need before fitting.
Assessing conformation correctly is an essential skill.
Checking the conformation will show you if there is anything - such as a forward girth groove or asymmetric shoulders - that will affect the way the saddle will perform when ridden in.
Pointing out such things prior to fitting means that you don’t look as if you are just trying to find excuses when the saddle shoots up the neck or swings over to one side. Having been forewarned, the customer shouldn’t be surprised to see this happening.
They just want to know if you can correct it.
Likewise, with the back assessment, you will pick up (and point out) any uneven muscle development, tightness, soreness, swellings, heat or discomfort already present in the saddle or girth area before you put a saddle onto his back.
The run-up will show any abnormalities of gait that could affect the way the saddle works in use. Pointing out abnormalities to the client will have them prepared to see movement in the saddle that they might not otherwise have expected.
This preparation work will help you to build trust between yourself and the client. Then, as you bring saddles out, they will understand as you guide them away from one type and towards another which is more suitable.
If you try fewer saddles, it cuts your time taken at the fitting and the wear to your stock - while still giving an excellent service.
Kay Hastilow is a Master Saddler and SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter.
About the author
Kay Hastilow is a Master Saddler and SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter. Kay trained as a saddler in the 1960s at Bliss and Co, London. Initially in business as a bench saddler, she became aware of the effect that saddle fit could make on the performance of a horse, so the 1970s saw her specialise in fitting saddles. Kay’s bench skills meant that not only could she pinpoint a problem, but make necessary alterations too. Using this knowledge, Kay went on to design saddles too. Kay was a lecturer on the first SMS saddle fitting course and assessment in 1995. She has since been senior lecturer for most of the courses run by the society. Now semi-retired, she spends her time lecturing for saddle fitters, vets, trainers and riders around the world. She’s also made a series of films for prospective saddle fitters. Fitting Saddles: The Essential Guide is available through Vimeo.
The young horse’s introduction to a saddle
Saddle fitters who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz will receive CPD recognition from the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS).
Whether it’s among professional or amateur riders, there’s no shortage of stories of backing youngsters and their first few months under saddle.
This will often include how the owner/rider obtained the saddle. And all too often it’s from a friend, belonged to their old horse or was bought off the internet without a thought for comfort, fit and balance.
Yet this is a very important time in a young horse’s life and one which can never be repeated. Therefore it’s of great importance that this early experience is a positive one by ensuring the horse’s ability to learn and perform is not restricted by a saddle which is ill fitting.
Horses are naturally animals with a flight, not fight, mechanism. This must always be considered as we handle and re-programme them - when instinct wants to tell them the tiger is on their back! Mentally and physically, we are setting a precedent for the horse’s working career.
The young horse should develop muscle strength and balance initially with groundwork before coping with the rider’s weight. During this period the horse’s shape will already begin to change.
If he can do some in-hand pole work, he learns to control his feet, lifts the tummy muscles and uses his back, stretching the topline. Long reining and lunging will teach steering and balance on a circle and enable introduction of the bridle. Saddle fitters have the product knowledge to deal with all types of horses; rangy backs with high withers to table tops, uphill and downhill backs, rounded rib cages and ones that sharply drop away. All can be a challenge even with the correct panel, girth and girthing lines used.
If a youngster spooks, throwing the rider off balance and the saddle is not securely in place, it could end in disaster for both horse and rider.
A daily part of this initial work should include familiarisation with mounting blocks, walking alongside without turning the quarters away and learning to stand as requested. This will be a huge help as the trainer begins to lean over the horse, gradually adding weight and the horse gets idea of a human being above them.
Many young horses will have been fitted with rugs for much of their lives but daily fitting of a numnah with a surcingle is nevertheless a good precaution. It is advisable to use cotton or wool numnahs or pads as synthetic materials can create unwanted static.
The initial fitting of a saddle in a safe place will have to be done statically. But this should be followed up as soon as possible at the stage that a few strides of trot can be achieved.
Once backed day by day, our young horse will gain confidence and learn to keep balanced with the rider. Correct fit is important, the saddle should fit the rider as well as the horse to allow them to sit naturally and without tension in balance.
The more experienced and confident the rider, the better.
Though initially the horse is on the forehand, through correct training and engaging the hindquarters he should become more uphill. During this period, it is important that regular saddle checks are carried out by a professional fitter.
Growth plates in the skeletal structure are not closed until six years of age and it’s not ideal to push for too big a challenge before this time. The way the muscular system develops with good fitting tack and a balanced, capable rider will ensure the full potential of the individual. Damage at this stage will alter conformation and movement forever.
The panel of the saddle should sit evenly balanced in total contact on the horse’s back. The saddle tree is the framework for the design and comfort of the horse and rider, and its shapes and angles can be very different. For example, if you put a cob saddle on a thoroughbred’s back, it would not only sit low but be unstable side to side, therefore not giving sufficient contact to take the rider’s weight.
The front arch of the saddle should be at the same angle as the horse, 2’’ behind the scapula. If it’s too wide or too narrow, the muscles will be pinched. This will cause the horse to hollow his back, making it impossible to achieve hind engagement. The result will be wasted topline muscles as opposed to strong, supporting ones that will ensure optimum performance.
The gullet must be wide enough not to create any impingement either side of the spine and its ligament. Conversely if too wide, the spine may not be cleared from above.
The panel must give suitable support for the individual, not just at a standstill but also in motion with the rider’s weight in consideration. This is why it’s very important when fitting a saddle that it’s seen ridden in.
The other principle factor during the fitting is the length of the tree. This should not extend beyond the last thoracic bone to which is attached the last supportive rib. The lumbar spine has no support and is a vulnerable area, for example if the saddle becomes unbalanced and the rider’s weight is tipped back to the rear.
Hind leg problems can also cause soreness in this loin area. Therefore if there is any ongoing worry, a vet’s help should be sought.
The saddle fitter will also give consideration to the positioning and use of the girth straps to be complimented by suitable girths. The stability of the saddle is compromised if girth lines are not correct and old girths found in the cupboard with worn elastic and curled material will not do!
Designs, materials and technology have moved on, giving tools and flexibility if used by experienced saddle fitters in the correct way.
We now see many companies working with synthetic trees and adjustable head plates; and also adjustability of traditional trees by accredited saddlers. Traditional pure wool flocking in panels remains a sound choice for absorption of concussion and the maintaining of balance by a qualified saddler.
Pads and shims are another tool that can enhance and fine-tune the balance, lift and comfort of panels as a horse changes shape, not only with maturity but also through changes of work or the season. The choices on the market are enormous and financially expensive if chosen by brand, bling or colour. An experienced, qualified saddle fitter will be able to give sound reasons for some working better than others or indeed being detrimental.
Girth design is something else that has come to the fore recently. Research in this area has made the end user more aware of the importance of comfort through the pectoral muscles and allowing full movement of the individual’s front limbs. Again, girths should be not be considered just because a famous rider uses them on big- framed warmbloods when your customer’s horse is a thoroughbred cross!
The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) website is the place to find a list of qualified and registered saddle fitters in your area. Local recommendation may also be a great help in finding someone who will work with riders and their young horse and who has a good choice of suitable saddles plus the skills to make adjustments.
Long reining in a numnah and surcingle is useful preparation for a horse’s first saddle fitting.
It’s very important when fitting a saddle that it’s seen ridden in.
A well fitted saddle will help the young horse develop the correct muscles as his ridden career commences.
Author Sue Norton.
About the author
Sue Norton is president of the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS). As well as running retailer C.H. Brown & Son Saddlery in Oxford, Sue runs the Saddle Doctors saddle fitting business with her husband Mike Norton.
Saddle fitter or physiotherapist?
How about both, says Faith Fisher–Atack. Saddle fitters who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz will receive CPD recognition from the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS).
Never has there been a more appropriate time to discuss the interaction of the horse, rider and saddle.
At the 2017 National Equine Forum, Dr Sue Dyson presented several studies addressing the impact that saddle fit plays on both the horse and rider and not least the negative implications and welfare issues that may arise in the presence of poorly fitted tack. In a recent article in Horse and Hound, Hazel Morley of the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) suggested that “getting the whole industry working together” would improve standards and education on the subject.
As saddle fitters and physiotherapists, we are two groups of industry professionals that serve to improve this interaction, with the common interest being the welfare of horse and rider and placing them at the centre of all decisions and interventions. As professionals in our respective fields, we are aware of the importance of multidisciplinary team working. It may seem like a simple principle that we all believe we are employing. However, do we really understand why we need to work together?
Defining our roles
Defining the roles of both key parties is important. Physiotherapy is an established health care profession with protection of title issued by Royal Charter. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) governs physiotherapy provision within the UK to service users in both the NHS and private sector.
The application of physiotherapy to animals is recognised by the CSP as a specialist interest group titled The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT) which requires formal education routes following the acquisition of chartered status in human practice. Chartered physiotherapists that specialise in animal practice are therefore uniquely placed to work with both riders and horses.
Application of clinical practice serves across all levels of performance, with the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) employing chartered physiotherapists to serve at Olympic and international competition across the equestrian disciplines.
Members of the SMS are trained to deliver high quality workmanship to deliver a professional and quantified service with the first saddle fitting qualification launched in 1995. The society continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair and fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider, ensuring that its members meet continual professional development standards. Recently, the SMS joined a cross-industry steering group to improve industry led education and training.
The two groups of professionals are therefore perfectly placed and armed with the knowledge, tools and qualification to deliver both quantifiable and clinically reasoned approaches to improving the interaction of the horse, rider and saddle.
A review of the literature
There is growing evidence that justifies the need for increased frequency of saddle fit and in doing so also highlights the need for chartered and veterinary physiotherapy intervention. Within the literature, variables associated with saddle fit include the effect of and on rider position, equine performance, lameness and equine back pain.
At an international workshop hosted by the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket in 2012, the effect of the rider was addressed by Dr Narelle Stubbs, a human and equine physiotherapist from the McPhail Equine Performance Centre at Michigan State University, USA. Dr Stubbs highlighted common biomechanical patterns that riders adopt often as a result of over activity and dominance of one side of the body. Also that rider asymmetries are common and can be a causative or contributory factor in the horse, saddle and rider interrelationship.
Adding to this conundrum, Guire et al (2015) objectively evaluated riders’ hip position with both a correctly fitted saddle and a saddle that rolled. A significant asymmetrical increase of rider hip flexion was measured with the poorly fitted saddle, showing that saddle position and therefore fit affected rider biomechanics and capabilities to maintain balance.
Conversely, a saddle that may fit the horse may not fit the rider. In a recent review, Dr Sue Dyson noted the presence of equine back pain was prevalent in cases where the saddle did not fit the rider. In this instance, a physiotherapist would be uniquely placed to address both equine and rider abnormalities. Methods such as taping and balance exercises that target the riders’ weaknesses and promote a more balanced seat could be utilised as well as employing treatment for the equine patient.
There is additional evidence to suggest that even correctly fitted saddles can still lead to equine movement and performance adaptation. In one recent study, fore limb and hind limb range of movement and thoracolumbar widths were compared in horses ridden in correctly fitted saddles that met industry standards against a saddle designed to reduce peak pressure on the mid-section of the spine.
The study highlighted a 13% and 22% increase in fore and hind limb protraction respectively as well as increased size of spinal muscles following a prolonged time of exercise associated with a saddle that reduced peak pressure (Guire et al, 2016).
This study not only highlights the potential performance limitations associated with pressure upon the spine but also the fact that peak pressure can be present under what would otherwise be identified as a correctly fitted saddle. The need for both improvement in fit and saddle design is raised. Additionally, regular physiotherapy assessment would identify pain associated with peak pressure, identify changes to muscle size and symmetry and, if necessary, use treatment modalities to reduce pain and inflammation.
The importance of using both a qualified saddle fitter and physiotherapist in the management of ridden horses is highlighted in one study that found that horses who received regular physiotherapy management of back pain increased the likelihood of also having regular saddle fittings (Dyson et al, 2015).
These findings were reversed for horses that didn’t receive a combined professional approach. 51% of these horses were significantly more likely to have both a poor saddle fit and abnormal findings at the thoracic spine. In addition, 62% of riders interviewed noted that they had suffered back pain themselves and horses ridden by these individuals presented with thoracic abnormalities and muscular asymmetries when assessed.
Dr Dyson’s research distinctly shows that a combined management approach and increased frequency of skills delivery in view of fit and pain management improves not only the welfare of the horse but also the comfort for the rider. Interestingly, 48% of riders interviewed for the study noted that they would only consult a professional if they felt there was a problem albeit with the saddle and/ or their horse. This shows there is a need for both saddle fitters and physiotherapists to encourage a proactive, preventative approach to management as opposed to waiting for a problem to develop.
Understanding the literature is key to understanding why both professions should work together and promote one another. As research continues to deepen our understanding of biomechanics, anatomy, physiology and clinical application, there is a distinct interrelationship evolving between our respective areas of expertise, most notably the correlation between equine back pain, lameness, rider position and saddle fit.
This not only justifies the importance and relevance of our roles individually but also highlights the need for multidisciplinary interaction between us. The rotation of both physiotherapy assessment and saddle assessment should be promoted along with other services acquired on rotation such as farriery and dentistry. This can be achieved through both industry led initiatives and individual education to our clients.
What will a physiotherapist do?
Calling up on a physiotherapist to assess your horse or client’s horse will include a thorough assessment and treatment regimen.
• Observe the horse’s natural posture
• Assess the horse’s movement at different gaits
• Palpate muscle tissue for irregular tone and pain
• Mobilise joints to assess range of movement and quality of movement
• Perform special tests for pain reaction
• Soft tissue mobilisation techniques that reduce spasm and increase circulation
• Electrotherapy modalities will often be used to mobilise tissue or to reduce pain
• Joint mobilisation will increase range at specified joints
• Dynamic taping
• Exercise prescriptions to strengthen and/ or mobilise target areas.
A saddle fitter’s view…
Kim Gordon-Holt of Krugar Saddlery, West Yorkshire agrees there must be interaction between the physiotherapist and saddle fitter to truly benefit the horse.
“Horse owners require continued education from professionals to realise the importance of correctly fitted tack and how to identify underlying reasons why a horse may not perform as it should. Saddle fitters and physiotherapists are key to this education.
“In most cases, I would recommend the saddle fitter visits the horse prior to the physiotherapist. It makes more sense to get the saddle correctly fitted first and then have the physiotherapist treat the horse for secondary muscle spasm. That way, the work of the physiotherapist is not undone when an ill-fitting saddle is placed back on following treatment.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that the saddle fitters and physios work together. A horse cannot verbalise pain, it is our job to identify a problem and resolve it professionally and further educate to minimise the risk of further problems.”
It makes more sense to get the saddle correctly fitted first and then have the physiotherapist treat the horse for secondary muscle spasm
Author Faith Fisher-Atack
About the author
Faith Fisher-Atack is a category A member of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT) and a chartered human physiotherapist.
As an undergraduate, Faith studied physiotherapy at the University of Huddersfield following a gap year riding for British Showjumping team trainer Alan Fazakerley.
After graduating in 2009 in human practice, Faith spent five years working for Leeds United Football Club. She graduated as a veterinary physiotherapist from the Royal Veterinary College in 2012 and founded Equine Physio Services, a company providing physiotherapy treatment, rehabilitation, advice and education to both horses and riders across all disciplines of the equestrian industry. Faith can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The saddle fitter as educator
In ETN’s latest CPD feature for saddle fitters, Anne Bondi BHSI looks at the relationship between the horse, saddle and rider. Saddle fitters who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz will receive CPD recognition from the Saddle Research Trust.
Today, considerably fewer people grow up with the horse as part of their daily lives and many of today’s horse owners do not have a family tradition of handed down wisdom.
This lack of natural horsemanship training has led to an increase in the number of horses that are managed by inexperienced owners. Welfare problems generally occur due to horse owner mismanagement as a result of ignorance rather than intentional abuse. However, ignorance of good practice is as just as likely to create welfare concerns as deliberate malpractice.
It is therefore important that professional equine industry practitioners should identify opportunities to educate their clientele as part of their service. Saddle fitters are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role as key educators.
Problems due to poor saddle fit, associated back problems and loss of performance in the horse are unfortunately widely documented. Although saddle fit problems have long been recognised as an important clinical performance-impairing problem in the equine athlete, methods for the objective evaluation of saddle fit and investigations of the influences of ill-fitting saddles are lacking.
A great deal of money is spent trying to define poor equine performance, but the effects of the saddle are frequently overlooked. The vast majority of saddles are not optimally adjusted for the horse on which they are used; the frequent use of saddles unsuitable for a given animal seems to indicate the rider’s lack of attention to this crucial area. The saddle fitter can help to improve this situation by raising awareness of the issues and discussing the current principles of good practice with their clients.
Horse, saddle and rider interaction
The effects of movements of the saddle and of the rider are undoubtedly of great importance to the way in which the horse moves and performs, but remain poorly understood.
Saddles do not “move with the horse” when ridden, but instead create complex torque patterns that are instigated by the movements of both horse and rider. Although a saddle may have a relatively small weight or mass, the combined torque applied to it by both rider and horse can create a very large effect, which has yet to be measured.
An ill-fitting saddle disturbs horse/rider communication, which impairs the ability of the horse to move in a regular, consistent pattern. In forcing the horse to search for a more comfortable movement pattern, motion instability is further increased. An ill-fitting saddle therefore has the potential to make even a skilled rider appear uncoordinated, presenting a further challenge to the saddle fitter.
Effects of loading
The weight ratio between horse and rider is an important consideration, but currently there are no reliable, evidence-based guidelines to assist the saddle fitter in assessment of appropriate loading.
Increased rider weight increases the risks associated with poor saddle fit. Rider weight compresses the saddle onto the back, which may alter the saddle balance. The same saddle may be used by different riders with a wide range of weights, so the saddle fitter should always check the circumstances under which the saddle is to be used.
Saddle fit under different weight ratios should be reviewed and temporary balance pads may be required to support the saddle and provide sufficient lift. Communication between the saddle fitter and the horse owner is of particular importance in these circumstances.
Recent studies have shown that a disturbingly high proportion (75%) of horses that were in normal work and believed to be sound by their owners were, in fact, lame.
Horse owners were found to be able to recognise lameness in only 11% of cases and sore backs in only 4% of cases, thus providing further evidence that horse owners and riders need expert assistance with the early detection of musculoskeletal injury. A saddle fitter who trains to recognise gait irregularities could contribute greatly to the prevention of the vicious cycle of lameness, back pain and saddle fit issues.
Rider asymmetries are common; several studies have recorded asymmetric posture in 100% of the riders that they evaluated. Rider asymmetry may be caused by gait asymmetry or a crooked saddle – or it can be a contributory factor to the asymmetry conundrum. Therefore it is important that the saddle fitter should also have analytical skills in rider performance.
When saddles move asymmetrically, the rider tends to ‘collapse’ to the opposite side, e.g. when viewed from behind, if the saddle moves to the right, the rider’s seat slides to the right and the spine flexes to the left.
It has been shown that asymmetric saddle movement is often an indication of hind limb lameness, occurs most commonly towards the lame side, increases in circles compared with straight lines but is not related to the degree of lameness. In some cases, the saddle moves one way on one rein and the opposite way on the opposite rein as the lameness alters in severity with the changes of direction.
The rider can also affect the extent of lameness according to which diagonal they select in rising trot. This highlights the importance of viewing the horse, saddle and rider from behind, from both directions and at all gaits during saddle fitting evaluations.
Riders are often unaware of the presence of asymmetry in the saddle or how to carry out simple, routine checks for this, providing another valuable opportunity for the saddle fitter to teach basic principles of good practice.
A study of saddle asymmetry showed that 45% had asymmetric panels and that all of those were in use on horses that were assessed as lame.
Although there is anecdotal evidence of its occurrence, further work is necessary in order to ascertain how repeated asymmetric movement of the horse may create asymmetry in the saddle by ‘self-moulding’ it to accommodate the shape and movement of the individual horse and whether or not interventions should be carried out to resolve this.
An asymmetric ‘self-moulded’ panel may be more comfortable for the individual horse and changing the status quo could result in a less comfortable fit for the horse. However, the potential deleterious effect on the back health of the rider caused by an asymmetric saddle must also be taken into consideration by the saddle fitter.
Changes in back dimensions occur throughout the year. Recent studies have shown that the presence of gait or back asymmetry can reduce back dimensions. Improved saddle fit, similar or increased work intensity, season (summer versus winter) and increased bodyweight can all increase back dimensions. Saddle fit should therefore be professionally reviewed several times a year, ideally at least every three months, but especially if there has been a change in work intensity.
The back dimensions of horses working correctly increase transiently with work. However, back width only increases with good saddle fit; if a saddle does not fit properly before exercise, this increase in size does not occur. It is important therefore that saddle fit should be assessed both before and after exercise to ensure correct fit.
The use of an electronic force sensor placed beneath the saddle is a popular technique for measuring force applied to the horse’s back. However, used in isolation, it is insufficient to accurately assess saddle performance and may lead to false conclusions.
Force sensors register only force that is applied perpendicular to their surface, therefore the shear component escapes detection, resulting in under-estimation, particularly where saddles exhibit considerable movement or where horses have steeply contoured back shapes.
If the sensor indicates asymmetric loading, it cannot identify whether the source of the asymmetry lies in the crookedness of the rider, poor saddle fit or lameness of the horse.
Translating research into practice
Although dissemination of research is critical to the raising of industry standards, there is a gap where key messages are not always translated into practice. An additional problem is that industry standards do not yet exist in many crucial areas, making it difficult to offer advice on many aspects of current practice.
The saddle fitter therefore has a crucial role to play in communicating with other professional practitioners, thereby creating a feedback loop that will help educate their valuable clients – the horses and riders who rely on them.
The same saddle may be used by different riders with a wide range of weights
Asymmetric saddle movement is often an indication of hind limb lameness
Riders are often unaware of the presence of asymmetry in the saddle (Photo: Animal Health Trust)
Author Anne Bondi BHSI
About the author
A successful rider and trainer who has competed at advanced level in eventing and dressage, Anne Bondi has been placed in international three-day events including Windsor, Blair and Blenheim. As a trainer, she has prepared pupils for competition careers and professional exams and was a senior examiner of the British Horse Society (BHS). Specialising in the production of young competition horses and in the education of problem horses, she has also produced a dynasty of homebred horses.
In 2009, Anne founded The Saddle Research Trust (SRT) to promote the welfare of the ridden horse and to raise awareness of the widely underestimated issues surrounding saddles, welfare and performance. The SRT is now internationally recognised for its ground-breaking work.
Anne is currently finishing a PhD researching horse, saddle and rider interaction.
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.
The simple flexicurve is cheap and reliable.
Thermography gives you and your customer an immediate picture of what’s going on.
Author - DR Gerry van Oossanen
About the author
DR Gerry van Oossanen studied at Antwerp University and Utrecht University. She graduated in equine movement science (research subject: the triangle horse-saddle-rider) and has a Masters degree in Equine Physical Therapy Science. She is also a chartered animal physical therapist, certified acupuncturist and certified equine thermographer (Ohio State University).
Dr van Oossanen is the Director of the Academy for Master Saddle Fitting Consultants (MSFC) which runs complete training programmes for saddle fitting and saddle making. She is specialises in back and neck disorders (especially in relation to saddles and bridles), and has developed a special back-friendly horse and rider rehabilitation training programme. She also teaches saddle fitting in relation to back problems to veterinary students at Utrecht University.