Experts consider how saddles and bridles influence equine performance. Catch up on the key points.

World class presenters shared findings from recent research studies at the Saddle Research Trust's (SRT) 4th International Conference in December.

Entitled Welfare and Performance of the Ridden Horse: The Future, the online event was sponsored by bitting specialist Neue Schule and saddle brand WOW.

Chaired by Professor René Van Weeren, the day opened with a welcome from SRT CEO Dr Jan Birch

World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers then presented a vision for the future of equestrian sport. He emphasised that the horse-human partnership underpins all of equestrianism, and that we must train horses with respect, compassion and understanding. 

To safeguard the future of horse sport, we must safeguard equine welfare. “If we can do this, the future is bright,” he said.

Applying the science

Professor Hilary Clayton explained how rider asymmetry, or a rider who is too large, can compromise performance, how the synchronisation of movement with the horse is often lacking especially among less skilled riders, and how better performance is associated with minimal disruption by the rider.

Professor Heikki Handroos then showed how engineering science has been applied to develop a new riding simulator that provides a more ‘real life’ experience than those currently available on the market. 

Through the lens

Leading veterinary authority on gait analysis, Dr. Filipe Serra Bragança, discussed the significant advances in technology for objective analysis of equine gait. 

He explained that subjective agreement of lameness by veterinary/physiotherapy experts is low. But with the evolution of modern kinematic gait analysis, it is now possible to assess the horse/rider interaction, analyse performance, and quantify asymmetric gaits and lameness. 

In addition, research has now started in the field of equine selection and phenotyping [observing trait characteristics]. 

Saddle fitting

Dr Russell MacKechnie-Guire questioned whether an objective approach to saddle fitting is useful or misleading. 

He pointed out that thermography is not a reliable tool for assessment of saddle fit for the horse, that a horse’s back dimensions can change during the day and that although more pressure mapping devices are becoming available, they are not necessarily accurate or validated. 

His take-home advice was to keep it simple, for example by using markers placed on the horse, saddle and rider and using a smart phone to take videos.

Dr Marie Dittmann looked at the high prevalence of ill-fitting saddles in Swiss riding horses and the subsequent potential for compromised performance. 

She highlighted the association between back pain and ill-fitting saddles but emphasised that horses have varying pain thresholds and therefore react differently in the face of discomfort. 

Her work shows that 95% of horse owners thought their saddle was an ideal fit, yet only 10% of those assessed had no saddle fit issues. Her message was that there should be more regular checking for changes in back shape and saddle fit.

The horse as a stakeholder

Dr Sue Dyson presented the Application of the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) which comprises 24 behaviours (facial, body and gait), the majority of which are at least ten times more likely to be seen in a lame horse compared with a non-lame horse. 

Dr Dyson explained that more skilled riders can improve gait quality and can, in some cases, obscure lameness, but in a small number of cases can exacerbate it. 

A more skilled rider can also change behaviours, but not reduce them or conceal them; for example, with a novice rider, the horse may show discomfort by putting the head up ‘above the bit’, but with a good rider the horse may become overbent.

Dr Dyson pointed out that horses with lower RHpE scores were placed higher in competitions compared to those with higher RHpE scores. 

This demonstrates that competitors are likely to have greater competition success with comfortable/sound horses - and that we have a moral responsibility to improve welfare and performance by recognising a problem, identifying the cause and treating it.

Bridle fitting

Dr Rachel Murray looked at the importance of bridle fit, stating that while there is much discussion on bit and noseband issues, there is little research on bridle fit for optimal welfare and performance. 

She explained that the huge variability between horses in head shape, size and symmetry means that bridles should be individually fitted, taking account of facial asymmetry.

Bridle stability is important, she added. Without a noseband, the bridle is less stable, which can allow the bit to move excessively, causing injury in the mouth. However, a tight noseband places pressure on the nose, jaw and headpiece and limits movement. 

She raised the importance of routine dental care; many lesions in the mouth are not the result of the bit or noseband but secondary to teeth problems that could, and should, be managed.

Dr Dyson discussed what can be learnt from the observation of horses’ behaviours during tacking up and mounting. 

She said that some horse owners think that their horse’s behaviours are normal for their horse, e.g. putting their ears back when the girth is being tightened or during rugging. 

Gastric ulcers are also often thought to be a cause of ‘girthiness’ but may be secondary to lameness.

Hot topics of the moment were discussed in the final session: 

Dr Dee Pollard looked at equestrian road safety, concluding that traffic risk is a barrier to equestrian activities. Road safety stakeholders, local authorities and governments need to work towards a more inclusive transport system. 

Dr Céleste Wilkins discussed the dynamic technique analysis of dressage riders. She highlighted that it is essential for riders to be assessed during movement because rider posture whilst stationary does not indicate how they will sit when actively influencing the horse.

Sofia Forino looked at the self-perception of body image in female riders concluding that a higher level of self-consciousness when riding correlated with their perceived body image being much greater than the ‘ideal’.

An open forum enabled listeners to pose questions. 

These included the legal minefield of the use of gait analysis during pre-purchase examinations, the necessity of using gait analysis in conjunction with clinical appraisal and the potential value of a riding simulator to help riders learn specific movements and reduce repetitive strain injuries in horses.

Reflecting on the day’s proceedings, Richard Davison concluded that new research is essential to move the equestrian sector forwards.

As riders, we must develop our understanding of equine behaviour and support other riders to improve welfare and preserve public support for equestrianism, he said.

The speakers were:

  • Dr Jan Birch – Chief Executive, Saddle Research Trust
  • Prof René Van Weeren – Head of Dept, Dept of Clinical Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University
  • Roly Owers – Chief Executive, World Horse Welfare
  • Prof Hilary Clayton – Professor & McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita, Michigan State University
  • Prof Heikki Handroos – Professor, Head of Laboratory of Intelligent Machines, Chairman of Collegiate Body, LUT University
  • Dr Filipe Serra Bragança – Researcher & Clinician, Utrecht University
  • Dr Russell MacKechnie-Guire – Director, Centaur Biomechanics
  • Dr Marie Dittmann – Senior Scientist, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Switzerland)
  • Dr Sue Dyson – Independent Consultant
  • Dr Rachel Murray – Associate, Veterinary Specialist, Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons
  • Dr Dee Pollard – Research Analyst, The British Horse Society
  • Dr Céleste Wilkins – Lecturer in Research, Hartpury University
  • Sofia Forino – Lecturer, University Centre Sparsholt
  • Richard Davison – Four-time dressage Olympian & European medallist

Photo by Valerie Fomina