Leanne O'Sullivan

Advances in technology and science are changing the face of saddle making.

What was once seen as a traditional craft is slowly but surely entering the world of scientific and technological advancement. The need for improved welfare, performance and safety of horse and rider is fuelling the need for research and development in the area of saddle-making.

In November 2014 the second International Saddle Research Trust Conference was held at a Cambridge University. The conference was held with the intention of stimulating and supporting research into the influence of saddles on the welfare, performance and safety of horses and riders. A final report detailing the main findings from the conference has since been published in the Equine Veterinary Education Journal. The report is titled ‘Horses, saddles and riders: Applying the science’.

I have summarised a number of interesting results which were published in this report. All of the information presented below is relevant to the upcoming Horse Sense column on saddles, which will be published in the August 1st edition of The Irish Field.

Click here to read the full scientific report

Dr Sue Dyson, head of clinical orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust, carried out a number of studies with doctoral student Line Greve. As part of one study, the dimensional changes in horses' backs were recorded over a one-year period. The study was performed on 104 horses with measurements being made every second month.

The results from this study showed that there were frequent changes to the shape of the horses' backs over the course of the year. What was interesting about this study was that shape changes were positively influenced by improved saddle-fit.

Dr Dyson suggests, based on the frequency of back shape changes noted in their study, that saddle-fit should be evaluated several times a year. However, there was concern over the expense horse owners would incur if they were to do this.

The consensus was that horse owners could be taught to perform a basic saddle-fit evaluation, so that they can recognise when it is necessary to bring in a professional saddle fitter. (Master saddler Thomas Berney describes how to perform these simple evaluations in the August 1st edition of The Irish Field).

One significant point for horse owners to note is that many of the people performing saddle fittings are not members of the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) and do not adhere to SMS standards. It is difficult to meet the criteria necessary to join the SMS. There are a number of difficult assessments, and to be part of the SMS requires at least three years' experience in the field with access to an experienced saddle fitter.

A second study was carried out by Dr. Sue Dyson to research the occurrence of saddle slip. In this study a total of 128 lame and sound horses were evaluated.

>Some 71 horses had hind-limb lameness, 54% of which had saddle slip when ridden by at least two riders.

>In 97% of the horses, saddle slip was abolished when lameness was eliminated. This verifies that there is a causal relationship between hind-limb lameness and the occurrence of saddle slip.

In a subsequent study, 506 horses were examined. Saddle slip was identified in 62 horses and was most often associated with hind limb lameness. What was interesting is that most of the riders were not aware that their horse was lame!

>Horses with hind limb lameness were 52 times more likely to have saddle slip than non-lame horses.

>In the majority (60%) of cases, the saddle slipped towards the side corresponding with the lame limb and was greater on circles than straight lines.

>It was also found that crookedness of the rider was more likely to be an effect, rather than a cause, of saddle slip. If the saddle has shifted to one side, it is almost impossible for the rider to sit vertically in the middle of the horse’s back.

A study carried out at the University of Sutherland measured asymmetry in the rider, using hip rotation as the marker.

>The study revealed that 83% of the participants showed up to 30° more rotation in the right hip compared with the left, which could contribute to rider injury.

Physiotherapist Tim Pigott emphasised that riding is not enough to maximise performance in the saddle. Strength training, yoga, Pilates and stability work were recommended to improve physical fitness - together with adherence to general principles of exercise physiology, such as warming up before mounting.