By Christa Lesté-Lasserre
Despite good intentions, fitting a horse with a wider saddle tree won’t free him up for better movement, according to a study based on high-tech data readings.
Some professionals aim to counter the effects of equine back changes during exercise by using a saddle with a tree that’s wider than that recommended in the Society of Master Saddlers Industry Guidelines, said Russell MacKechnie-Guire, of Centaur Biomechanics and The Royal Veterinary College, in Hatfield, U.K.
New research, however, indicates that correct fit is best for the horse.
“There is evidence that a horse’s back changes its epaxial muscle (those that run along the sides of the spine) dimensions within a short period of exercise when ridden in a correctly fitted saddle, so some saddle fitters (and others) fit the saddle according to these changes,” MacKechnie-Guire said. “But findings from our latest experiment using multiple measuring systems indicate that it is best to fit to the correct width based on the Society of Master Saddlers Industry Guidelines for each individual horse.”
Horses’ backs change shape over time—gaining or losing musculature over weeks and months due to factors such as seasonal, weight, or work changes, said MacKechnie-Guire. “It is therefore essential that regular saddle fitting assessments are carried out throughout the year to ensure correct saddle fit is achieved,” he said.
High Pressure Readings With Wide and Narrow Saddles
MacKechnie-Guire’s research group carried out a global study on saddle width’s effects on equine locomotion, which included quantifying kinematics of the thoracolumbar spine (from the withers to the pelvis) when ridden in trot and canter in a saddle that was one width fitting wider and narrower than the correct width. They used multiple state-of-the-art measuring systems, motion capture, pressure mats, and inertial measurement units (IMUs), similar those used for objective lameness evaluations, on 14 ridden horses.
MacKechnie-Guire’s team found that when the saddle was one width fitting too wide, it created areas of high pressure toward the front of the saddle in the region of the 10th-13th thoracic vertebra (beneath where the rider sits). Furthermore, the front of the saddle tilted down and forward, MacKechnie-Guire said.
“Visually, it could be seen that the back of the saddle lifted up, especially when in canter and when the rider was in the standing phase,” he said. “Consequently, this has an effect on equine locomotion and thoracolumbar spine health, and it can make the rider unstable.”
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