Horses in riding schools may have many different riders over the course of a week or a month.
The clients of an establishment may not only be very different in weight and shape, but their riding skills will vary — some will be novices just starting out, while others will be more experienced riders who enjoy an occasional hack or lesson. It’s not every lesson that a horse will have a well-balanced rider who sits squarely in the saddle and rises properly using the stirrups.
This constant variation in load and changes in the rider’s posture cannot be good for the horse’s back — the muscles, ligaments and bones under the saddle.
The majority of privately owned horses have just one rider. In competition, especially at Olympic or international level, the skill of the rider-horse combination is under scrutiny: the rider invariably knows the horse very well and the horse is accustomed to the rider’s seat, balance and aids.
At a riding school, however, the rider and horse may not know each other at all. The way the horse responds may have more implications not just for the comfort and enjoyment of all parties, but for safety.
Scientists in Poland wondered whether they could predict which riders and horses at a riding school would be happiest together, by monitoring the heat patterns on the horses’ backs using sensitive thermographic cameras. We know that thermography can reveal changes in blood flow under the skin, which may be associated with inflammation and pathology (the changes that occur as a result of disease). Other studies have shown that muscle strains and overloads can be detected using this technique.
The scientists used 16 Polish warmbloods from a university riding school and 16 riders of varying weight, experience and ability. Every rider was allowed to have a lesson on every horse over a period of several weeks, creating 256 rider-horse combinations. The horses were fully examined by equine vets to ensure they had no apparent pre existing back problems, and their tack was fitted by experienced saddlers.
The horses’ backs were scanned at rest and then after a 50-minute lesson in an indoor school. This included a warm-up at walk, exercises in trot and canter and a final warm-down. The heat patterns before and after each riding lesson were compared.
Crucially, the riders were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire about communication and response for every lesson — how they thought the lesson had gone, for example, how the horse responded to mistakes by the rider, how resistant he was to aids given and whether he took the initiative with an inexperienced rider or responded well to the correct aids. Overall, how enjoyable and positive was the riding experience?
The results of the thermography scans showed that a small number of rider-horse combinations caused “hot spots” in the midline, where there had been undesirable contact between the saddle and the dorsal spinous processes of the vertebrae. Another group had insufficient contact between the saddle and the back, while a larger group, about 25% of the rider-horse combinations, had uneven overloading of one set of muscles rather than the desired spread of the load through the saddle panels.
These changes were not consistent in individual horses: some riders produced no abnormal heat patterns on an individual horse, while other riders on the same horse produced abnormalities. None of the findings suggested any severe injury or pathology, but the changes in blood flow and heat did suggest that continuous exercise of these horses by these riders would lead to recognised back problems.
Feeling the heat
There was a surprising degree of correlation between the questionnaire results and the thermography findings. Some riders reported an unsatisfactory experience on a given horse in a given lesson, because the horse was unresponsive, over-reactive to the rider’s mistakes or showed no initiative. These turned out to be the rider-horse combinations that had caused an unusual under-saddle heat pattern after the lesson.
It seems that certain horse and rider pairs just did not suit each other — and that because the horses were aware of uneven loading, poor weight distribution or uncomfortable pressure points, they performed poorly in the lesson.
With a one-horse, one-rider combination, both halves of the partnership have an opportunity to adapt to one another over time. While this rarely happens at a riding school, the scientists suggest that some kind of scoring system based on thermographic heat mapping may be a relatively simple way of deciding which riders would best suit which horses — improving the comfort and enjoyment of both.
Heat mapping: Animal Science Journal 90, p1,396-1,406
Ref Horse & Hound; 14 November 2019