While the results may not come as a surprise to some, the study disproves the ‘commonly held’ belief that saddles fitted slightly wider than normal give the horse better freedom of movement
The practice of fitting saddles slightly wider than ideal to allow horses more freedom of movement is having an opposite and detrimental effect, a study has found.
Researchers found using one tree width fitting narrower or wider than that set out in Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) guidelines had a negative impact on equine locomotion and musculature.
Russell MacKechnie-Guire of Centaur Biomechanics is one of the researchers who conducted the study, published in peer-reviewed journal Animals.“It’s been shown that a horse’s back dimensions increase with exercise, when ridden in a correctly fitted saddle, which in part has led to some people believing that fitting a saddle wider will allow the horse’s shoulders more movement, not restrict the horse and allow its back muscles to come up and work more effectively,” he told H&H. “We wanted to check that.”
The study involved 14 horses, to each of whom a saddle was fitted and independently checked by five SMS-qualified fitters. Each was then adjusted to one fitting wider and narrower and in all variations, pressure and movement were measured.
“For the layperson, it could make sense to fit wider, to allow the horse more movement, but we found the absolute opposite,” said Dr MacKechnie-Guire.
He explained that when a saddle is wider than ideal, it becomes unstable. During movement, the front of the saddle is pulled downwards, creating significantly high pressure at the base of the withers.
The researchers also found depressions in the horses’ musculature around the T13 vertebra – where the rider sits – believed to be caused by the high pressure from the saddle.
In the narrower fit, there was also increased pressure, but further back than in the wide saddle, and depressions in the musculature around the T18 vertebra.
Sensors along the spine found the vertebrae’s range of movement decreased in both the narrow and the wide saddles, compared to the ideal fit.
“The most important thing this highlights is the need for regular saddle fitting by a qualified fitter,” Dr MacKechnie-Guire said. “We showed changes to muscle dimensions and locomotion after 20 minutes of exercise; imagine what that would be like after six weeks.
“Horses adjust their movement to compensate for discomfort caused by a saddle that’s too narrow or wide, or not fitted correctly; those alterations in gait could lead to asymmetry, which is what we’re trying to reduce.
“If we fit correctly, the horse can function without hindrance; its back can be stable and transfer the propulsive force of the hind limbs to the front and aid locomotion. If it’s too wide or narrow, it forces the horse to adjust.”
Paper co-author Mark Fisher, one of the five fitters involved in the study, told H&H the results did not come as a surprise.
“We see a lot of saddles deliberately fitted wider, and you’re not going to get the same stability, especially in downwards transitions, lateral work and jumping – but you have to be able to back up what you’re saying with science,” he said.
“Having these sate-of-the-art pressure-mapping and motion analysis systems means we can back up opinions with facts, and riders of all levels can benefit.”
Mr Fisher agreed that the results emphasise the importance of regular saddle-fitting, adding: “It’s not just about people deliberately fitting too wide or narrow; they can become so in normal use, as horses change shape.
“I’ll often be fitting in a school where there’s a lesson going on and you hear the coach reminding the rider to sit up or get their lower leg under them – but they can’t because the saddle’s out of balance.
“I hope with this we can educate, and benefit horses and riders.”
SMS president Ted Boggis said: “The society contributed to funding this study as it addressed a commonly held but mistaken belief that wide-fitting saddles are kinder to the horse than saddles that conform to the shape of the horse’s back.
“The society, believing that the welfare of the horse is paramount, wanted undeniable evidence to ensure its saddle fitter training and advice to horse owners was correct. The results, including those for saddles that are too narrow, underline the importance of using an SMS registered qualified saddle fitter to fit or check the saddle on your horse.”
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