Thermal scanning for saddle-fitting should be ‘treated with caution’, research finds *H&H Plus*

  • There have been suggestions that thermal scanning may be an effective way of detemrining saddle fit. H&H speaks to researchers involved in a recently published study that found otherwise

    THE use of thermal imaging to determine saddle fit should be “treated with caution”, as a study showed incorrect fit does not affect back temperatures.

    In a study published in Animals, researchers found that thermal activity under incorrectly fitting saddles was no different to that under correctly fitted tack – or to the temperatures recorded after the horses had been lunged without saddles.

    Researcher Russell MacKechnie-Guire, of Centaur Biomechanics, told H&H a leading thermography company and trained personnel carried out the thermal scans, and that each horse had “baseline” readings taken first, to act as a control. The horses used in the study were elite-level showjumpers ridden in their usual saddles, which were assessed by a team of qualified fitters.

    Dr MacKechnie-Guire said the research followed a pilot study in which the team was involved, some years ago.

    “Thermography was being suggested as a tool to quantify saddle fit, and we wanted to find out whether it was useful,” he said.

    “There have been some studies looking at thermal activity by scanning the underside of the saddle after horses were ridden; suggesting a hot spot implies increased pressure and a cold spot no pressure, thus concluding that saddles didn’t fit by scanning the saddles. This has the potential to be misleading.”

    Dr MacKechnie-Guire said the team followed strict protocols in taking all the measurements.

    The horses were scanned after an hour in their stables with no rugs on, and no one had recently touched them, to get accurate baseline measurements. They were then lunged in cavessons, in a standardised test with equal work on each rein, then re-scanned, then ridden, again in a standardised exercise with equal work on both reins, and scanned.

    “From the baseline to after the lungeing, we found the backs’ temperature increased,” Dr MacKechnie-Guire said. “That was expected, as temperature increases with exercise, but there was no difference in temperature between the lungeing and ridden test. Had we gone not done the lunging test, without saddles, and gone straight into the ridden work, we might have thought the back temperatures had changed because of saddle fit, when it was only a function of exercise.”

    It has been suggested that high pressure under incorrectly fitting saddles could result in “hot spots” on the horse’s back but Dr MacKechnie-Guire said this was based on a “biological assumption” that increased pressure would lead to thermal activity change.

    His team measured the forces under the horses’ saddles, using a pressure-mapping system. They found that even in saddles that were assessed as too wide, so created significantly increased pressure at the front, and too narrow, which meant significantly increased pressure to the rear, there was no change in the horses’ back temperatures.

    “I’m supportive of thermography but like all tech, it has its limitations, and if you know what they are, you can work with them,” Dr MacKechnie-Guire said. “Using thermography for saddle-fitting should be approached with caution; it has many applications but not directly that.

    “You can get devices that connect to your phone, or go and buy a [thermal] camera, and people are offering saddle-fitting thermography, which is really concerning.

    “I’m not dismissing the technology, but if you were to have a scan and it concluded the saddle was a correct fit, but it’s causing high pressure, this could be misleading and ultimately the horse then has to manage that.”

    Society of Master Saddlers master fitter Mark Fisher, who was also on the research team, told H&H he had noticed thermography being used in fitting, but was “not convinced”.

    “It’s an extremely good piece of equipment but not necessarily for detecting pressure,” he said, agreeing with Dr MacKechnie-Guire that appropriate use of thermography was key.

    “We had to be very strict with the protocols,” he said. “The horses were stabled overnight, then their rugs were left off; no one could even run a hand over them, or brush them, before the scan because the cameras are so sensitive and that could have meant a change that was misinterpreted. I found it very interesting; even different colours, such as on a skewbald, were different temperatures.”

    Mr Fisher said there were five qualified saddle fitters present for the study, and “we wouldn’t consider using thermography as a tool for fitting”.

    “It’s extremely effective for other things it’s used for, but not for this,” he said.

    “It’s all about education; if we’d found it could work, on a daily basis in a normal stable yard, then great. We’ve got to keep learning, and pushing the boundaries.”

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