Wealth of equine performance and welfare knowledge shared at conference

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At "Welfare and Performance of the Ridden Horse: The Future", world-class presenters shared their equine knowledge and disseminated the findings from recent evidence-based studies.
Photo by Christine Benton

A worldwide audience logged on to listen to leading equine specialist veterinary clinicians, research scientists and practitioners last week at the Saddle Research Trust’s 4th International Conference.

At “Welfare and Performance of the Ridden Horse: The Future”, world-class presenters shared their equine knowledge and disseminated the findings from recent evidence-based studies.

Saddle Research Trust CEO Dr Jan Birch said the trust embraced change to present a high-quality and accessible virtual event.

“Thanks to industry, academic and charity support, together with all our sponsors, especially including our generous title sponsors Neue Schule and WOW, we reached a wider international audience than ever before, and the event is continuing to be viewed on playback around the globe.”

Chaired by Professor René Van Weeren, the day opened with a welcome from Birch, then World Horse Welfare Chief Executive Roly Owers presented a vision for the future of equestrian sport. He emphasised that the horse-human partnership underpins all of equestrianism and that we must train horses with respect, compassion and understanding. To safeguard the future of horse sport we must safeguard equine welfare. “If we can do this, the future is bright,” he said.

Applying the Science

In the first session entitled “Applying the Science” Professor Hilary Clayton presented the keynote on how the rider affects the welfare and performance of the ridden horse. She explained how rider asymmetry or a rider who is too large can compromise performance, how the synchronisation of movement with the horse is often lacking especially among less skilled riders, and how better performance is associated with minimal disruption by the rider.

Professor Heikki Handroos then showed how engineering science has been applied to develop a new generation of riding simulator which is able to provide a more “real life” experience than those currently available on the market, to benefit riders at every level. He explained how the system, which has a wide range of potential applications, also has potential as a hippotherapy tool, by enabling the optimal gait pattern to be programmed for each patient. The system incorporates advanced sensor technology, which could also be used in riding schools to monitor the learning curves of riding students.

The simulator is programmed with motions which were measured from advanced level dressage and show jumping horses whilst being ridden by advanced riders.
The new simulator showing a rider in the jumping position. © Saddle Research Trust
Through the lens

In the second session of the day, leading veterinary authority on gait analysis, Dr Filipe Serra Bragança, discussed the significant advances in technology for sophisticated objective analysis of gait for research purposes and clinical use. He explained that subjective agreement of lameness by veterinary/physiotherapy experts has been found to be low but with the evolution of modern kinematic gait analysis it is now possible to assess the horse/rider interaction, analyse performance, and quantify asymmetric gaits and lameness. In addition, research has now started in the field of equine selection and phenotyping.

Dr Russell MacKechnie-Guire presented on the topic of saddle fitting and whether an objective approach is useful or misleading. He pointed out that thermography is not a reliable tool for assessment of saddle fit for the horse, that a horse’s back dimensions can change during the day and that although more pressure mapping devices are becoming available, they are not necessarily accurate or validated. His take-home advice was to keep it simple, for example by using markers placed on the horse, saddle and rider and using a smartphone to take videos.

Dr Marie Dittmann went on to look at the high prevalence of ill-fitting saddles in Swiss riding horses and the subsequent potential for compromised performance. She highlighted the association between the presence of back pain and ill-fitting saddles but emphasised that horses have varying pain thresholds and therefore react differently in the face of discomfort. With her work showing that 95% of horse owners thought their saddle was an ideal fit, yet only 10% of those assessed had no saddle fit issues, her take-home message was that there should be more regular checking for changes in back shape and saddle fit accordingly.

Dr Sue Dyson presented the keynote on the Application of the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) which comprises 24 behaviours (facial, body and gait) the majority of which are at least 10 times more likely to be seen in a lame horse compared with a non-lame horse.
Image by julien Roudier
The horse as a stakeholder

In the third session of the day, Dr Sue Dyson presented the keynote on the Application of the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) which comprises 24 behaviours (facial, body and gait) the majority of which are at least 10 times more likely to be seen in a lame horse compared with a non-lame horse. Dyson explained that more skilled riders can improve gait quality and can in some cases obscure lameness, but in a small number of cases can exacerbate it. A more skilled rider can also change behaviours, but not reduce them or conceal them; for example, with a novice rider, the horse may show discomfort by putting the head up “above the bit”, but with a good rider the horse may become overbent.

Dyson pointed out that horses with lower RHpE scores were placed higher in competitions compared to those with higher RHpE scores. This demonstrates that competitors are likely to have greater competition success with comfortable/sound horses and that we have a moral responsibility to improve welfare and performance by recognising a problem, identifying the cause and treating it.

Dr Rachel Murray said the huge variability between horses in head shape, size and symmetry means that bridles should be individually fitted.
File image.

Dr Rachel Murray went on to look at the importance of bridle fit, stating that while there is much discussion on bit and noseband issues there is little research on bridle fit for optimal welfare and performance. She explained that the huge variability between horses in head shape, size and symmetry means that bridles should be individually fitted, taking account of facial asymmetry, and that bridle stability is important; without a noseband the bridle is less stable, which can allow the bit to move excessively, causing injury in the mouth.

However, a tight noseband places pressure on the nose, jaw and headpiece and limits movement. Murray raised the importance of routine dental care; many lesions in the mouth are not the result of the bit or noseband but secondary to teeth problems that could and should be managed.

Dyson went on to discuss what can be learned from the observation of horses’ behaviours during tacking up and mounting. She said that some horse owners think that their horse’s behaviours are normal for their horse, e.g. putting their ears back when the girth is being tightened or during rugging. Gastric ulcers are also often thought to be a cause of “girthiness” but may be secondary to lameness.

Hot topics

Dr Dee Pollard looked at equestrian road safety concluding that traffic risk is a barrier to equestrian activities. Road safety stakeholders, local authorities and governments need to work towards a more inclusive transport system.

Dr Céleste Wilkins discussed the dynamic technique analysis of dressage riders highlighting that it is essential for riders to be assessed during movement because rider posture whilst stationary does not indicate how they will sit when actively influencing the horse.

Sofia Forino looked at the self-perception of body image in female riders concluding that a higher level of self-consciousness when riding was correlated with their perceived body image being much greater than the “ideal”.

Sofia Forino looked at the self-perception of body image in female riders concluding that a higher level of self-consciousness when riding was correlated with their perceived body image being much greater than the "ideal".
Photo by Kyle Mackie

An open forum at the end of the presentations enabled listeners to pose questions. These included the legal minefield of the use of gait analysis during pre-purchase examinations, the necessity of using gait analysis in conjunction with clinical appraisal and the potential value of a riding simulator to help riders learn specific movements and reduce repetitive strain injuries in horses.

To round off the conference Richard Davison reflected on the day’s proceedings concluding that new research is essential to move the equestrian sector forwards; as riders we must develop our understanding of equine behaviour and support other riders to improve welfare and preserve public support for equestrianism.

» Playback of the conference is available until January 10, 2022, and further access to the review (individual sessions) will be available from late January onwards. Tickets to the full playback are priced at the cost of the livestream; £80 plus booking fee, while the individual sessions from January 2022 will be £15 per session, plus booking fee.

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