Putting the horse first: The future of welfare and perfomance

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© Michelle Aime Oesch/Saddle Research Trust

A worldwide audience logged on to listen to leading equine specialist veterinary clinicians, research scientists and practitioners on “Welfare and Performance of the Ridden Horse: The Future”, at last month’s Saddle Research Trust conference.

Full playback was available up to January 17. Access to the individual sessions will be available shortly, and the proceedings are available for download.

Saddle Research Trust CEO Dr Jan Birch said the team “embraced change” to present a high quality and accessible virtual event for its 4th International Conference, chaired by Professor René Van Weeren.

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

Sage words from World Horse Welfare Chief Executive Roly Owers followed the opening: “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.

“Too often, equestrianism has been on the back foot when it comes to the welfare agenda. For the sake of the horse, as well as the sport’s social licence, we need to be more proactive and move more quickly to improve welfare in a sport that is often reluctant to progress from traditional practices.”

The conference was split into four sessions, with “Applying the science” first up. Professor Hilary Clayton presented the keynote lecture 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.

The latest generation of simulators offer a more realistic experience for riders.
The latest generation of simulators offer a more realistic experience for riders. © Saddle Research Trust

Professor Heikki Handroos then showed how engineering science has been applied to develop a new generation of riding simulators that are able to provide a more “real life” experience than those currently available on the market, to benefit riders at every level.

In the second session of the day, “Through the lens”, 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.

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 the assessment of saddle fit for the horse. 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. With her work showing that 95% 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.

"Saddle fitting: is an objective approach useful or misleading?" was presented by Russell MacKechnie-Guire.
One of the topics of the SRT Conference was “Saddle fitting: is an objective approach useful or misleading?” © Russell MacKechnie-Guire/Saddle Research Trust

In the third session of the day “The horse as a stakeholder”, Dr Sue Dyson presented the keynote lecture on the Application of the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) which comprises 24 behaviours,  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 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.

In one of the "Hot Topics", 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. © Céleste Wilkins
In one of the “Hot Topics”, 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. © Céleste Wilkins/SRT

Dr Rachel Murray went on to look at the importance of bridle fit, noting that 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.

She 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.

Gait analysis expert Dr Filipe Serra Bragança discussed the significant advances in technology for sophisticated objective analysis of gait for research purposes and clinical use.
Gait analysis expert Dr Filipe Serra Bragança discussed the significant advances in technology for sophisticated objective analysis of gait for research purposes and clinical use. © Filipe Serra Bragança/SRT

In the final session “Hot Topics of the moment” were discussed.

  • 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.
  • 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’.
  • 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.

» Access to the individual sessions will be made available soon, at £15 per session, plus booking fee.

» A PDF of the 68-page Conference Proceedings can be downloaded here.

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