Back-mapping of horses expected to be a boon for saddle fitting

A horse moves through the camera setup used in the study. Photo: Jorn Cheney
A horse moves through the camera setup used in the study. Photo: Jorn Cheney

Researchers have successfully mapped movement in the back of horses, revealing insights that should help with the design and fitting of saddles.

Equine back pain is found in at least 35% of ridden horses and is often attributed to poor saddle fit.

The method, which enabled the backs of horses to be scanned while moving, enabled Dr Jorn Cheney, a researcher at the University of Southampton in England, to produce an enhanced saddle map that can reduce back pain for horses.

Current practice for fitting saddles to horses is done on standing animals, but that doesn’t account for how the saddle will change position as the horse moves.

“We were surprised to see that the shape of the standing animal was substantially different from the stride-averaged shape of the moving animal,” said Cheney,  who studies animal locomotion.

“We expected a difference, just not to the extent that we saw.”

Cheney and his team measured the change in the shape of horses’ backs by filming them walking and trotting with an array of cameras. They then reconstructed the saddle region as it morphed throughout the stride and tracked the movement of the limbs using a technique known as videogrammetry.

The product of these measurements is a “saddle map” that highlights ideal areas for saddle placement to reduce the chances of pain or injury for the horse.

One area of the back, the withers, was found to move up and down a few centimetres during movement compared to standing still.

The mapping identifies the most and least mobile areas of horses’ backs while walking and trotting, which may help to improve saddle design and fitting methods.

“My research measures the shape of saddle region, as the horse walks and trots, to understand how the muscles bulge and the spine bends so that we can integrate that knowledge into better saddle design,” Cheney said.

“A poor interface between a saddle and a horse’s back can lead to severe tissue damage in horses, even the wastage and loss of whole muscles in the back.”

The research also found that the least mobile areas of the horse’s back are the most appropriate for distributing pressure, while repeated application of high pressure and soft tissue movement in the most mobile areas can lead to pain and tissue damage.

“Among the outcomes of this research will be new design and fitting guidance for saddlers,” said Cheney, who is working with master saddlers to ensure that the new fitting guidance is in line with professional approaches to saddling and industry philosophy.

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