A link between ill-fitting saddles and back pain in riders has been identified by British researchers.
Ill-fitting saddles are not only associated with back muscle asymmetry, a stilted gait and back pain in the horse, but are associated with back pain in the rider, the researchers found.
However, they stressed that identifying the order of cause and effect was complex.
The results strongly suggest that saddle fit should be checked regularly and that riders and trainers should be encouraged to learn how to identify ill-fitting saddles.
In addition, the study highlighted the importance of being able to recognise lameness, saddle slip and rider crookedness.
Although sports horses are becoming increasingly valuable, previously there has been little objective exploration of the horse-saddle-rider interaction. In particular, there has been little work on the potential consequences of a saddle not fitting the horse, or the saddle not allowing the rider to sit in a position in which they can ride in balance.
Clinical assessments of horse-rider combinations were performed and information was subsequently obtained from the same riders via an online questionnaire, without the riders being aware of the link between the two initiatives.
The horses were selected from a variety of work disciplines, were in regular work and were presumed by their riders or owners to be sound.
Asymmetries of the back were assessed and any presence of lameness observed. Saddle slip, fit and management as well as rider straightness were evaluated from both the clinical examination and questionnaire responses.
A total of 205 riders responded to the questionnaire.
Ill-fitting saddles were identified in 43 percent of horses during the clinical assessment. Saddle slip was observed in 14.6 percent of horses, which was significantly associated with hindlimb lameness or gait abnormalities.
However, only two riders had linked saddle slip and lameness despite strong associations between a history of lameness, history of “back problems” and a history of saddle slip.
The researchers found that 38 percent of riders had back pain, and in the clinical assessment this was associated with ill-fitting saddles and either a reduced airborne phase of the step in all four limbs or a stiff, stilted canter, suggesting pain.
Rider back pain was also associated with rider crookedness. Well-fitted saddles were associated with frequent saddle fit checks.
Horses ridden by expert riders were less likely to have asymmetry of the back compared with those ridden by non-expert riders.
“Ideally, saddle fit should be checked more often than once a year to reduce the instances of ill-fitting saddles,” said doctoral student Line Greve, who carried out the study with Dr Sue Dyson, who is the head of clinical orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust.
“Yet this isn’t the whole solution because, worryingly, 30 percent of horses that had their saddles checked at least once yearly still had an ill-fitting saddle.
“What is unknown is whether these saddles had ever fitted correctly or whether a properly qualified saddle fitter was responsible for the fitting. It can only be of benefit for riders, trainers and other associated professionals to become more educated about the complexity of the links between lameness, saddle slip, ill-fitting saddles and rider crookedness.”
The full results of the study, which was supported by the charity World Horse Welfare, will be presented at the second Saddle Research Trust International Conference in Cambridge, England, on November 29 at Anglia Ruskin University.