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“The horse under pressure”

The influence of the saddle on the horse
and its locomotion.

Patricia de Cocq
Cambridgelaan 743 k2
3584 DW Utrecht
The Netherlands
+31614183813
P.deCocq@students.uu.nl

Supervisors:
Dr. W. Back, Department of Equine Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. P. R. van Weeren, Department of Equine Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Table of contents
Chapter 1

General introduction
Derona Equine Performance Laboratory
Saddle research
Aims of the project
References

3
3
3
4
4

Chapter 2

The effects of a girth, a saddle, and weight on the
movements of the horse.
Summary
Introduction
Materials and methods

5
5
6
7

Horses
Lunging girth, saddle and 75 kg lead
Marker placement
Data collection
Data analysis
Statistics

Results
Discussion
Conclusion
Manufacturers’ addresses
References

Chapter 3

The pressure patterns underneath the saddle
in two different ways of saddle fitting
Summary
Introduction
Materials and methods

12
15
16
16
16

19
19
20
21

Pressure measuring equipment
Validity
Comparison saddle fitting methods

Validity

25

Results, conclusion and discussion

Comparison saddle fitting methods

26

Results
Discussion
Conclusion

Manufacturers’ addresses
References

28
29

Chapter 4

General discussion
Goals
Movement study
Pressure measurement study
Relation between studies
Options for further research

30
30
30
30
31
31

Supplement

Saddle-fitting points

33

2

Chapter 1
General introduction
Derona Equine Performance Laboratory
In different types of equestrian sports large efforts are asked of horses. To achieve
these efforts it is important that all factors around the horse are optimal. These factors include
training, shoeing and saddle fit. The Derona Equine Performance Laboratory focuses on the
effect of these factors on the performance of the horse. At this moment the research can be
divided into three main areas. The Jumpex project focuses on the development of jumping
ability and the effect of early age training. The Hoof-balance project concerns the effect of
shoeing and trimming in the adult horse. Next to this the development of the foot
conformation from new-born to adult and the effect of trimming on this process is
investigated. Another topic in this research area is the effect of orthopaedic hoof supportive
tools and their role in the treatment of different clinical problems. The last project is the Backkinematics project. This project started with the description of the three dimensional
movements of the equine back and the development of a non-invasive method to measure
these movements. This model has been used to evaluate the effect of a saddle and weight. The
research will be continued with a study on the effect of lameness on the back-movements and
an evaluation of different back-problem therapies.

Saddle research
For centuries, people have ridden horses and have used saddles, but with little
understanding of the effect of the saddle on the horses. Obvious trauma such as hair loss,
discoloured with hairs and open sores will attract the attention, but little thought is given to
the effect of the saddle and the rider on the horse when there is no obvious problem. An illfitting saddle is said to be a major cause of poor performance (Harman 1994, 1999), but even
this is not scientifically proved.
In the different types of equestrian sport the kinematical abilities of horses determine a
large part of their performance. If differences in the kinematical variables could be found
between an unloaded horse and a horse with a saddle or a saddle with weight, a saddle could
induce poor-performances.
Even if the effect of the saddle on the movements of the horse are investigated the
question remains what a fitting saddle is. Saddle-fitters have their own opinion on the topic.
They agree on a lot of points, but especially the size and angle of the tree and the symmetrical
or asymmetrical filling of the panels remain a topic of discussion (Suppl.). The development
of pressure measuring devices would make it possible to have an objective evaluation of the
saddle fit.

3

Aims of the project
The objective of this study was twofold. The first hypothesis was that a saddle but
especially a saddle with weight would have an effect on the flexion-extension movement of
the back of the horse. This effect would be that the extension would increase and that the
flexion would decrease. An effect was also expected of the range of motion. As a reaction to
these changed back-movements an increase in retraction of the fore limbs and in protraction
of the hind limbs was expected. These changed movements of the horse will help to
understand the aetiology of different back-problems such as soft tissue problems and the
kissing spine syndrome.
Secondly a pressure measurement device was used to evaluate the effect of a
symmetrical and a asymmetrical saddle-fit. The hypothesis was that a better fitting saddle
would have a more equal left to right pressure distribution. This fit is probably better for the
horse. In the process of doing this limitations of the pressure measurement device were
carefully looked at.

References
Harman, J.C. (1994) Practical use of a computerized saddle pressure measuring device to
determine the effects of saddle pads on the horse’s back. J. Equine Vet. Sci., 14, 606611
Harman, J.C. (1999) Tack and saddle fit. Vet. Clin. N. Am.: Equine Pract. 15, 247-261

4

Chapter 2
The effects of a girth, a saddle, and weight on the movements of the horse.
Submitted to the Equine veterinary Journal
P. de Cocq, W. Back and P.R. van Weeren
Department of Equine Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University,
Yalelaan 12, 3584 CM Utrecht, The Netherlands
Keywords: equine; back; kinematics; load; tack; kissing spine

Summary
Reasons for performing study
To determine the effects which pressure on the sternum and pressure on the back
exerted by various forms of tack and under loaded and unloaded conditions have on the
movements of the horse.
Hypothesis
It was hypothesized that a saddle with weight would increase the extension of the
back and that the horse would try to compensate for this by altering the pro- and/or
retraction angles of the front and/or hind limbs. A similar effect but in a smaller
proportion was expected from a saddle without weight and a lunging-girth.
Methods
Back kinematics and pro- and retraction angles of front and hind limbs were
captured using a commercially available motion capture system during treadmill
locomotion at walk, trot and canter under 4 conditions: no tack, a lunging girth, a saddle
without weight, and a saddle with 75 kg of extra weight. Data were expressed as
maximal extension and flexion angles of vertebrae L3 and L5 and as total range of
motion (ROM) of these vertebrae. Limb movement was quantified in terms of maximal
pro- and retraction angles.
Results
The overall extension of the back was increased by a saddle with extra weight in
all gaits. At walk the retraction angle of the fore limb increases. At trot the increase in
retraction angle of the fore limb is accompanied by (smaller) increases in retraction
angle of the hind limbs and in the protraction angle in the fore limbs. At canter a
smaller decrease in the maximal flexion angles of L3 and L5 can also be seen in the
saddle without weight situation, but there is also no influence on pro- and retraction
angles in all situations.
Conclusions
Weight and a saddle do influence the flexion extension movement of the back by
inducing an overall extension, but do not affect total mobility. The changes in pro- and
retraction of the legs are a compensatory mechanism for the changed back position.
Potential relevance
The overall back extension changes caused by a saddle and weight may
contribute to muscle pain, ligamentous pain and the kissing spine syndrome.
5

Introduction
Back-pain is one of the most common and least understood clinical problems in
sporting horses. Causes of these back problems are still very hard to identify. As an important
cause or aggregator of back pain, badly designed or poorly fitting saddles are often mentioned
(Harman 1994, 1999).
“Cold back”, a syndrome of persistent hypersensitivity over the back with stiffness
and dipping of the spine on being saddled or mounted that wears off within a few minutes, is
seen as one of the signs of saddle-fitting problems (Harman 1999). Whether ‘cold back’ is
actually painful, associated with some previous back pain or merely a matter of temperament
is unclear (Jeffcott 1999). It is a fact that soft tissue injuries are important causes of back pain.
Muscle damage and ligamentous strain are seen in about 25 % of the horses with back pain
and are often related to accidents that happened during ridden exercise (Jeffcott 1980).
Chronic muscle or ligamentous pain could be caused or made worse by the pressure that a
saddle with rider puts on the muscles and ligaments.
Of the bony pathological conditions, crowding and overriding of the dorsal spinous
processes or kissing spine syndrome (KSS) is a common condition that may cause back
problems. The lesions are detected most frequently in the saddle bearing area, between the
12th and 18th vertebrae (Jeffcott 1980; Walmsley et al. 2002). It can be diagnosed in about
30% of the healthy horse population (Jeffcott 1980; Rieland 2002) and it also occurred in the
extinct horse Equus occidentalis (Klide 1989). Clinically relevant KSS usually has a higher
degree of severity in radiological findings (Jeffcott 1980; Ranner and Gerhards 2002). The
incidence of KSS is related to the type of work; probably to the amount of extension of the
back required (Jeffcott 1980; Rieland 2002). One of the causes of KSS is thought to be
weight-bearing and other stresses put on horses by the rider.
The kinematics of the back have long been unexplored because the subtle movements
are seldom detected by the human eye and the back is difficult to access with kinematic
analysis techniques; this has changed in recent years. The normal movement range of the
equine back has been studied in vitro (Townsend et al. 1983; Townsend and Leach 1984;
Denoix 1987). The normal back movements of the horse in stance and in motion have also
been studied in vivo (Pourcelot et al. 1998; Licka and Peham 1998; Licka et al. 2001;
Audigié et al. 1999; Faber et al. 2000, 2001a,b; Haussler et al. 2001). The effect of high
speed trotting on the back movements of the horse has been studied ( Robert et al. 2001), as
has the effect of conformational aspects (Johnston et al. 2002). The effect of manual therapy
has been evaluated in a case study (Faber et al. 2003).
Although the saddle is seen as one of the biggest causes of back pain, and weightbearing is seen as an important etiologic factors in KSS, the effects of a saddle and weight on
the back movements of the horse have never been studied. We therefore focused on the
analysis of the influence of tack (lunging girth, saddle) and weight (saddle with 75 kg of lead)
on back movements and locomotion in general as exemplified by pro- and retraction angles of
front and hind limbs.

6

Materials and methods
Horses
Nine Dutch Warmblood horses were used (8 mares and 1 gelding, mean ± sd age 9.4 ±
4.8 years, and mean ± sd weight 568 ± 55 kg). The horses were clinically sound and were in
daily use by the Veterinary Students Riding Association. Four horses were fully accustomed
to the treadmill1 as a result of earlier kinematical research. These horses underwent at least
five trainings sessions with saddle or with saddle with weight before the start of the
measurements. Five horses had no prior experience on the treadmill. These horses underwent
at least 15 training sessions beforehand, from which at least five sessions were with saddle or
saddle and weight. None of the horses showed any signs of ‘cold back’.
Lunging girth, saddle and 75 kg lead
The same, standard 17” dressage saddle (7 kg), and a standard lunging girth were used
on all horses. The same saddle was used in the situation without weight as in the situation
with 75 kg of additional weight. In the last condition, two bags with each 15 kg of lead were
attached to the stirrup bars of the saddle. Additionally, two lead flaps of 22.5 kg were shaped
like the saddle and were attached on top of the saddle using safety girths and a lunging girth
(Fig. 1).

A

B

C

D

Fig. 1: Pictures of all four situations:
A = Unloaded; B = Lunging-girth; C = Saddle; D = Saddle with 75 kg of lead

7

Marker placement
The positions of the dorsal spinal processes of T6, T10, T13, T17, L1, L3, L5 and S3
were identified by palpation and used for marker placement (Faber 2001c, 2002; Fig. 2).
Identical marker position in all conditions was ensured by shaving little spots. On these
positions, spherical, reflective markers (19 mm ∅) were placed. Positions T10, T13 and T17
could not be used in the conditions with a saddle for obvious reasons.
As marker position for the determination of pro- and retraction angles the proximal
spina scapula, lateral collateral ligaments of the metacarpophalangeal or metatarsophalangeal
joints over the centre of rotation of the joint, and the cranial part of the trochanter major of the
femur were used (Back et al. 1995a,b; Fig.2). For these marker positions, round, flat,
reflective markers (18 mm ∅) were used that were left on the horses between the
measurements.

Fig. 2: Marker placement
Thoracic vertebrae 6, 10, 13 and 17; Lumbar vertebrae 1, 3 and 5; Sacral vertebra 3
1 = Proximal spina scapula; 2 = Lateral collateral ligament of the metacarpophalangeal
joint; 3 = Cranial part of the trochanter major of the femur; 4 = Lateral collateral ligament
of the metatarsophalangeal joint

8

Data collection
A modern, commercially available analysing system (ProReflex)2 was used to collect
the data. The system consists of 6 cameras and is based on passive infrared reflective markers
and infrared cameras. Calibration of the system is done dynamically, using a calibration frame
that defines the orientation of the coordinate system and a wand with a defined length. The
positive Y-axis was orientated in the line of progression, parallel to the treadmill. The positive
Z-axis was orientated upward, and the positive X-axis was orientated perpendicular to the Yand Z-axis, to the right-hand side of the horse. The cameras were placed around the treadmill
to obtain a field of view of 1.3 m * 4.0 m * 2.5 m (Fig. 3). The system’s inaccuracy in
identifying the markers’ locations in this set-up was less than 1.4 %.
All horses had a 15-minute warm-up period just before the measurement.
Measurements were performed under 4 conditions: bare back, lunging girth, saddle without
weight, saddle with weight (Fig. 2). The order of the conditions was assigned randomly. For
each horse under each condition, movement was captured in steady state locomotion at walk
(1.6 m/s) for 10s, and at trot (4.0 m/s) and canter (7.0 m/s) for 5s at a sample rate of 240 Hz.

Fig. 3 Measurement set-up

9


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