The Modern Equine Vet
October 2023
Vol 13 Issue 10 2023
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News Notes

New Saddle-Mapping Technology May Reduce Back Pain

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

A new method for scanning moving horses has enabled Jorn Cheney, PhD, a researcher of animal locomotion at the University of Southampton, England, to produce an enhanced saddle-map that can reduce back pain for horses. This map identifies the most and least mobile areas of a horse’s backs while walking and trotting, which may lead to improvements in saddle design and fitting methods.

Current practice for fitting saddles to horses is done on standing animals, but that does not account for how the saddle will change position as the horse moves, according to Dr. Cheney, who presented the data at the Society for Experimental Biology Conference 2023, held in July in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“We were surprised to see that the shape of the standing animal was substantially different from the stride-averaged shape of the moving animal,” Dr. Cheney said. “We expected a difference, just not to the extent that we saw.”

Dr. Cheney and his team measured the change in the shape of horse’s 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 horse’s back, known as the withers, is located just above and behind the shoulder blades and was found to move up and down a few centimeters during movement compared with standing still.

“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,” Dr. 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.”

This 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 Dr. 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. MeV

Horse moving through the camera setup to determine saddle fit.
CREDIT: Dr. Jorn Cheney