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Prevention of back pain in horses and adaptation of the saddle



Did you know? Today, almost one horse in two suffers from back pain*. The practice of various equestrian disciplines is the main cause of back pain, which are very rarely observed in unridden horses. Why ? Previous studies** have shown a correlation between back pain in horses and the use of unsuitable equipment coupled with poor weight distribution of the rider. Attention to the choice of equipment is therefore essential and the adaptation of mounted work can also be of great importance beyond the equipment used. 


Signs of back pain in your horse

There are a few common signs that can attract our attention. Your horse can sometimes show discomfort from the saddle or from riding in different ways. You may have already experienced one of these situations: when your horse bends his ears or bites when approaching a saddle or when he does not let himself be gored easily (who has never heard "he puffs up when gored!"). It is also possible to spot a sensitivity to brushing at the level of the girth passage, the withers, the spinal column... Certain more disabling signs may indicate a painful back: 

  • a lameness 
  • a drop in performance
  • a change in gait 
  • a refusal of certain exercises 
  • a change in behavior 
  • a horse that no longer rolls (or less)
  • an appearance of muscle stiffness 
  • an amyotrophy
  • etc. 

The consequences of back pain can be manifold and are often characterized by a drop in performance, an increase in health and equipment costs, or even the impossibility of riding the horse in the worst case.

Le Nouvel Écuyer tips: It is often recommended to walk your horse for about twenty minutes to warm up the muscles, it is possible to ask for lateral-flexion exercises, lateral movements, while looking for a low and round attitude. You can also encourage a gallop phase in a straight line or in wide circles before trotting. Adaptation is the key ! Each horse has different needs, hence the need to question the equipment to be adopted as well as the work to be put in place. 


Posture and equipment : an essential combination for the performance of the horse and rider

The rider's position can also have an impact on the horse's health. Who hasn't had their posture corrected? Indeed, our posture plays an essential role in the good locomotion and understanding of the horse. 

Why work on your position ?

The rider must bear in mind that his posture influences the behavior of his horse. Having a balanced position, i.e. having a neutral pelvis and being balanced above the feet, will allow the rider to accompany all the horse's movements without hindering it. It will also be easier to be ready to face all situations (hello ghost in the corner of the arena), the communication and the connection between him and his mount will be of better quality. To have a good position on horseback, you should not hesitate to work on your basics; redoing the saddle for example, or simple straightness exercises. So yes, it is sometimes difficult but you will thank yourself afterwards, we assure you! There are now ways to learn to accept your body's functioning and motor preferences and to use them, we will come back to this in a dedicated article. 

What is a properly fitted saddle ?  

A saddle that isn’t adapted to the horse's morphology can lead to compression zones, rubbing, abrasions... Pressure points can be created on the horse's back which can cause injuries in the long term. 

The purpose of the saddle is to act as a link between the horse and the rider. It allows the rider's weight to be distributed evenly. There are as many saddles as there are riding styles. An adapted saddle must take into account the disciplines practiced, the morphology of the horse and the rider. For the rider, it helps him to obtain a neutral balance on the horse's back, i.e. the pelvis is neither anteverted nor retroverted, and it must minimize postural defects. The size of the seat, which is measured in inches, must be carefully chosen according to the morphology (height, weight, shape of the pelvis, distance between the pins, etc.) of the rider. It is recommended to be accompanied by a professional such as a saddler and/or a saddle fitter when choosing a saddle. Indeed, the body condition of your horse and yours will often determine the brand to be preferred. There are many different saddles with different designs. For example, a saddle that fits a pony will not necessarily fit a horse with prominent withers. To put it simply, the right equipment is: a saddle - a horse - a rider - a discipline. 

Detection of an unfit saddle thanks to the pressure sensor mat.

On your mounts... Ready, set, go ! 

Equine professionals can see whether a saddle fits or not, but some details are invisible to the naked eye. For example, it is not clear how the saddle sits when the horse is in motion. During our tests we were able to detect various ill-fitting saddles, we will show you two of them with the case of a so-called twisted saddle and the case of a bridging saddle. Professionals in the horse industry can see whether a saddle fits or not, but some details are invisible to the naked eye. For example, it is not clear how the saddle sits when the horse is in motion. 

During our tests, we were able to detect various unsuitable saddles, we propose to see two of them with the case of a so-called twisted saddle and the case of a saddle that bridges.

The saddle with a twisted tree : We can see an example of a saddle dating from 2004. It has belonged to several riders and has not always been well stored and transported. To the naked eye, we can see that the saddle is twisted (at the front the pommel is slightly twisted/twisted to the left and at the back the cantle is twisted to the right), the uniformity and the balance of the saddle is thus broken. The sensor mat allows us to verify our hypotheses, to understand and measure the impact on the horse's back during a session. Pressure peaks can be seen, particularly at the front left and rear right of the saddle. Thanks to the recordings we noticed that these peaks are not regular or repeatable from one trotting stride to the next. Furthermore, the graph shows that there is much more pressure on the right than on the left, which proves that the saddle is not stable at all and therefore the rider is totally unbalanced. This saddle, besides being unsuitable for the horse, also has a negative impact on the rider's posture. 

The “bridge” saddle : Another example, this time with a saddle that "bridges", by remaining static, one could have thought that the saddle could suit the horse. However, as soon as the horse started to move (especially at a trot or canter) we could observe that the saddle "bridged", i.e. the saddle rests on the front and back but in the middle there is less contact or no contact at all on the horse's back. The pressure sensor pad helps the professional to detect the origin of the pressure points: do they come from the saddle, the rider or the horse? The trick is to know how to analyze these pressures in order to draw the right conclusions. We can see from the data collected that the pressures are not homogeneous: there is very little pressure in the center of the saddle compared to the front and back.  The idea is that the closer and more similar the three curves are, the more homogeneous the pressures exerted by the saddle.*** In general, we are looking for stability and in this case, as the saddle is not stable in movement, the pressures cannot be regular. The well-being and performance of the couple using this saddle can be degraded in the long term.

This is why it is important to try a saddle both statically and in movement to make sure it is suitable for you and your horse! 


Sources : * C.M.Mejdell & F- Aksnes, 2012

**OSAV research report 2017 - 2020, Swiss Federal Council "Back health of Swiss saddle horses - a global study".


*** Homogeneous pressures do not necessarily mean that the saddle is 100% suitable. The data must be studied on a case-by-case basis and the horse must be taken into account as a whole.



Pauline Vanpeperstraete

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