Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Dressage riders--and anyone else looking to free up their horse's shoulders under saddle--might be tempted to toss the saddle pad aside to free up the trapezius muscle, which attaches the animal's neck and midback vertebrae to the shoulder blade. But according to a German equitation scientist, a cut-out patterned English saddle pad could free up the muscle just as well while still providing the benefits of having a pad.
"The trapezius muscle is the muscle that has most contact with the saddle, and a poor saddle fit often leads to major problems in that area," said Manuela Wulf, BSc, researcher at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science in Neustadt, under the direction of Christine Aurich, PhD. "In general, there are quite a few saddle companies thinking about ways to relieve pressure of that muscle, but with different approaches on how to do this."
One method, Wulf said during a presentation at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland, is through the use of a pressure-resistant saddle pad that has a cut-out area over the trapezius muscle. The cut-out area--which essentially leaves an oval hole diagonally across the trapezius area--allows the saddle to "sink a little bit" into the hole, she said. As a result, both heat and pressure are better distributed. The pressure-resistant material, meanwhile, holds the shape and thickness of the pad.
Wulf and her fellow researchers studied horses' physiological reactions to the saddle pad by testing six Warmblood horses with and without the pad under saddle. Their research showed that even though the maximum pressure was greater with the pad than without, there was lower pressure in the back part of the saddle and better heat distribution throughout with the pad, Wulf said. Furthermore, heart rate variability measurements indicated that the horses were "more relaxed" under the pad than without.
"This pad can therefore help improve the welfare of ridden horses," Wulf said.
"A good-working trapezius muscle results in good freedom of shoulder movement--which you want to see in dressage horses especially, but also in a lot of other equestrian disciplines," she continued said. "A lot of endurance saddles for example also aim at giving the shoulder the most possible freedom by having cut back saddles."
While such English saddle pads are already commercially available in Europe and the United States, Wulf said the same effect might be possible by creating a cut-out version from a whole pad. However, the material would have to be equally pressure-resistant, she said, and it's important to cut in a way that would respect the placement of the trapezius muscle.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.