Saddle Pad Research Shows Variable Changes in Rider Pressure

Saddle pads might help reduce painful pressure on a horse's back caused by ill-fitting saddles, but the ideal pad will vary from horse to horse and from saddle to saddle, according to a new study by Austrian researchers.

Optimum pressure relief will also depend on the discipline and even the gait, said primary study author Anja Kotschwar, DVM, research scientist at the Movement Science Group at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

Testing foam, gel, reindeer fur, and leather pads under dressage saddles having trees wider than what would be appropriate for the study horses, Kotschwar's team found that no one saddle pad resolves all problems in all situations. The horses were ridden by a professional rider at the walk and the trot on a treadmill. The researchers measured pressure using a commercially available mat under the pad.

Testing saddle pad pressure

A professional rider walked and trotted horses on a treadmill while researchers measured saddle pressure.

"Horses' backs change shape as they grow or develop back muscles through training, but buying a new saddle every time the horse's back evolves is not an affordable option for most riders," Kotschwar said. "Wider saddles leave 'growing room,' and the gaps are fixed with pads. We wanted to see if pads sold as 'therapeutic' actually decrease maximum forces and prevent pressure points, thereby improving fit."

At the trot, most of the horses (61%) experienced significant pressure relief from the gel and reindeer fur pads. Foam and gel pads were the most frequently helpful at the walk, relieving pressure in 44% of the horses. The leather pad actually increased pressure in 28% of the horses at the walk and in 33% at the trot. However, she said, none of these results can actually be used to draw general conclusions about the benefits of any of these pads. The results should also not be applied to other gaits or movements, such as jumping, nor to different kinds of saddles.

"Fitting problems are prevalent in every kind of equestrian sport, and riders are often not aware that the saddle is the problem," Kotschwar said. "Pressure measurement is the only way of knowing what's happening under the saddle during riding."

Even so, she said that riders and clinicians should not rely on pressure measurements alone. "They're just one piece of the puzzle," she said. "The computer can tell you that there are pressure points, but it can't tell you the reason for them. The hand and eye of a saddle fitting expert are equally important in finding the optimal fitting solution."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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