Studying the Rider-Saddle-Horse Interface
Horses are big, sturdy animals capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of weight. They've hauled us around for centuries, across battlefields, farmland, and show rings. But just how do the forces applied by saddle and rider affect a horse's performance and welfare? With advent of electronic pressure-measuring devices, researchers are now able to answer that question.
At the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20, at the University of Delaware, in Newark, Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, reviewed recent research findings on what she calls the rider-saddle-horse interface.
Clayton first introduced the cutting-edge equipment researchers use to measure force and pressure distribution on a horse's back: a wireless, electronic saddle pressure mat with Bluetooth transmitter. Each of this device's 256 sensors is capable of 60 readings a second—that adds up to a whopping 15,360 force and pressure measurements per second.
But how do we define force and pressure, and why are they important?
"Force is exerted between two objects in contact and causes a change in movement, direction of movement, or shape," Clayton explained. The pressure mat only registers the force component applied perpendicular to its surface.
For instance, "At trot the horse and rider are airborne in the suspension phase, then the rider descends into the saddle in the stance phases (when a diagonal pair of hooves are in contact with the ground)," she said. "Total force increases and reaches a maximum as the horse starts to push up into the next suspension and the saddle pushes against the rider's seat to provide an upward thrust. Maximal total force is approximately twice the rider's weight in trot and three times the rider's weight in canter."
Pressure is the force distributed over an entire area—in this case, the horse's back. Electronic pressure mats show pressure distribution in the form of a colored scan. Clayton said localized and/or continuous pressure to a horse's back can have such negative effects as ulcer development, tissue necrosis (death), and muscle damage.
In recent years researchers have used force and pressure measurements to study the effects of different saddles, pads, and riding styles on the horse's back. Clayton summarized the following significant findings:
In summary, Clayton said, force and pressure measurements are "of value to equitation scientists because they have applications in improving the horse's comfort, understanding the effects of different types of tack and riding techniques, and reducing the risk of back injury in ridden horses."
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.
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