Both sport and pleasure riders know how important saddle fit is to keeping their mounts healthy and comfortable. But what effects could considerably smaller and lighter racing saddles have on horses that are traveling considerably faster than the average reiner or jumper? Turns out these tiny pieces of tack can have a substantial impact.
In a recent study, researchers from the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, placed sensor pads under saddles worn by five racing-fit Thoroughbreds between 2 and 6 years old. Then, riders rode the horses at a canter and a gallop; the researchers collected pressure measurements at various places on the horses' backs and spines.
When applying the standards used to study English saddle fit (the discipline that has been most studied so far), scientists found that racing saddles place a high amount of pressure on the horse’s withers, a problem that is exacerbated as the rider stands in the stirrups. Both peak and mean pressure readings were two to two-and-a-half times the amount commonly detected in well-fitting English saddles, the team learned, and most of the saddles' load was concentrated over the withers' spinous process, an area especially sensitive to pressure.
By English saddle fitting standards, the researchers concluded that racing saddles fit poorly because they touch these spinous processes and exert a “harmful” amount of pressure on horses’ backs.
The problem likely causing the increased pressure, explained Katja Geser-von Peinen, DrMedVet, FVH, is the basic construction of most racing saddles. She said that racing saddles are designed to be as light as possible, which discourages the use of padding to protect the withers, and the headplates (traditionally metal pieces that give shape to the pommel) are too wide for the average Thoroughbred, failing to lend appropriate support.
When the rider takes up the racing position, he or she drops his or her weight completely into the stirrups, adding more pressure to that caused by the saddle.
The horse’s gait can factor into the pressure load, too.
“The pressure is also influenced from the horse, meaning when the horse has less vertical movement, the peak pressures are lower,” said Geser-von Peinen. The canter has more vertical motion, which means peak pressure is low and well-distributed. When the horse transitions to a gallop, the peak pressures escalate, while the horse’s ability to redistribute the added pressure declines.
So how can racehorse trainers and riders reduce the amount of pressure on their horses' backs and withers?
“This could be relieved with additional padding—which means more weight of course,” said Geser-von Peinen.
While added weight might be a concern, given how commonly Thoroughbreds encounter back issues, Geser von-Peinen thinks it could benefit the horses in the long run.
“Pressure is force multiplied by time—so it depends on how long you exert pressure on the withers (as to how serious it can be)” she said. “It’s known that regular use of pressure on the spine leads to back pain, which leads to loss of performance.”
The study, "Applied load on the horse's back under racing conditions," was published in the Veterinary Journal.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.