Saddle Slip as an Indicator of Hind-Limb Lameness

Editor's Note: This article is part of's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the British Equine Veterinary Association's 51st annual Congress, held Sept. 12-15 in Birmingham, U.K.

Whether you’re out for a light hack or heading into the show ring, a saddle that slips off-kilter is a potentially dangerous nuisance.

This problem can occur for various reasons--from rider position to asymmetry in the horse's back shape to ill-fitting equipment--leading owners to try different saddles and additional padding, often to no avail.

Intrigued by other possible causes, Line Greve, an intern at the Animal Health Trust (AHT), in Newmarket, U.K., recently completed a study alongside Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the AHT, to document the correlation between saddle ship and lameness. They presented their results at the British Equine Veterinary Association's 51st annual Congress, held Sept. 12-15 in Birmingham, U.K.

"We hypothesized that saddle slip might be induced by hind limb lameness, with the saddle slipping most frequently to the side that is lame or lamest," said Greve.

So from August 2011 to August 2012, Greve and Dyson assessed 128 horses presented at the AHT for a gait evaluation and recorded both degree of lameness and saddle slip. After Dyson performed the initial exam, each horse was ridden by at least two riders (the owner and an experienced rider from the AHT) for 30-minute periods to observe both gait and saddle slip.

The researchers evaluated lameness based on a 0-8 scale, with 0 being sound, and gauged saddle slip on a scale of 0-2, with 0 indicating no saddle slip at any gait; 1 indicating saddle slip at the trot and/or canter; and 2 indicating obvious saddle slip at trot and canter on one or both leads such that the rider must stop the horse and adjust the saddle.

Greve and Dyson graded lameness and saddle slip in rising and sitting trot on both left and right diagonals and when performing specific movements such as circles. After grading all horses they determined:

  • 11 horses were sound, 26 had forelimb lameness, 20 had sacroiliac joint-related pain and/or back pain, and 71 had hind limb lameness;
  • 20 horses had unilateral hind limb lameness, and 51 horses had bilateral hind limb lameness;
  • Lameness grades when ridden ranged from 1-6, and the most frequent lameness grade was 2;
  • 38 horses with hind limb lameness had saddle slip, and one horse with forelimb lameness had saddle slip; and
  • None of the sound horses or horses with sacroiliac joint-related pain and/or back pain had saddle slip.

Armed with these numbers, the researchers administered diagnostic anesthesia to hind-limb lame horses and repeated the ridden evaluation; this eliminated saddle slip in 97% of the cases.

"Riders were generally surprised by the complete abolishment of saddle slip when lameness was eliminated by diagnostic anesthesia," said Greve. "This emphasizes how some lameness can influence a horse's entire way of moving."

Because Greve and Dyson had previously observed that back shape might also influence saddle slip, they used a flexible curve ruler (a tool widely used in the saddle fitting industry) to measure the horses' back shapes and widths. They divided the horses' back shapes into four categories (concave, straight, convex, and very convex) based on the ratio of the width of each horse's back 3 cm and 15 cm below the top of the horse's back.

"We found a significant association between horses with saddle slip and horses with a wide back shape," Greve noted.

Other study findings of note include:

  • Saddle slip was more pronounced when hind limb lame horses were ridden by the lighter weight of the two riders.
  • 86% of the hind limb lame horses with saddle slip experienced the slip in the direction of the lame or most lame hind limb. "This was hugely associated with having the lamer limb on the outside of a 20-meter circle," said Greve.
  • Saddles tended to slip more while horses were ridden in circles compared to straight lines, regardless of lameness.
  • Saddle slip was more apparent in the rising trot compared to the sitting trot and was remarkably reduced by riding without stirrups.
  • And, there was no association between lameness severity and presence or absence of saddle slip.

"Based on the current study, saddle slip occurs in a high percent of the horses with hind limb lameness, and saddle slip may actually be an indicator of subtle or low grade hind-limb lameness," said Greve. "Our findings indicate a need for education of owners, riders, trainers, vets, and saddle fitters that saddle slip is often an indicator of hind limb lameness and not necessarily a result of an ill-fitting saddle or asymmetrical shape of the horse's back."

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