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  • Alison Lincoln

Let's talk about tack, pressure, performance and welfare

Keep in mind that good welfare contributes to good performance particularly in relation to tack so by paying attention to the research in these areas we not only benefit the welfare of the horse, we are also likely to help our performance.

The interaction between horse, tack and rider is complex. Research published in the Equine Veterinary Journal in 2019 concluded that rider position and stability in the saddle were of vital importance for optimal performance and a rider that is too large for the saddle, out of balance or crooked results in the uneven distribution of force under the saddle. This sounds obvious but when you consider the forces on the horse’s back by the addition of a rider any crookedness or imbalance becomes significant.

At walk with the addition of a rider the average force on the horse’s back is at least equal to the rider’s weight, at trot it’s equivalent to twice the rider’s weight and at canter 2½ - 3 times the rider’s weight. Rider height also has significant influence on the rider’s position in the saddle and therefore weight distribution. If the saddle is too small for the rider, they will tend to find themselves sitting on the back of the saddle rather than in the middle. Sitting on the back of the saddle increases the forces transmitted through the back of the saddle and research has shown in these cases the back pain scores of the horse, using behavioural markers, increase. This highlights the importance for both welfare and performance of a saddle that not only fits the horse but also allows the rider to sit in a position in which they can ride in a stable and balanced position.

There is also a lot of interest in studying the effects of the girth on performance and interestingly some of these studies have shown that the highest pressures beneath the girth are located behind the elbows not on the sternum where girth galls tend to appear. A modified girth designed to avoid areas of peak pressures, particularly in the region behind the elbow, significantly improves the horse’s locomotion at gallop with increased hock flexion, hindlimb protraction and knee flexion.

The addition of elastic to a girth decreases the stability of the saddle and can provide up to 6” of stretch meaning it is easy to overtighten. Over tightening the girth affects the horse’s performance not because of constricting the chest and preventing the lungs from expanding but because it decreases the effectiveness of the muscles around the front of the chest and shoulder that move the forelegs.

One of the more surprising discoveries is the effect bridle fit and design has on the locomotor apparatus of the horse. Just as studies have shown that reducing high pressures beneath the girth and saddle is associated with improved locomotion so too is reducing pressure from the bridle. It’s long been believed that horses experience bridle pressure at the poll but research found no significant areas of pressure there. However, areas of high peak pressure were located at the base of the ears where the browband attaches to the headpiece. This location of maximum pressure under the headpiece lies over an area of muscle involved in flexing the neck and bringing the forelimb forward. Which helps explain why pressure at this location restricts movement and relieving that pressure frees up movement.

Areas of high pressure beneath the noseband can also have an effect on the way the horse moves. Removing the noseband altogether doesn’t help as this reduces the stability of the bridle and it’s been shown that horses perform better when the bridle, as well as the saddle, is stable. Lesions and sores, across a variety of disciplines, are 2.6 times more likely in horses ridden with no noseband compared to those in loosely adjusted nosebands.

A quick word about treeless saddles

A summary of the research to date by Clayton & MacKechnie-Guire (2022) concluded that some riders may choose to use treeless saddles that are purported to offer a more universal fit but, without a tree, pressure tends to be concentrated in small areas on the horse’s back. Horses ridden in treeless saddles may have focal painful areas (pressure points) in the epaxial musculature at T13-T17, which corresponds to the riders contact points (seat bones). Some treeless saddles have the stirrup leathers suspended by a continuous band across the horse’s back, which may also cause localised pressures and back soreness directly over the dorsal midline

My take on all this research is that firstly the numbers are small so it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions. The research that has been done suggests that treeless saddles are likely to concentrate pressure in a more localised area under the rider’s seat bones than a conventional saddle. In essence, treed saddles are more rigid and therefore more stable whereas treeless saddles are more flexible and therefore more unstable. Ultimately it is the individual horse that gets to decide whether something is comfortable or not but it is the humans job to understand the pros and cons of their tack choices so they can make informed decisions.


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