The Effects of Saddle Fit on Horse Behaviour: Insights from Infrared Thermography
Summary: Infrared thermography is a relatively new technology that can be used alongside behavioral observation to determine whether a horse is likely to be experiencing pain. It it particularly well-suited to examining the effect of ill-fitting tack, as it allows the thermographer to see exactly where some piece of tack might be causing distress. Here, infrared thermography is introduced and explored as an adjunct to more traditional tools like the ethogram.
The relationship between a horse and their rider is a complex and intricate one, with various factors influencing their compatibility and performance. One often overlooked aspect is the impact of tack fit on a horse’s behaviour and comfort. It is crucial to have correctly fitted horse tack, such as saddles, bridles, and other equipment, to ensure the optimal performance of both the horse and the rider. When tack is not fitted correctly, it can lead to numerous issues, ranging from discomfort and pain for the horse to impaired communication and decreased control for the rider. Hence, it is essential to understand and ensure the proper fitting of horse tack for the benefit and protection of both horse and rider.
So, how can you tell if your tack is fitting correctly and not causing discomfort or injury to the horse?
One of the most effective methods to assess the fit and function of the saddle is to use thermography technology. Thermography is a non-invasive diagnostic technique that uses an infrared camera to measure the surface temperature of your horse’s body and detect any areas of inflammation, pain, or stress.
Understanding the concept of an infrared camera
IRT, or infrared thermography, is a non-invasive imaging technique that catches infrared radiation to detect and measure heat patterns on the surface of an object. This camera operates by using the properties of infrared light, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies just outside the range of human vision. It is commonly used for various purposes, including examining equines for health assessment.
One of the first uses of infrared thermography for horses was developed in 1975 by Nelson and Osheim to find soring in horses.3 Soring happens when chemicals are used to deliberately hurt a horse’s leg to influence its stride for show purposes. This study showed how IRT could detect the signs of soring, like swelling and scars, on a horse’s leg. The method is now approved by FEI (International Equestrian Federation) to use as an aid in the diagnostics for increased leg sensitivity during CSI (Concours de Saint International) level shows.4
In equine health, IRT can help identify potential issues by analyzing the heat distribution patterns on the horse’s body, which can indicate areas of inflammation, injury, or abnormal blood flow. The principle behind IRT is that different body tissues emit varying heat levels, and changes in these heat patterns can signal underlying health problems.
The IRT process involves using a specialized camera or thermal imaging system that captures the infrared radiation emitted by the horse’s body. This camera converts the heat patterns into a visual image, where hotter areas appear as brighter colours (red, orange, or yellow). In comparison, cooler areas appear as darker colours (blue, black, or purple).
During the examination, the professional will carefully analyze the thermal images, looking for abnormal or asymmetrical heat patterns. Hotspots or areas of concentrated heat may indicate inflammation, injury, or a potential underlying health issue. These findings can then be further evaluated, and appropriate actions or treatments can be determined.
One of the factors that can affect the horse’s back temperature patterns and blood flow is the saddle their are using. A well-fitted saddle will distribute the rider’s weight evenly over the horse’s back, allowing optimal performance and comfort. A poorly fitted saddle can cause discomfort, pain, and even injury to a horse. Therefore, ensuring that the saddle matches the horse’s shape, size, and movement is crucial. A saddle that is too tight, loose, or uneven can cause many problems for the horse. For example, a saddle that is too tight can squeeze the horse’s skin and muscles, reducing blood flow and causing pain. A saddle that is too loose can slide around and rub against the horse’s skin, creating friction and heat. An uneven saddle can put more pressure on one side of the horse’s spine than the other, causing misalignment and muscle strain. These problems can affect the horse’s performance, comfort, and health. Thermography is a valuable tool to check the fit and balance of a saddle. It measures the temperature of the horse’s back before and after riding and shows any areas that are too hot or cold. This can indicate where the saddle is causing pressure, friction, or imbalance. By using thermography, you can adjust the saddle to fit your horse better and prevent any injuries or soreness.
Exploring the connection between saddle fit and equine behaviour
Ensuring a horse’s saddle fits properly is necessary for the horse’s comfort and behaviour. The way the saddle fits on a horse can significantly impact performance, as well as health and well-being. A well-fitted saddle can significantly affect the horse’s attitude toward riding and training.
Some of the effects of an ill-fitted saddle are:
Pressure points and pain: If a saddle does not fit properly, it can create pressure points or cause excessive pressure on specific areas of the horse’s back. This can lead to discomfort, soreness, and even pain. The horse may show behavioural issues such as bucking, rearing, or bolting in response to this discomfort.
Restricted movement: An ill-fitting saddle can restrict the horse’s natural movement and range of motion. It may interfere with the shoulder or back muscles, hindering their ability to freely extend and flex. As a result, the horse may exhibit resistance during riding, reluctance to engage in certain activities, or difficulty performing certain movements.
Muscle tension and asymmetry: A poorly fitting saddle can cause muscle tension and asymmetry in the horse’s back and body. This can happen when the saddle puts uneven or excessive pressure on one side, causing the horse to develop muscular imbalances. Chronic muscular discomfort can lead to behavioural issues like tail swishing, irritability, or resistance to being saddled.
Balance and stability: If the saddle does not sit correctly on the horse’s back, it can create an unbalanced weight distribution. This can affect the horse’s ability to carry the rider comfortably and maintain their own balance. The horse may display behaviours such as stumbling, tripping, or reluctance to move forward.
Nerve impingement: A saddle that is too narrow or incorrectly positioned can put pressure on the horse’s withers or spine, potentially leading to nerve impingement. This can cause pain, numbness, and tingling sensations, resulting in behavioural issues like tail swishing, pinning ears, or an overall sour attitude towards work.
Psychological impact: Constant discomfort caused by an ill-fitting saddle can have a negative psychological effect on a horse. They may start associating riding with pain or discomfort, leading to behavioural issues like anxiety, resistance, or even fear-related responses. A comfortable saddle, on the other hand, promotes a better mental state and willingness to work.
Resistance: The horse may resist the rider’s aids or cues, for example refusing to go forward, bracing against the bit, or resisting direction or gait changes. This resistance could stem from the pain or discomfort caused by pressure points or pinched nerves.5
Horses are complex animals with individual temperaments and emotions. Depending on the situation and their personality, they may express their discomfort or distress in various ways. Some horses may exhibit only a single indicator of pain, while others may display multiple indicators. It is essential to observe and understand the psychological state of the horse in question to offer suitable feedback for the case.
The ill-fitting saddle can cause changes in behaviour6:
While preparing to ride:
- Being reluctant or reactive when the girth is touched or tightened may show as girthiness.
- Holding the head high and stiffening the neck muscles.
- Pinning the ears back may indicate displeasure or irritation.
- Shaking the head up and down vigorously.
- Showing a hard or wide-eyed expression, which may signal fear or stress.
- Moving away or flinching when the saddle is put on its back.
- Trying to bite the air or the person who is saddling the horse.
- Tensing up the whole body during the tacking-up process, as the horse expects to feel pain or discomfort from the saddle.
- Moving away from or avoiding the mounting block.
- Walking or trotting off as soon as the rider mounts.
- Shifting their weight from one side to the other or from front to back.
- Dropping their back or sinking its spine when the rider settles in the saddle.
- Nodding their head up and down or shaking it side to side.
- Looking at the rider or attempting to bite the saddle or girth.
- Pinning their ears back against their head or flicking them rapidly.
- Swishing their tail forcefully or tucking it under.
- Exhibiting signs of skin irritation or muscle tension, such as twitching, flinching, or sweating.
- If the saddle restricts the horse’s movement or causes pain in the back or shoulder area, the horse may demonstrate stiffness or a shortened stride. They may resist engaging their hindquarters or struggle to maintain the desired rhythm and movement.
- The horse may toss their head up and down or side to side, indicating irritation or discomfort in the neck, shoulders, or back.
- The horse may swish their tail vigorously, indicating annoyance or pain in the hindquarters or back.
- The horse may buck or kick out with their hind legs, indicating pain or discomfort in the back or loins.
- The horse may rear up on their hind legs, indicating pain or discomfort in the withers, shoulders, or back.
- The horse may refuse to move forward, stop abruptly, or turn away from the direction of travel, indicating pain or discomfort in the back or girth area.
- The horse may hollow their back and tighten their abdominal muscles, indicating pain or discomfort in the back or spine.
- The horse may resist the rider’s aids, such as steering, bending, or collecting, indicating pain or discomfort in the back, neck, or shoulders.
- This is a sign of pain or injury in the horse’s limbs that can result from point pressure on the withers or back.
After the ride:
- The horse may show signs of soreness or stiffness when being groomed or touched on the back, such as flinching, pinning ears, biting, or kicking.
- The horse might be unwilling to move forward, bucking, rearing, or bolting after the ride.
- The horse also can develop trust issues towards humans, like running away, turning back, not accepting touch, standing in the far corner of the stall, or unwillingness to interact, and can also be apathetic, where they are not interested in their surroundings and do not respond to stimuli.
How infrared cameras detect ill-fitted horse saddles
To accurately assess the fit and comfort of horse saddle through thermography, it is essential to seek the guidance and support of a qualified and experienced thermographer. Thanks to their expertise, they can evaluate the fit and comfort of horse saddles and identify any potential problems or injuries. The procedures for thermographic examination need to be done precisely and completely to receive valuable feedback.
As the animal’s body surface emits infrared waves, thus losing heat at the same time, it also absorbs heat due to infrared radiation emitted or reflected from other sources such as other animals, walls, wind, etc. The ability to release and take in heat significantly affects the measured temperature of the body’s surface, so it is crucial to examine it in a controlled indoor environment.
How to prepare for the IRT examination
Before conducting a thermal imaging scan on the horse, the thermographer will ask the owner a few questions to gather basic information about the horse and their medical history. In addition to recording information on the exam, they will also take note of the environmental conditions and the details about the horse’s preparation for the exam.
The process of performing a thermal imaging assessment for saddle fit typically involves the following steps:7
- Scanning: First, the pictures are taken when the horse is rested. This typically involves ensuring the horse’s coat is clean and dry, free from any blankets or bandages, and given some time to acclimate to the ambient temperature.
After complete whole-body scanning, horse should be tacked up using only a thin single pad under the saddle and ridden in all gates and directions for around 20 to 30 minutes.
After the ride, the second set of pictures is taken. These pictures include the horse’s back, the saddle, and the rider’s back and legs. (When a rider is not balanced, especially at the sitting trot, it can affect the horse’s back temperature. The rider may put more weight or pressure on one side of the saddle than the other or move too much or too little with the horse’s motion. This can cause the horse’s back to be uneven or hotter in some areas.)
- Acquiring thermal images: Once the photographs have been captured, the thermographer will carefully analyze the thermal images and create a comprehensive report based on their observations and findings. This report will provide detailed information about the various elements and aspects captured in the images, allowing for a thorough understanding of the thermal patterns.
- Analysis and interpretation: The thermal images are then reviewed and assessed by professionals trained in saddle fitting. They analyze the heat patterns, paying close attention to any areas of elevated temperature that might indicate pressure or uneven weight distribution.
- Recommendations and adjustments: Based on the thermal imaging analysis, recommendations are made to improve saddle fit. This might involve changing the saddle or the saddle pad.
Thermographic examination shows the temperature distribution and how the saddle and back muscles work together. The horse’s back should show even and symmetrical temperature patterns on both sides of the spine, without any hot or cold spots that indicate pressure, friction, or imbalance. Significant variations in heat patterns may indicate areas of discomfort or excessive pressure.
The advantages of using infrared cameras for evaluating the fitting of saddles
Horses cannot tell us where it hurts or what part of the saddle gives them discomfort. By analyzing the horse’s thermal image, infrared cameras can identify areas of increased muscle tension. This information helps evaluate the impact of saddle fit on the horse’s back early on, highlighting potential areas of interest in preventing long-term damage and discomfort for the horse.
Infrared cameras provide immediate feedback on the effectiveness of saddle adjustments. By viewing the saddle fitting through thermal image analysis, the saddle fitter can make precise modifications to alleviate pressure points and ensure proper weight distribution. This can help improve the horse’s comfort and performance and prevent long-term damage. Infrared cameras enable early detection of potential pressure points, allowing timely intervention to prevent injuries and maintain the horse’s overall health.7
Another benefit of using infrared cameras for saddle fit evaluation is that they provide an objective and visual assessment of the saddle. This means the rider and saddle fitter can see the actual temperature distribution on the horse’s back rather than relying on subjective feelings or opinions. This can help avoid personal biases or preferences affecting the saddle fit evaluation and ensure a more accurate assessment of the horse’s comfort and suitability.
By making this a routine practice, equine professionals and riders can identify issues related to poor saddle fit early on and make necessary adjustments to avoid pain, discomfort, or injury to the horse. This can directly impact the horse’s performance and attitude, as the horse will feel more relaxed, confident, and willing to work. It can also prevent behavioural issues, such as bucking, rearing, bolting, or refusing to work, from developing or worsening.
Before buying a new saddle, we can use infrared thermography to compare how different saddles affect the temperature of the horse’s back. This helps us identify any potential issues. It will give us confidence in making a good purchase and ensure optimal comfort for the horse. Another benefit of using this technique is that we can keep a record of the thermographic assessments conducted over time. This allows for monitoring changes in the horse’s back temperature and identifying any persistent problems related to saddle fit or riding habits.
However, thermography has some drawbacks that limit its usefulness as a sole method of saddle fit evaluation. For instance, it cannot tell us anything about how the tissues under the skin are shaped or functioning, which might affect the pressure distribution and biomechanics of the horse’s back. Moreover, it is sensitive to external influences such as wind, humidity, or sunlight, which can alter the temperature readings and cause false positives or negatives. Therefore, it is essential to have a trained professional who can interpret thermographic images correctly and account for these factors.
The veterinarian’s role
While it is fascinating to explore the world of equine health through innovative techniques like infrared thermography exams, it is essential to emphasize the role of veterinarians in diagnosing medical conditions. We need to recognize when symptoms or scan readings may indicate a need for veterinary attention. It is crucial to understand that thermographers are not qualified to make formal medical diagnoses.
According to FEI standards, if the temperature difference between symmetrical parts of a horse’s limbs is 2 degrees Celsius or higher, it is considered an indicator of inflammation. Similarly, for other body parts, a temperature difference of 3 degrees or higher suggests inflammation. If there are any signs implying irregularity or inflammation, it is strongly advised to seek veterinary assistance and expertise.9
Even though infrared thermography exams can help identify potential issues, horse owners should never rely solely on these results to determine a horse’s well-being. Instead, they should view thermography as an additional assessment tool to aid in recognizing and detecting possible problems. When concerning symptoms are observed, or thermal irregularities are detected, it is crucial to promptly consult a qualified veterinarian for a thorough examination and diagnosis.
Not only do veterinarians possess the expertise to interpret examination results accurately, but they can also conduct a comprehensive physical examination, review medical history, and perform additional tests if necessary. They can provide a holistic evaluation of the horse’s health and make informed decisions about the appropriate course of treatment.
The actual usage of infrared thermal imaging in equine veterinary practice might vary among individual veterinarians and their specific clinical needs and preferences. While infrared thermal imaging can be a useful diagnostic tool in certain situations, its application in equine medicine might be limited compared to other imaging techniques, such as X-rays or ultrasounds. These other imaging modalities might be more commonly used due to their wider scope and effectiveness in various clinical scenarios. Using and interpreting infrared thermal imaging requires specific expertise and training. While IRT can provide useful information about skin surface temperatures, it will not provide a definitive diagnosis. Therefore, equine veterinarians might prioritize other diagnostic methods that they are more familiar with and have received adequate training in.
Considerations for the well-being and performance of horses
One of the challenges of saddle fitting is that the horse’s back shape can change over time due to weight, muscle development, age, and training. Traditional saddle fitting methods, such as visual inspection and manual palpation, may not detect subtle changes or accurately identify pressure points. Moreover, these methods rely on the subjective judgment of the saddle fitter, which can vary depending on their experience and skill level. Infrared thermography will provide objective and quantitative data to help saddle fitters assess the fit and adjust the saddle accordingly.
As IRT provides a visual representation of the horse’s body heat patterns, the images can be shared with veterinarians, trainers, farriers, and other care team members, facilitating communication and collaboration among them. The thermographic images can be discussed, shared, and evaluated collectively, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of the horse’s condition and allowing professionals to discuss the observations and collaborate on the best course of action for the horse. By regularly using IRT, the care team can identify any areas of concern or potential stress points in a horse’s body, even before they develop into significant issues. This early detection allows the team to proactively plan preventive care strategies, such as adjustments to training routines, changes in equipment, or modifications in the horse’s environment. IRT aids in communicating these preventive measures to ensure the horse’s health.
The importance of rider education
By understanding the importance of education and adhering to industry standards, horse owners and riders can significantly enhance their equine partner’s quality of life.
One of the primary reasons rider education is vital in saddle fitting is because it helps individuals develop knowledge and skills to assess the fit and suitability of a saddle for their horse. Without rider education, individuals may unknowingly use ill-fitting saddles, leading to discomfort, pain, and behavioural issues in the horse.
Moreover, industry standards in saddle fitting ensure that manufacturers produce saddles that meet specific requirements regarding shape, materials used, and design. Such measures are based on scientific research, experience, and input from equine professionals. Manufacturers can create saddles that accommodate the horse’s natural anatomy and movement by holding to these standards. This, in turn, improves the horse’s range of motion, reduces the risk of musculoskeletal problems, and optimizes performance.
Knowing how to recognize signs of pain allows for timely intervention and adjustment, ensuring the horse’s ongoing comfort. It also promotes an understanding the horse’s body mechanics and how various factors affect saddle fit. It emphasizes the importance of considering the horse’s conformation, age, discipline, and individual needs when selecting a saddle. Each horse is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach can lead to significant discomfort and potential health issues. Educated riders can make informed decisions about saddle selection and fitting to best suit their horse’s specific requirements.
Ultimately, riders and the whole equine industry promote the welfare and happiness of horses. Comfortable horses perform better, are more willing to cooperate, and have a lower risk of developing physical or psychological issues. By investing in rider education and adhering to industry standards, we prioritize the well-being of our equine partners, ensuring they lead healthy, comfortable, and fulfilling lives.
A proper saddle fit can enhance the horse’s welfare by preventing pain, discomfort, and injury, improving the horse’s mood and attitude, reducing stress and tension, and increasing the horse’s confidence and trust in the rider. A proper saddle fit can also promote better performance by allowing the horse to use its full range of motion, optimize its balance and coordination, engage its core muscles and hindquarters, and maintain its stamina and energy.
A saddle that causes pain or discomfort can make the horse unhappy, stressed, and anxious. These behaviours can make riding difficult and dangerous for the horse and the rider. When a horse feels pain or discomfort from a saddle that does not fit well, it may try to cope by changing its posture, neck, weight, or gait. These changes can cause problems in other body parts, such as the neck, shoulders, hips, legs, and hooves. They can also affect the horse’s balance, coordination, and biomechanics.
Recognizing the signs of an ill-fitting saddle and implementing appropriate adjustments can improve the horse’s overall well-being, prevent potential injuries, and enhance the rider’s experience. The insights gained from infrared thermography provide a valuable tool in this process, enabling us to effectively assess saddle fit and make informed decisions for the benefit of our equine partners. IRT plays a vital role in improving the tack-fitting process and horse welfare by providing valuable information about back tension and potential spots of inflammation.
By using an infrared camera, trainers, veterinarians, and saddle fitters can identify areas of interest and make necessary adjustments to alleviate discomfort and improve overall saddle fit.
Overall, infrared cameras offer a valuable tool for improving tack fitting and enhancing horse welfare. By allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of pressure points, identifying asymmetric distribution, and monitoring the horse’s back health, these cameras can significantly contribute to ensuring the horse’s comfort, preventing injuries, and optimizing their performance and behaviour.
- Schleese, J. (2014) Suffering in Silence : Exploring the Painful Truth: The Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses Trafalgar Square Books, New York
- Dyson, S. Line Greve, L (2016) Saddles and girths: What is new? The Veterinary Journal 207, 73-79.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021). A Review of Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
- Jurga, F. (2017) FEI Announces New Guidelines For Hypersensitivity Testing Protocol. The Horse Magazine [online]. Last accessed 10/13/2023
- Harman, J. (2004) The horse’s pain-free back and saddle-fit book : ensure soundness and comfort with back analysis and correct use of saddles and pads Trafalgar Square Pub., North Pomfret, Vt.,
- Hall, C., Huws, N., White, C., Taylor, E., Owen, H., & McGreevy, P., (2013) Assessment of ridden horse behaviour Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8:2.
- Soroko, M., Davies Morel, M.C.G. (2016) Equine thermography in practice CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire
- Soroko, M., Cwynar, P., Howell, K., Yarnell, K., Dudek, K., Zaborski, D. (2018) Assessment of Saddle Fit in Racehorses Using Infrared Thermography Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 63, 30-34.
- Rekant, S.I., Lyons, M.A., Pacheco, J.M., Arzt, J., & Rodriguez, L.L. (2016) Veterinary applications of infrared thermography, American Journal of Veterinary Research, 77:1