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Thermography for Saddle Fitting


By Leigh Ballard

Why is it important that your saddle fit? That doesn’t mean to fit just the rider’s seat; that means it must also fit the horse’s back and shoulders! The fit of a saddle is just as important for your horse and it is for you the rider. While the rider, and a saddle fitter, can usually determine whether or not the seat fits and the saddle puts the rider in the correct position, the horse can’t verbalize about the pinch or the pain that an ill-fitting saddle may bring. It is important for the rider to be comfortable in a saddle, but it is equally important for the horse to be comfortable under the saddle. An ill-fitting saddle can cause your horse to have performance problems, behavior problems, and even health problems, all of which can give the owner/rider problems, too! Nobody needs expenses for soreness or lameness diagnosis and treatments, or downtime from training or showing, when those losses are preventable.

Thermal images can help determine how a saddle is affecting the horse. An infrared camera measures the heat patterns created by contact between the saddle and the horse’s back, shoulders and loins. Colorful images of the heat patterns on the saddle and on the horse’s back show whether the saddle is distributing weight improperly, or is too tight, pinching, etc.  If the images show uneven patterns, then the saddle could be affecting range of motion, causing pain, or maybe even causing permanent damage to the horse’s back. The camera images can determine areas of inflammation underneath the saddle (and therefore likely pain) caused by poor saddle fit and/or rider balance.

In her article “Back to Reality,” Joanna Robson, DVM writes, “A correctly fitting saddle is one of the most important components of equine health and performance, and is sadly under-recognized as a contributing factor to equine pain and decreased function.  The equine anatomy that dictates how and why a saddle must fit correctly is not common knowledge, and trainers and riders more quickly jump to the saddles that are comfortable for themselves, or which are the latest must-have trend in the show arena.  The horses, expressing themselves in their only known language, may present with lameness, bucking or rearing under saddle, decreased run times, conformational changes, biting and kicking when saddled, or behavioral anxiety and stomach ulcers.”  Think of a barrel horse trying to turn a barrel with his shoulders in a vice, or a dressage horse searching for extension with shoulders that are encumbered.

Many riders are unaware of saddle fit problems until they see the objective images showing how and where the saddle is affecting their horse. The images may reveal greater understanding of why the horse is manifesting particular behaviors, gait problems, and even how the rider’s balance in the saddle can be causing certain responses from the horse. Thermal images can also enhance a veterinarian’s assessment and treatment of back pain resulting from saddle fit issues.

Often, saddle fitting has been viewed as an “art” using hands and “feel” to achieve results. But as with any other art, there are differing styles and techniques, which do not always have the same results. Many times saddles are bought and deemed to fit using a “best guess” method. Thermography, however, offers an objective view with definitive evidence of heat patterns caused by contact of the saddle with the horse’s back. It is a valuable tool for saddle fitters to use for building a saddle or to make fitting adjustments. And for buying a ready-made saddle, it can take the guesswork out of deciding whether or not the saddle fits the horse.  

The anatomy of the horse is the key issue for saddle fit. Many, if not most, horses are asymmetrical in their shoulders, meaning usually one shoulder is bigger than the other. Right away, the possibility for sliding, pinching, and shifting of the saddle is present since saddles are built on a symmetrical tree. Saddles are built on narrow, medium and wide trees. The width accommodates the width of the shoulders, but what about the angle of the shoulders? What about a horse with tall withers, a short back? More anatomical features must be taken into consideration in choosing the right saddle for the individual horse.

When choosing a saddle, take the time to make sure it fits the horse as well as the rider. The extra time and expense you spend choosing a saddle may save you money later on in diagnosing problems with sore backs, shoulders or even lameness. Your horse might try to work for you when he’s uncomfortable or in pain, but it could ultimately come at a greater cost of lost performance and health problems.


Joanna Robson, DVM “The Anatomy of Saddle-Fit”

Joanna Robson, DVM, “Back to Reality”

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