Thermography, a useful tool for saddle fit evaluation.

Saddle fitting isn’t just black and white.

While you’d always aim for a “Good” saddle fit and avoid a “Bad” saddle fit, there’s actually quite a bit of grey area in between those two extremes.

Or, according to one research team in the U.S., there’s actually quite a bit of colour.

By analysing the colour patterns visible in thermographic images of just-used saddles, people can evaluate saddle fit and even give it a score from 1 to 5, said Michael Guerini, PhD, of DMR 4 Balance, a scientific riding consultancy service near San Jose, California.

Colour coding representing heat intensity levels creates heat maps from saddles that have just been removed from a ridden horse, according to Guerini. After initial thermography training, observers can associate heat maps with the forces and interactions between the saddle and the horse, thus determining how well the saddle fits the horse.

Critically, they can determine saddle fit on a pre-established five-point scale, rather than just saying the saddle fits, or it doesn’t, Guerini said. In doing so, they’re communicating in a “common language” that would allow riders, saddlers, veterinarians, and other care takers to have understandable exchanges about saddle fit.

“We developed a numeric scale for the assessment of saddle fit thermograms so that the quality of saddle fit can be communicated objectively among professionals and lay people in the equine community,” Guerini explained while presenting his poster at the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held last August in Guelph, Canada.

In their study, Guerini and his fellow researchers analysed thermographic images of saddles taken off the backs of 95 ridden horses. The horses had warmed up for five minutes and then worked under saddle in 20-meter circles at walk and trot (both rising and sitting) in both directions before having their saddles removed.

The scientists took thermographic images of the saddles in a quiet stall with little airflow so as to avoid any environmental influence on the heat readings.

Working with thermography specialists, the researchers developed a scale of 1 to 5 with regard to saddle fit based on the resulting colour patterns in the images. The scientists then presented the images to five people (veterinarians, trainers and saddle fitters) trained in thermography and found that their evaluations yielded similar results, meaning agreement was high.

Although the researchers used high-end thermographic equipment, thermographic readings of saddles don’t need to be cost-prohibitive, according to Guerini. “I believe the information would be accessible with the purchase of a simple thermography camera or thermography camera cell phone attachment,” he said.

“At times the interpretation may still require assistance, but image capture is certainly accessible, and a 1 versus 5 can be discerned. The issues would be in comparing a 3 and a 4. But I would offer that we should always come out on the side of equine welfare and score lower.”

Incidentally, the scientists also noted that saddle fit in their study population was fairly evenly distributed among the five points of the scale, Guerini said. Considering 1 as the poorest rating and 5 as the highest, they found that 13% scored a 1, 19% scored a 2, 30% scored a 3, 21% scored a 4, and 17% scored a 5.

“Approximately one-third of all saddles were either a bad or poor fit based on the evaluation of thermography images,” he said, indicating that this would likely have a negative welfare effect on those horses.

Thermography also has potential in evaluating rider-saddle impact, Guerini added. “I have done some preliminary work on scanning the top of a saddle for rider-to-saddle seat interaction,” he said. “At this time, I can only say it is promising for sitting work but not so much for rising/posting trot.”

The findings of this research were presented at the 2019 International Equitation Science Conference in Guelph, Canada. To read the abstract, download the Conference’s proceedings.