Willow Tree Equine Therapies

Saddles vs. Bareback: Which is Better?

I was recently asked; what is better for the horse’s back, riding with a saddle, or bareback. I immediately went to answer that of course the saddle is better, but then I paused. Are saddles better for the horse’s back, or are they primarily for the comfort of the rider? For thousands of years, humans rode horses without a saddle and some people still prefer to ride that way today. So, which one is better for the horse’s back, bareback or saddle?

A study published in 2013 by Clayton and associates [1] compared the pressure that is placed on the horses back when they are ridden with a saddle and when they are ridden bareback. They used an electronic pressure mat to analyse the contact area, pressure variables and mean force created by one man while riding in a saddle and bareback at a sitting trot on seven horses [1]. The study found that the saddle created a larger contact area and a higher total mean force on the horses back, suggesting that using a saddle while riding does put more force on the horse’s back over a larger area [1].

However, they also found that while bareback riding had a lower force in total, bareback riding created more pressure on the horse’s back [1]. They also found that there was focused pressure under the rider’s sit bones (ischial tuberosity) which could cause injury to the horse’s epaxial musculature [1]. These muscles are responsible for generating spinal movements, locomotion and posture and so damage to these muscles would not only be painful for the horse but could affect its range of movement and posture. The researchers also believe that force was not measured properly as the pressure mat did not recognise the force created by the rider’s legs when he was riding bareback [1]. This means that while the study found that the saddle created a higher mean force, this could not be completely accurate. So, it seems that in this case, while the saddle did create more pressure over a larger area on the horses back, this could be considered preferable than the focal area of pressure that is created while bareback riding.

 

But What About Other Types of Saddles?

Treeless saddles are becoming increasingly popular as they are believed to fit a wider range of horse’s backs, despite the limited research to support this theory [2]. Belock and associates [2] conducted a study to compare a conventional saddle and a treeless saddle to determine the difference in pressure patterns and overall force [2]. The study found that the conventional saddle was better at spreading the force created by the rider and distributing pressure over the horse’s back [2]. they also found that the treeless saddle had a focal concentration of pressure on the horse’s back that was under the rider sit bones and had higher maximal pressures compared to the conventional saddle [2]. Therefore, the use of a treeless saddle could be compared to bareback riding in which both seem to create a focal pressure on the horse’s epaxial muscles instead of distributing the pressure evenly along the horse’s back [2].

Latif and associates [3] conducted a similar study by comparing the saddle pressure of three different types of saddles. They compared training saddles that were normal tree, treeless and flexible tree saddles to determine which would prevent the most amount of back pain [3]. It was found that all three saddles created high-pressure values which in other studies were believed to create back pain [3]. Their research somewhat agrees with Belock and associates’ study as they also found that the treeless saddle concentrated the rider’s pressure to the area they were seated in. They concluded that saddles with a tree did not put too much pressure on the horse’s back during canter and gallop and that the flexible tree shifted the pressure to the middle and back of the saddle, creating a more even pressure overall [3]. However, they also found that the flexible tree has the highest mean pressure compared with the other saddles [3].

So, it seems that saddles do assist in creating a more comfortable riding experience for the horse, as well as the rider. However, it can also be said that more research needs to be done to create a saddle that will result in more even pressure distribution. After all, the last thing we want as riders is to be unintentionally hurting our horses.

Other Articles That Might Interest You:

References

[1] Clayton, H.M, Belock, B, Lavagnino, M & Kaiser, L.J 2013, ‘Forces and pressures on the horse’s back during bareback riding’, The Veterinary Journal, vol. 195, pp. 48-52

[2] Belock, B, Kaiser, L.J, Lavagnino, M & Clayton, H.M 2012, ‘Comparison of pressure distribution under a conventional saddle and a treeless saddle at sitting trot’, The Veterinary Journal, vol. 193, pp. 87-91

[3] Latif, S.N, von Peinen, K, Weistner, T, Renk, B & Weishaupt, M.A 2010, ‘Saddle pressure patterns of three different training saddles (normal tree, flexible tree, treeless) in Thoroughbred racehorses at trot and gallop, Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 42, pp. 630-636