Some of you may have heard about some new technology in saddle fitting. The latest trend seems to be pressure scanning. Some fitters and manufacturers are using pressure sensing equipment. Essentially, the system involves a pressure sensing pad that goes under the saddle accompanied by a data interpretation program. I have seen two systems at work and find it so interesting to see the different information that results from the scanning.
If you are like me, you are always wondering if your saddle is truly the right fit. I know, how could a person in the saddle business have that problem? Could the horse move better? Are we hurting them in some way that we don’t know? What if one used a different billet system or pad set up? Hmmm…
I recently returned from a clinic in Pennsylvania on the “Pliance” system. (We tried another system with a fitter at the shop at an earlier date that I’ll talk about later in this article). First, we were introduced to the concept of the system and then we saw and discussed the practical applications. The Pliance pad is a very thin pad with very thin sensors. The multiple sensors measure pounds per square inch. The rider wears a very small, light weight battery pack that is wired to the pad and the information is transmitted wirelessly via Bluetooth to a laptop computer. The information samples are gathered continuously in multiple short segments of the ride. The intriguing aspect is that you not only get an average readout of the pressure, but you can also get readout from a moment in time such as on the landing of a jump or the step in a particular gait. When taken with video, one can see the scan frame by frame relative to the pressure readout, isolate an instance, or watch the entire video.
computer and readout/Pliance battery pack/Pliance
The information shows up as a colorful graph with red being the most pressure and the cooler colors such as blue and green showing less pressure. This is not a one person job and certainly there is a protocol in how to do it and in how to interpret it. There lies the potential rub; the interpretation. There are many variables when interpreting a scan. The scan is taken in both static and dynamic situations. It can measure all gaits as well as jumping, and includes both Western and English capabilities.
The other pressure system was done at the shop with a pressure sensor pad, no wires, and a small laptop/net book. The rider wore no belt. It is based on the same principles but with a bit thicker pad and the saddle fitter, Brita Rizzi, of Dynamic Equine Saddle Fitting, with whom we have a working relationship, had us do only sitting trot. This was more of a saddle fitting exercise in that we had our own saddles tested and experimented with pads to try to find the best saddle and best fit for our own horses.
I found it most helpful to see the average total of the all the scan readings within a trial. The interesting thing is that depending on what movement within the gait the horse is using really affects the readout. The Pliance system also showed how centered the rider was and how the center of mass travelled while riding. Another factor to take into consideration was the level of experience of both horse and rider. Think about it; a higher level dressage horse will have more lift in the gaits, thereby creating more gravitational pressure as they lift, as opposed to a training level horse that may have a flatter movement. The less experienced rider may be less centered and show more pressure on one side. I always thought that a horse jumping would have most of the pressure on its back on the downside of the jump. However, unless the horse is jumping a very big jump, the force of gravity as the horse leaves the ground, exerts the most pressure. On a very big jump, it is on the downside. Who would have thought?
Another interesting observation that factors in a good readout is the shape and makeup of the sensor pad. Some can create what is called a “hammock” effect, thereby not getting an accurate readout. The “hammock effect” means that the pad doesn’t make even contact along the topline and creates more pressure at the front and back. It is so important for the person reading the data to have all of the pertinent information. Clearly, the most important determination is to see the most even pressure readout possible. The more the panel of the saddle helps to distribute the pressure evenly, the better.
Some of the findings were interesting. There is always discussion on whether the saddle should bridge the smallest amount and the general agreement is that if the horse is to bring up its back, it needs a place to do it. Even though the even pressure is necessary, in static fit. a tiny bit of bridging is okay so that while in dynamic motion the horse can indeed bring up its back. Another finding was that the most pressure is exerted while in posting trot during the height of the post under the stirrup bars. The stirrup bars can also sometimes cause their own pressure and may need to be pulled out slightly by a professional.
The scans were able to show how important it is for tree design to correspond to the horse’s shape. If the tree is too angled such as one for a Thoroughbred and is put on a stocky Quarterhorse, the rails might show up in the scan looking like runners of a sled in red.
They tested mounting from the ground, blocks, and a leg up. Interestingly, mounting from the block didn’t read as neutral as when a person from the ground held the opposite stirrup for the rider while they mounted. Pads were tested to see how they impacted pressure and luckily, the correction pads that we carry tested among the best. However, they did note that correction shims should not be used unless actually needed because they can cause undue pressure, but using the correction pad without shims was fine. The shape of the pad made a huge difference. A pad that doesn’t follow the contour of the topline and “hammocks” creates unnecessary pressure. I could go on and on…
Pressure scanning, in my opinion, is a useful tool as long as the readings are carefully considered and interpreted by a competent person. In addition to saddle fitting, I could see it being very useful as an educational tool in rider analysis or in the development of new saddles as is being done in the U.K. It is certainly a sophisticated tool but I also think that it is not the totality of saddle fitting. If your horse moves freely and happily and the saddle fits you then you are in good shape. However, clearly, the days of using multiple pads to make a saddle fit has seen its day.