The Ins and Outs of Rugging

Wandering around at a competition and admiring all the horses on display, it’s always fascinated me how different horse owners can be when it comes to rugging. Some have their horses clipped and wearing several layers of rugs, some just have a canvas or a basic synthetic, others don’t rug their horse’s at all and just knock the dirt off before jumping on. And it begs the question, why do we rug? Is it an important part of horse welfare or just a way to keep them clean? And how many rugs are too many?

When should you Rug?

Some horse owners rug their horses all year round, and others don’t bother at all, believing that the horse’s natural ability to self-regulate their own temperature and some shelter from the worst of the weather is all they need. According to Equiculture [1], horses should be rugged when:

  • They are in a small area and are unable to move around enough to keep themselves warm.
  • There is no access to shelter
  • Thin-skinned and older horses may need help retaining heat
  • Horses who are allergic to insect bites may need a rug to protect them

Rugs in Summer

In Australia, temperatures can get pretty high in summer and when they exceed 25 degrees, horses can experience thermal stress [2]. As mentioned above, horses must have access to appropriate shelter that will protect them from extreme weather conditions such as excessive rain and wind or high levels of heat. However, access to shade is not always possible in rural Australia and so it has been suggested that rugging them with a light cotton rug is an effective alternative [2].

Barbara Padalino and associates [2] conducted a recent study (2019) to determine the effects of a light-coloured cotton rug on a horse’s thermoregulation abilities and stress levels. They studied the rug’s effects on the horses’ heart rate, rectal temperature, respiratory rate, sweat production, and stress-related behaviours (tail swishing, licking and chewing, pawing the ground, self-care, and repeated head movements) [2]. They found that the rectal temperature and sweat production was significantly lower in the horses who did not have a rug on compared to those who were rugged [2]. However, they also found that rugged horses showed significantly less stress-related behaviours than those who were not rugged, suggesting that the rug was effective at minimising the horse’s annoyance caused by flying insects [2]. So, while wearing a light cotton rug in summer helped to prevent the annoyance caused by flying insects, it didn’t help the horse thermoregulate which could lead to more serious problems in the future. Therefore, this study recommends that appropriate shelter from the sun is a more effective form of protection [2].

Hypersensitivity to insect bites is common in a lot of horses, particularly in the summer months [3]. Horse’s that are susceptible to the irritation are allergic to the insect’s saliva, rather than the bite itself [3]. The condition can cause the horse to become itchy, form hives, and can result in hair loss [3]. Wearing a cotton rug and fly mask is an effective method of preventing the insects from reaching the horse’s skin, though as we now know, wearing a rug – even a light-coloured cotton one – can cause heat stress and the loss of electrolytes in horses. Therefore, horse owners need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the rug and draw their own conclusions.

A mixed herd of wild and domesticated horses frolics on the Ladder Livestock ranch, at the Wyoming-Colorado border. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Rugs in Winter

Winter is the most common time for horse owners to throw a rug or two on their horses. Whether it is to help keep them warm in the chilly temperatures, to prevent mud monsters from forming, or both.

Carolyn Hammer & Mattia Gunkelman [4] conducted a recent study (2020) to examine the difference in the surface temperatures of horses during cold weather when they have no rug, light weight (0g), medium weight (200g) and heavy weight (400g) rugs on. The horses were sent out into the cold (temperature -23 degrees and wind chill -32 degrees) where they had unlimited access to hay and water [4]. After 1 hour they were brought back in and their temperature over the lumbar area was recorded [4]. It was found that the temperature was warmer on horses with a heavy weight and medium weight rug than those with a light weight rug or no rug at all, though those with a light weight rug were slightly warmer than those with no rug [4]. Therefore, rugs are an effective method of keeping your horse warm during winter.

However, it has never gotten as cold as -23 degrees in Australia (thank goodness!) and we can have some warm winter days. This can make it difficult when trying to decide whether to rug. Thankfully, Cecilie Mejdell and associates [5] from Norway have found a way to get horses to tell them whether they would like a rug on. They conducted a study in 2019 in which they used operant conditioning to train horses to communicate using visual symbols to inform the handler whether they would like a rug on or not [5]. By day 14 of their training, all the horses in the study understood what the visual symbols meant and when the horses were tested under different weather conditions the results found that the horse’s decision was not random but based on the weather [5]. Therefore, the horses were found to not only understand the consequences of their choice but also that they were able to successfully communicate their preference [5]. So, if you’re ever stuck wondering whether you should throw a rug on your horse or not, all you must do is ask!


[1] Myers, J 2021, Is it essential to rug a horse? Yes/No/Maybe…, Equiculture, viewed 24/09/2021, <;

[2] Padalino, B, Loy, J, Hawson, L & Randle, H 2019, ‘Effects of a light coloured cotton rug use on horse thermoregulation and behaviour indicators of stress’, Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, vol. 29, pp. 134 – 139

[3] Kentucky Equine Research Staff, 2013, Insect Bite Hypersensitivity in Horses, EquiNews, viewed 24/09/2021, <;

[4] Hammer, C & Gunkelman, M, 2020, ‘Effect of different blanket weights on surface temperature of horses in cold climates’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 85, pp. 1 – 3

[5] Mejdell, C.M, Buvik, T, Jørgensen, G.H.M & Bøe, K.E 2016, ‘Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 184, pp. 66 – 73

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.

Do you ride your horse bareback or with a saddle?

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.


[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

Laminitis: The Illness All Horse Owners Fear

Spring has sprung and that means that ponies from all over the southern hemisphere are being shoved into minimally grassed paddocks for fear of the dreaded laminitis. But what is laminitis and is keeping horses lean the best way to prevent it from occurring?

What is Laminitis?

There are three types of laminitis:

  • sepsis-related laminitis which occurs when the horse has an inflamed infection that causes tissue damage [1].
  • supporting limb laminitis which is usually a secondary issue due to the horse having to stand unilaterally during treatment for a forelimb or hindlimb [1].
  • And endocrinopathic laminitis, the more commonly known form of laminitis [1].

What Causes Endocrinopathic Laminitis?

Laminitis is caused by insulin dysfunction which is common in horses who have equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s disease [1]. When horses with these conditions eat foods with a high amount of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s), their insulin levels increase dramatically, which in turn can cause damage to the lamellae, resulting in laminitis [2].

Unfortunately, it is difficult for owners to find out if horses have equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s disease without testing. However, a recent study found that certain breeds are more likely to have equine metabolic syndrome than others [1]. Horses that have this syndrome often have fatty deposits, particularly over the nuchal ligament and at the head of the tail [1]. The breeds most likely to have equine metabolic syndrome include [1]:

  • Morgans
  • American Saddlebreds
  • Spanish Mustangs
  • Warmbloods
  • Pony Breeds

Endocrinopathic laminitis is not limited to horses who have equine metabolic syndrome or Cushing’s disease. Studies have found that some risk factors for laminitis include [3]:

  • Being a Mare/Filly
  • Increased Age
  • Being a Pony
  • Obesity (Regional and Generalised)

So How Do You Prevent It?

The go-to method for most people is the ‘shove-them-in-a-paddock-and-keep-them-lean’. Of course, It is essential that horses always have something to eat, or else it can cause gut health problems. However, as we know, horses who become obese are more at risk of laminitis.

Dr Nerida Richards claims that it is important to keep glucose levels as low as possible in horses who are at risk of laminitis, and so their diet should have as few NHC’s as possible [2]. While this can be easily managed when it comes to the feed we give them, it is almost impossible to determine how much NHC’s are in a pasture as it can change within the day [2]. However, evidence shows that pasture that is well-irrigated, that doesn’t weather sub-zero temperatures, and has plant species that are considered subtropical, is usually the safest and unlikely to cause laminitis [2].

Exercise also plays an important part in preventing laminitis. In humans, it has been found that exercise improves insulin sensitivity and can reduce inflammation [4]. Related results have been found in ponies, though in both cases it was found that the exercise needed to be more intense than what is usually undertaken [4]. The European College of Equine International Medicine recently suggested some exercise recommendations for horses who are likely to suffer from insulin dysfunction [4]. These recommendations are extrapolated from medical research and clinical studies. They suggest [4]:

  • The minimum exercise recommendations for horses who are non-laminitic is low to moderate-intensity exercise (canter to fast canter) for up to 30 minutes, no more than 5 times a week.
  • The minimum exercise recommendations for horses who were previously laminitic but have recovered includes low-intensity exercise (fast trot to canter) on a soft surface for up to 30 minutes, 3 times a week.

Laminitis is always going to be feared by horse and pony owners. However, arming yourself with knowledge about the condition and how to manage it is the best way to help your horse.


[1] Belknap, J.K & Geor, R.J 2017, Equine Laminitis, John Wiley & Sons Incorporated

[2] Richards, N 2020, Your Guide to Feeding the Laminitic, FeedXL

[3] Menzies-Gow, N 2018, Diagnosing and Treating Laminitis in Horses, Vet Record

[4] Durham, A.E, Frank, N, McGowan, C.M, Menzies-Gow, N.J, Roelfsema, E, Vervuert, I, Feige, K & Fey, K 2019, ‘ECEIM consensus statement on equine metabolic syndrome’, Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Consensus Statement, pp. 335 – 349

Twitching: Pain, Distraction, or Acupuncture?

Twitching is a practice commonly used by owners and equine specialists as a form of restraint. However, not many people know how twitching works. Does it cause the horse pain? Or does it have some sort of mesmerizing effect? This article will discuss recent research so that we can fully understand twitching.

Twitching as a form of horse restraint has been used for many years. There are many ways to twitch a horse, though the most common areas used are the horse’s lips and ears. While the process of twisting a horse’s lips or ears so they will stand still may sound barbaric, in some cases – such as a medical emergency – it is necessary.

Lip Twitching vs. Ear Twitching

In 2017 a study conducted by Benjamin Flakoll and associates [1] investigated the lip and ear twitch to understand how they work and what effect they have on the horse’s wellbeing. They measured the horse’s heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV) and salivary cortisol levels to determine whether twitching has a calming, analgesic effect on horses, or if it inflicts stress and pain [1]. They found that the lip twitch caused a decrease in heart rate for 5 minutes, after which the heart rate increased [1]. However, the ear twitch significantly increased the horse’s heart rate and cortisol levels which did not decrease with time [1]. This suggests that the ear twitch causes a pain and stress reaction within the horse. The lip twitch causes the horse to relax, however, this only lasts for around 5 minutes before it becomes more of a pain reaction.

Another study conducted within the same year [2] assessed lip twitching and the effect that it had on young horses who were getting their ears clipped for the first time. As you may imagine, clipping a horse’s ear hair is not usually an enjoyable experience for the horse, and so a comparative study was done to see whether using a lip twitch during the procedure would be beneficial for horses and trimmers [2]. The study found that the lip twitch significantly minimised the horse’s behavioural reactivity as well as a reduction in the horse’s heart rate closer to within baseline parameters [2]. The lip twitch was more successful during the second session [2].

Both of these studies suggest that lip twitching does seem to have a relaxing, analgesic effect on horses, though this reaction only lasts for a certain amount of time before the twitch causes the horse pain and stress. Ear twitching, on the other hand, seems to only cause negative effects within the horse.

Twitching as a Form of Acupuncture?

As the research suggests, horse’s experience a calming, relaxed reaction to a lip twitch. But how is that the case? I couldn’t imagine having the same reaction if someone twitched my lip, and I know some horses who would blow a gasket if someone tried to pat their nose, let alone put a twitch on it.

A study by Evert Lagerweij and associates [3] found that the twitch works in a similar way to modern acupuncture. It stimulates the mechanoreceptors in the skin which activates the pain-decreasing mechanism within the horse’s body [3]. They claim that part of the reason that acupuncture works is due to the release of endorphins that occurs during the procedure, which was also found within the horse’s blood shortly after the twitch was applied [3]. Therefore, twitching the horse’s nose does seem to have a similar effect to that of modern acupuncture, though as Flakoll and associates found, this effect may only last a short while before wearing off.

While in some situations it seems that twitching harms the horse’s wellbeing, it is important to remember that sometimes situations require the use of this form of restraint. Horses can be dangerous animals and while we try to do our best to train them, a severely distressed horse may not listen to commands, no matter how much training they have received. The evidence suggests that nose twitching is better for your horse than ear twitching, however, I understand that sometimes an ear twitch is the safest and best thing an owner or specialist can do, for horse and human.


[1] Flakoll, B, Ali, A & Saab, C 2017, ‘Twitching in veterinary procedures: how does this technique subdue horses?’, Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, vol. 18, pp. 23 – 28

[2] Ali, A, Gutwein, K & Heleski, C 2017, ‘Assessing the influence of the upper lip twitching in native horses during an aversive husbandry procedure (ear clipping)’ Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, vol. 21, pp. 20 – 25

[3] Lagerweij, E, Nelis, P, Wiegant, V & van Ree, J 1984, ‘The twitch in horses: a variant of acupuncture’, Science, vol. 225, pp. 1172 – 1174

Ouch? How to Tell if Your Horse is in Pain

Pain can be difficult to determine in horses, mainly due to their inability to communicate with us in a way we easily understand, which means that sometimes, minor pain can go undiscovered until it becomes worse. This article investigates evidence that is helping us understand our horses better.

Identifying when a horse is in pain can be challenging. Firstly, horses are prey animals and as such, they have mechanisms in place which minimise any displays of pain [1]. Secondly, horses don’t communicate in the same way we do so while they might tell us they are in pain we don’t often understand them until the pain gets worse or until it turns into a behavioural problem.

The Equine Pain Face

In 2015 Katrina Gleerup and associates [2] conducted a study on the facial expressions that horses have in reaction to pain. The researchers used the composite measure pain scale to analyse the horse’s behavioural changes and facial expressions [2]. Gleerup and associates found 3 major areas on the horse’s face that can be used as indicators for pain:

  • Ears: When in pain, the horse’s ears tended to droop downwards with an outward rotation [2]. The movement of the horse’s ears changed throughout the session, but when in pain they tended to be more asymmetrical and lower, rather than forward and attentive [2].
  • Eyes: When in pain, the muscles around the horse’s eyes tightened, giving the top of the eyelid an angled appearance [2]. The horse’s stare became withdrawn and intense, rather than relaxed [2].
  • Lower Face: When in pain, the horse’s nostrils widened and expanded, changing from the usually elongated shape to more of a square shape [2]. There was tension in the lips and chin, creating a more edged shape of the muzzle, and there was an overall tightness in the face muscles, some of which may have been due to a clenched jaw [2].
Gleerup, K, Forkman, B, Lindegaard, C & Anderson, P 2015, ‘An equine pain face’, Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 42, p. 109

Using this study, massage therapists, veterinarians, farriers, dentists, other equine specialists and owners are now able to identify when their horse may be in pain and therefore be able to resolve the issue while it is still small. Gleerup and associates aren’t the only ones who have researched the identification of pain within the horse. Many researchers have created pain scales that aid in determining the pain levels of horses for a range of issues such as colic, castration, musculoskeletal pain, and after surgery [3]. In the papers that analyse facial features for pain indicators, they mostly agree on the same features listed above. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the pain indicators from the many research papers listed here, however, if you are interested in an overview, I suggest looking at the van Loon and van Dierendonck paper listed in the references [3].

Pain or Neuroticism?

Lameness is commonly used by horse owners to find tissue damage within their horse, the more lameness the horse presents with, the more damage there is likely to be. However, a recent study conducted by Carrie Ijichi and associates [4] found that there was no correlation between lameness and the severity of the injury. Instead, they found that the horse’s personality had a larger influence over how lame the horse appeared [4].

Horses with neurotic tendencies were found to be less tolerant to pain and therefore are more likely to show signs of serious lameness for less severe injuries [4]. While this seems bad, neurotic horses are more likely to get treatment sooner due to their over-reaction and are more likely to reduce movement in the lame area for fear of re-injury [4]. They also found that extroverted horses were more likely to display lameness rather than introverted horses, who may hide their suffering [4].

In conclusion, it can be difficult to identify whether your horse is experiencing any pain, however, analysis of your horse’s facial expressions may aid in the early identification of future problems. It is also important that you know the personality of your horse, as they may try to hide their symptoms or exaggerate the pain they are in.


[1] Taylor, P.M, Pascoe, P.J & Mama, K.R 2002, ‘Diagnosing and treating pain in the horse. Where are we today?’, The Veterinary Clinics: Equine Practice, vol. 18, pp. 1 – 19

[2] Gleerup, K, Forkman, B, Lindegaard, C & Anderson, P 2015, ‘An equine pain face’, Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 42, pp. 103 – 114

[3] van Loon, J.P.A.M & van Dierendonck, M.C 2018, ‘Objective pain assessment in horses’, The veterinary journal, vol. 242, pp. 1 – 7

[4] Ijichi, C, Collins, L & Elwood, R 2014, ‘Pain expression is linked to personality in horses’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 152, pp. 38 – 43

Does Your Saddle Fit? A Basic Guide to Saddle Fitting

A bad saddle fit can have many negative consequences; however, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the saddle fits or not. In this article, I’ll go over some key points of saddle fitting so that you can ride with confidence!

What are the consequences of a bad saddle fit?

Using an ill-fitting saddle on a horse can have many negative consequences, both short and long term. Some of these consequences include muscle soreness, white hair or scabby skin lesions appearing on the horse’s back, muscle atrophy, restricted forelimb step length, shortness of step, back stiffness, and an unwillingness to bend [1].

Riders can also suffer from an ill-fitting saddle so it’s important that the saddle not only fits the horse properly but fits the rider as well [1]. This can become challenging when children start to grow too large for their ponies [1]. The saddle seat needs to be big enough for the child, but this can cause the saddle to become too long for the horses back, particularly if the pony has a short back [1]. Some consequences of an ill-fitting saddle for the rider include back pain, hip pain, abrasions under the rider’s seat bones or perineal injury for both male and female riders, though female riders are more at risk [1].

Symptoms of an Ill-Fitting Saddle

So how do you know if the saddle isn’t sitting right? Many symptoms could be the result of an ill-fitting saddle, however, most symptoms can be caused by other things so it can be difficult to tell [2]. Some common symptoms include:

  • Anger or anxiety while saddling. The horse may flinch while you are brushing them, may move away from you when you try to put the saddle on them or threaten to bite or kick [1].
  • Behavioural issues when riding such as bucking, rearing, kicking out, refusing transitions [2].
  • Becoming hypersensitive to the touch, especially around the girth or withers area [1].
  • Dry patches at the front of the saddle or on the horse’s back when everywhere else is sweaty. These are created by pressure points, where the saddle has been putting pressure on the horse’s back [1].
  • Swelling along the back after the ride, though this can be from other things and is not proven to be directly caused by poor saddle fit [1].

6 Tips for a Good Saddle Fit

1. Full Panel Contact

One of the most important things to check when making sure your saddle fits is ensuring that the panels lie evenly against the horses back. If the saddle panels don’t conform to the horse’s back, it can cause the saddle to rock or bridge in the middle [2]. Fortunately, there are several ways you can assess your saddle to see if it fits evenly.

  • Colourful Builders Chalk Powder: cover the horse’s saddle bearing area with the chalk, put a white cloth under the saddle and then ride for around 20 minutes. Once you’ve finished riding, assess the chalk pattern on the towel. You should have a nice, even covering [1].
  • Grease on the Saddle: If you ride without a numnah, you can check the underside of the saddle for the grease marks left there [1].
  • Talcum Powder: Similar to using chalk powder, you can cover the horses back with talcum powder, then ride with just the saddle on the horse’s back. After the ride, assess the spread of talcum powder on the saddle [1].
  • Dry Spots: Alternatively, you can check to see if there are any dry patches on the horse’s back after a ride, which may indicate pressure points [1].

2. Balance

Now that you’ve assessed the contact of the saddle’s panels, you must check the saddle’s balance on the horse’s back. The middle of the saddle needs to be parallel with the ground, not parallel to the horse [2]. If the saddle is unbalanced, then this will make the rider unbalanced [1]. A saddle with a balance point too far back will cause the rider to lean forward into the rise, while a saddle with a balance point too far forward will cause the rider to sit further back to stay balanced in the saddle [1]. An unbalanced saddle can also cause the rider’s back or stomach muscles to hurt [3]. The easiest way to check the saddle’s balance is to set it on the horse’s back, then get a pencil, pen, piece of chalk or even a straight-ish looking stick and roll it along the saddle from front to back [2]. Whatever you use, it will stop at the lowest point of the saddle, therefore finding the balance point [2].

3. Wither Clearance

This is a common one that most riders are aware of. There must be a gap between the saddle and the wither, both on and off the horse to prevent the horse from being pinched in the shoulder and wither [2]. There should be a 2-3 finger gap all the way around the wither, not just on the top [2] [3].

4. Channel Width

The channel is the gap between the panels underneath the saddle. The channel prevents the saddle from putting pressure on the spine, and also on the supraspinal ligaments, which run alongside the spine [2]. A channel that is too narrow will force a horse to hollow its back, possibly causing serious injury to the spine [2]. However, having an overly wide channel isn’t the answer either as the horse may struggle under too small of a weight-bearing surface and could also suffer damage to the muscles between their ribs (intercostals) [2]. To find the correct channel length, lay your hand along the horse’s spine and see how many fingers width it is [2]. Add an extra finger on either side of the spine width and then use that finger measurement to assess the width of the saddle’s channel [2].

5. Girth Alignment

When looking at your girth points without the girth attached, they must lie straight and parallel to the ground [2]. While it is commonly believed that the girth should sit in the ‘girth area’ or ‘girth groove’ on the horse, just behind their elbow, that’s not always the case. The best place for the girth to lie is directly beneath the saddle [3]. If the girth points are angled too far forwards, will affect the cartilage on the top of the horse’s shoulders, and girth points that sit too far back can pinch the horse’s elbows [2].

6. Saddle Length

Ensuring that the length of your saddle is the correct length for your horse’s back is important. When you check your saddle, assess the position of the back of the saddle as it should not go past the top of the last rib [1]. To measure this, simply run your finger up the last rib, ensuring you pay attention to the slight curve in the ribs. If the saddle sits behind the last rib, it could affect the function of the back and hindquarter muscles as well as hindering the horse’s ability to bend laterally [1]. It can also cause problems such as bucking, running through the hands, or a 4-beat canter [2]. As mentioned earlier, it can be hard to ensure the saddle isn’t too long for the horse, while having a wide enough seat for the rider. However, some saddles manage to do both, so don’t lose hope!

So, when should you get your saddle checked?

Horse’s bodies change just like we do, so the timing between saddle fits varies. It is commonly recommended that your saddle is checked every 12 months [3]. However, if you have a young horse (under 5) or an old horse, then it’s better if you get their saddles checked every 6 months, as their bodies are growing and changing more frequently [3]. A horse that was under frequent work before being paddocked for the last few months should also have their saddles checked, as their muscles will have changed. Basically, it’s important to use your common sense.

While I am by no means a saddle fitter, as a massage therapist I believe it is important that I have a basic understanding of saddle fitting as an ill-fitting saddle can have so many consequences on the horse’s muscles. I also believe that is important that riders should have a bit of an understanding of saddle fitting, so I hope that this article has been helpful.


  1. Dyson, S, Carson, S & Fisher, M 2015, ‘Saddle Fitting, Recognising an Ill-Fitting Saddle and the Consequences of an Ill-Fitting Saddle to Horse and Rider’, Equine Veterinary Education, vol. 27, no. 10, pp. 533 – 543
  2. Equestricare 2013, ‘An Introduction to Saddle Assessment’, pp. 1-27
  3. McCann, R 2020, ‘Pony Club Victoria Saddle Fitting Webinar’

To Bit or Not to Bit: That is the Question

The bit is a device used by many riders to communicate with the horse. However, there is some debate over the importance of the bit and its effect on a horse’s welfare.  

The bit is a device used for communication between rider and horse that allows for control over the speed and direction of movement. However, Cook claims that “the bit method of control is invasive, physiologically contraindicated and counterproductive” which “often causes discomfort, pain and injury” in horses [1]. Therefore, other methods such as bitless bridles should be considered as a communication method between rider and horse.

Quick & Warren-Smith [2] conducted a study in 2009 that compared bitted and bitless bridles through measuring cardiac and behavioural responses of horses undergoing foundation training. They found that horses with a bitted bridle exhibited more conflict behaviours such as chewing, opening the mouth, pawing and tail swishing rather than those wearing a bitless bridle [2]. They also found that, during long-reining, the bitless horses exhibited more head lowering than that of the bitted horses [2]. Bitted horses demonstrated discomfort that could indicate pain in response to the bit placed in their mouth. The study also indicated that horses with bitless bridles performed “at least as well as, if not better than, those in bitted bridles” demonstrating that the bit is an unnecessary addition to the bridle [2]. 

There is some debate over whether the use of bits may cause the death of some horses, particularly in the racing industry. In 2016, Cook [3] conducted another study on bit-induced asphyxia as a cause of sudden death in racehorses. He claims that catastrophic musculoskeletal injury and sudden death may be caused by bit-induced asphyxia and that the bit “is an ultimate cause of palatal instability, dynamic collapse of the upper respiratory tract, EIPH [exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage] and sudden death” [3]. However, a similar study was conducted by Fretheim-Kelly and associates [4] in 2020 and they found that there was no evidence that a bit in the horse’s mouth could result in the dynamic collapse of the upper respiratory tract [4]. Rather, they suggest that the head and neck angles caused by rein tension are what causes the dynamic collapse in susceptible horses [4]. So, while the bit may not have any effect on the breathing capacity of racehorses, it is still important to consider the possible pain caused by bit use, particularly when other alternatives would relieve this potential issue. 

However, there is also the concern that bitless bridles may cause some welfare issues. Robinson and Bye [5] recently conducted a study that analysed the noseband and headpiece pressure in bitless bridles in comparison to a bitted bridle. The study compared a snaffle bridle with a cavesson noseband, a side pull bitless bridle and a cross under bitless bridle [5]. They discovered that all bridles have the potential to minimise blood flow to the naval tissues and that there were no performance advantages observed for any of the bridles [5]. However, they found that the side pull bitless bridle caused significantly higher pressure on the naval tissues, which could result in nerve and tissue damage if maintained over time [5]. They also found that the cross under bitless bridle seemed to create an extended head and neck position which could negatively affect musculoskeletal health [5]. Therefore, while there are claims that using a bit to communicate with your horse can result in some negative welfare outcomes, emerging studies suggest that using a bitless bridle may also be of concern. 


[1] Cook, W.R 1999, ‘Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Service, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 169 – 204

[2] Quick, J & Warren-Smith, A 2009, ‘Preliminary investigations of horses’ (Equus caballus) responses to different bridles during foundation training’, Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, vol. 4, pp. 169 – 17

[3] Cook, W.R 2016, ‘bit-induced asphyxia in the racehorse as a cause of sudden death’, Equine Veterinary Education, vol. 28, no. 7, pp. 405 – 409

[4] Fretheim-Kelly, Z, Fjordbakk, C, Fintl, C, Krontveit & Strand, E 2020,‘A bitless bridle does not limit or prevent dynamic laryngeal collapse’, Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 53, pp. 44 – 50

[5] Robinson, N & Bye, T 2021, ‘Noseband and poll pressures underneath bitted and bitless bridles and the effects on equine locomotion’, Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, vol. 44, pp. 18 – 24

Horses and Humans: Better Together?

It is commonly assumed by riders that horses have therapeutic benefits for their wellbeing. This article discusses the evidence surrounding the mental and physical benefits of the horse/human relationship. 

The Horse’s Effects on Mental Health

Horses have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of humans. An anthropological study conducted by Davis and associates [1] investigated the horse/human relationship in regards to its effects on human mental wellbeing. They interviewed eight men and 52 women over an age range between 20-70 years of age and found that while no questions were asked directly about horse’s providing therapeutic benefits to their owners, this was a common theme [1]. The riders claimed that being around horses was pleasurable and enjoyable and found riding to be a form of stress relief and a way to cope with negative emotions such as depression, grumpiness or anger [1]. Some have even claimed that riding has helped them cope with clinical disorders or deviant behavioural tendencies, describing being around horses being a kind of prophylaxis [1]. One of the interviewees, Lara, claimed that “I ride because it is sort of my therapy. It keeps me sane. I could do bad things like drugs or drinking but riding works through the emotions and isn’t bad for you” [1]. This research suggests that riding or being around horses had a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of humans, which is strengthened by the relationship that the human has with the horse.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a therapeutic approach in which horses are used as a part of the therapeutic process where the participants learn about themselves through their reactions to the horse [2]. It is an experimental approach that is often used in conjunction with other forms of therapy [2] and is used to assist with mental issues around anger control, self-esteem, trust, empathy and communication [3]. EAP has been reported to be beneficial for a range of human participants including war veterans, troubled adolescents, people with drug and alcohol abuse and survivors of sexual abuse [2].

Pam is an example of the way this therapeutic approach is implemented. She’s a teenager with a diagnosis of oppositional defiant behaviour who was referred to EAP after traditional therapy was found to be unsuccessful. When Pam sat in the car with her baseball cap on, refusing to attend the therapy session, the therapy horse reached into the car and grabbed Pam’s hat, pulling away when she tried to grab it. Later, Pam claimed that she only participated due to her instant connection to the horse [2]. Through this therapeutic approach, the relationship between horses and humans is implemented to create a safe, comforting environment for the human participant and helping them to improve their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Riders have a special relationship with their horses

The Horse’s Effects on Physical Health

While horses have a positive effect on our mentality, evidence suggests that they also have a positive impact on our physical wellbeing. Riders have claimed that the physical benefits of horse-human relationships include the balance of physical and intellectual activities within their lives, the release of endogenous opioids and skill-building [1]. A recent study quantified the energy expenditure of humans while horseback riding [4]. They found that the metabolic equivalents for horse riding included activities such as jogging, playing soccer, and rugby [4]. They also found that different disciplines of riding were more physically intense than others. Reigning was the most intense in short durations, while 45 minutes of walk, trot, canter had a greater energy expenditure overall [4]. This suggests that riding horses does have a positive impact on our physical health, improving it over time.


Hippotherapy uses horse riding therapeutically for “physically and emotionally disabled people, or for people recovering from conditions such as strokes” [3]. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association defines hippotherapy as “the use of movement of a horse as a tool by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction”. This tool is used as part of an integrated program to achieve functional outcomes [5]. During hippotherapy, the horse influences the movement of the human, providing them with the sensory input of a repetitive pattern of movement that simulates a human gait [6]. Hippotherapy has been found to improve a large number of physical elements including posture, balance, strength, coordination, normalisation of muscle tone, and improvement of endurance, symmetry and body awareness [6]. Using horses as a form of physical therapy is particularly effective for humans with cerebral palsy [5]. Due to their impairments, humans with this condition have little experience with rhythmic movements and so the combination of the human gait simulated movement, warmth and rhythm of the horse can have positive effects on the humans with this condition [5]. Hippotherapy is just one form of therapy that uses horses to improve the physical condition of humans.

The Human’s Effects on Horse’s Health

But what about the benefits to the horses? It has been suggested that “animals that live in a close relationship with humans will likely have a better physical, emotional, and mental health, and more social interaction than those who live in isolation, or who have different functions such as racing, entertainment, food, etc” [3]. However, just because they have better lives than animals used for other functions, this doesn’t mean that their lives are considered good, healthy or morally right.

Milani [7] conducted a review on the ethics of the physical and mental welfare of animals used for human therapeutic purposes. Milani [7] claims that the potential of inappropriate use and exploitation exists for animals such as horses that are used in animal assisted therapies. This is due to the “special relationship” that is formed between a human and non-human animal which may blind a human to ethical considerations [7]. However, it was concluded that the animals mental and physical welfare is considered by most services that provide animal assisted therapy. Maintaining the animal’s wellbeing was found to be more cost-effective than treating problems that may arise should those needs be overlooked [7].

Zamir [8] also conducted a study on the moral basis of animal assisted therapy from a liberationist’s point of view. She claims that using horses to treat humans is morally wrong as it puts limitations on their freedom, takes away the animal’s life determination, and forces them into training. It also may create social disconnection, cause injury, or make them feel like an instrument to be used [8]. However, she concludes that the animal’s relationship with humans means that the horses are comfortable and safe and treated well in most cases, something that may not be the case if the relationship did not exist and horses were left to their means [8]. While it is important to consider the negative effects that the human/horse relationship may have on horses, it is generally considered that they are better off being in a relationship with humans than without as their mental and physical wellbeing is considered and cared for.

Studies have also shown that the rider/horse relationship can positively affect their mental and physical wellbeing in similar ways to which they affect humans. Hama and associates [9] conducted a study to analyse the effects of stroking on the heart rates of humans and horses. They found that when horses were stroked by humans with a negative attitude towards horses, the horse’s heart rate increased during the first 20 seconds before gradually reducing as the stroking continued [9]. In comparison, there was not a significant change in heart rate when the horse was stroked by a human with a positive attitude towards horses. However, when the horse was stroked by a human that the horse had a relationship with, there was a decrease in heart rate [9]. This indicates that horses feel more relaxed when around humans with a positive attitude towards them and most relaxed when stoked by a human that the horse currently has a relationship with. Therefore, the horse’s physical and mental wellbeing is positively impacted by their relationship with humans, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

In conclusion, humans benefit both mentally and physically from their relationship with horses. Many modalities use this relationship to benefit humans both physically and mentally such as equine assisted psychotherapy and hippotherapy. Horses assist humans in many other ways, such as general mental health maintenance, prophylaxis for an unwanted behaviour, stress reduction, physical fitness, and possibly have a positive effect on blood pressure and heart rate. While horses have a positive effect on humanity’s physical and mental wellbeing, we must consider the impact that humans have on horses mental and physical wellbeing. However, it has been found that animals used for animal assisted therapies have their needs maintained and that while some may still claim that it is unethical, the animals would be worse off if they were left to fend for themselves. Finally, horses are more relaxed when around humans with whom they have a relationship. The relationship between humans and horses has a positive mental and physical impact and this is a relationship that should be continued for a long time to come.


[1] Davis, D, Maurstad, A & Dean, S 2014, ‘My Horse is My Therapist: The Medicalisation of Pleasure among Women Equestrians’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 298 – 315

[2] Masini, A 2010, ‘Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy in Clinical Practice’, Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, vol. 48, no. 10, pp. 30 – 34

[3] DeMello, M 2012, Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-animal Studies, Columbia University Press, Columbia

[4] O’Reilly, C, Zoller, J, Sigler D, Vogelsang, M, Sawyer, J & Fluckey J 2021, ‘Rider Energy Expenditure During High Intensity Horse Activity’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 102, pp. 1 – 8

[5] Travis, S 2007, ‘Hippotherapy’, in Freeman Miller (ed.), Physical Therapy of Cerebral Palsy, Springer, New York, pp. 350 – 351

[6] Meregilliano, G 2004, ‘Hippotherapy’, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, vol. 15, pp. 843 – 854

[7] Milani, M 2016, ‘Animal Welfare in Human-Animal Interactions’, HABRI Central, pp. 1 – 10

[8] Zamir, T 2006, ‘The Moral Basis of Animal-Assisted Therapy’, Society and Animals, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 179 – 199

[9] Hama, H, Yogo, M, Matsuyama, Y 1996, ‘Effects of Stroking Horses on Both Humans and Horses Heart Rate Responses’, Japanese Psychological Research, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 66 – 73

‘Allo Allogrooming: The Benefits of a Good ol’ Scratch

Have you ever seen a pair of horses scratch each other and wondered why they do that? In this article, I’ll go through the reason behind the wither scratch and how it can influence your relationship with your horse.

Horses are social animals. Since horses are also prey animals, they have adopted sociality as a behavioural strategy – the benefits of sticking together outweigh the disadvantages [1]. For instance, in the wild, horses must identify predators immediately. However, constant surveillance of their surroundings means that there is less time for eating. Therefore, horses that are in a herd can share vigilance and increase their feeding time. Herd life has resulted in ritualised interactions such as allogrooming [1]. Horses can recognise, remember and understand relationships and social status within the herd and can form long-lasting relationships with other horses [2].

Allogrooming is “a form of caregiving through physical contact, typically where one animal uses its hands, mouth or another part of its body to touch another animal” [3]. Many animals use this technique, including primates, birds, rodents, arthropods and, of course, ungulates [3]. There are many varied benefits and reasons why animals use allogrooming however, it is usually for hygienic reasons or social benefit [3].

Horse’s are social animals and love a good scratch

There have been several recent studies that suggest that allogrooming reduces stress within the horse. In 1993, Feh and De Maziѐres [4] found that the imitation of grooming at the horse’s preferred site significantly reduced their heart rate, indicating a reduction in stress levels. The heart rates were reduced on average by 11.4% for adults and 13.5% for foals [4] . A 2004 study [5] also demonstrated similar results. They found that horses during a massage experienced a significant reduction in heart rate, which was more significant when massage techniques were applied to allogrooming sites [5]. Allogrooming was also found to be effective for stress relief in other species, such as primates, dogs, and cattle [6].

Many studies have concluded that the most effective allogrooming site is at the wither. Thorbergson et al [7] found that scratching the wither area for one minute will increase relaxation when the horse is under saddle. Other areas on the horse may be used for allogrooming, such as the hip and shoulder, though they are less effective [6].

Allogrooming is an important aspect of a horse’s wellbeing while also improving the horse/rider relationship. Equine Scientist Andrew McLean suggests that performing allogrooming with your horse can assist in forming and maintaining a strong relationship [2].


[1] Dierendonck, M 2006, The Importance of Social Relationships in Horses, Utrecht University

[2] Henderson, A 2018, ‘Keeping in Touch: Why horses nibble on each other’s withers or necks’, Horse Canada, July/August, pp. 40-41

[3] Russel, I 2018, ‘Allogrooming’, in Encyclopaedia of Animal Cognition and Behaviour, in J. Vonk & T.K Shackelford (eds.), Springer International Publishing

[4] Feh, C & De Maziѐres, J 1993, ‘Grooming at a Preferred Site Reduces Heart Rate in Horses’, Animal Behaviour, vol. 46, pp. 1191-1194

[5] McBride, S, Hemmings, A & Robinson, K 2004, ‘A Preliminary Study on the Effect of Massage to Reduce Stress in the Horse’, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 76 – 81

[6] Normando, S, Haverbeke, A, Meers, L, Ӧdberg, F.O, Ibáñez Talegón, M & Bono G 2003, ‘Effect of manual imitation of grooming on riding horse’s heart rate in different environmental situations’, Veterinary Research Communications, vol. 27, pp. 615-617

[7] Thorbergson, Z, Neilson, S, Beaulieu, R & Doyle, R 2016, ‘Physiological and behavioural responses of horses to wither scratching and patting the neck under saddle’, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 245-259

Rein Tension: How Much is Too Much?

Reins are an important feature of the bridle as they allow for communication between the horse and rider [1] and the tension the rider creates through pressure on the reins is an important factor to remember when considering the horse’s wellbeing.

Piccolo and Keinapfel [2] conducted a study in 2019 to compare the rein tension between a ridden and unridden horse when placed in a dressage position, and the possible conflict behaviours that may arise [2]. They found that without a rider, the horses voluntarily maintained a rein tension of 1kg in all gaits, however, when ridden the tension force to maintain the same frame was higher (approximately 3kg) [2]. Therefore, it is possible to maintain a correct dressage frame without much force from the rider. They also found that there was an increase in conflict behaviour from the horses when ridden as compared to without a rider, indicating that too much rein tension could result in pain which could then develop into a conflict response [2].

Warren-Smith and associates [3] conducted a similar study, comparing rein tension while riding to that of long-reining [3]. They found that more tension was required in long-reining, though they believe this could be due to the lack of other forms of communication between horse and rider, such as the rider’s seat [3]. They also found that “different horses required different rein tensions to elicit the same responses”, however, overall, they believe that “responses can be achieved with relatively low tensions” and that because of this, “one must question the welfare of horses subjugated to significantly greater tensions” [3].

Overall, these studies indicate that riders need to be aware of the force used when communicating with their horse as too much tension in the reins could negatively affect the horse’s welfare.

How often do you consider the amount of rein tension you use?

However, a study conducted by Clayton and associates found that “the rider’s perception of tension was very different from the tension data recorded by the strain gage transducers” [1]. They suggest that the rider’s assessment of rein tension is highly subjective, as the perception of tactile sensation is difficult when riders are inundated with stimuli from both the horse’s movements as well as the environment around them [1]. They also claim that there is a contrast in the perception of the left and right hands so that when the rider describes the contact as smooth and consistent, they were unaware of the undulating nature of the rein tension [1]. This indicates that even when riders are attempting to maintain a light, consistent rein tension when communicating with their horse, they may be unaware of how much tension they are creating, leading to riders unknowingly affecting the welfare of their horse.

Some instructors suggest that beginner riders use a martingale or elastic rein inserts to prevent an unsteady hand position from causing discomfort, which could then lead to conflict behaviours [4]. However, Heleski and associates [4] found that there was minimal conflict behaviour observed in the riding horses, despite there being a higher level of rein tension when a martingale was implemented [4]. It was also found that there was no benefit gained from implementing elasticised rein inserts, due to the low rein tensions used by novice riders [4]. Therefore, neither martingales nor elastic rein inserts help to minimise the amount of rein tension applied to the horse and is not useful in preventing the negative effects of too much rein tension on the welfare of the horse.


[1] Clayton, H.M, Singleton, W.H, Lanovaz, J.L & Cloud, G.L 2003, ‘Measurement of rein tension during horseback riding using strain gage transducers’, Experimental Techniques, vol. May/June, pp. 34 – 36

[2] Piccolo, L & Kienapfel, K 2009, ‘Voluntary rein tension in horses when moving unridden in a dressage frame compares with ridden tests of the same horses – a pilot study’, Animals, vol. 9, no. 321, pp. 2 – 10

[3] Warren-Smith, A, Curtis, R, Greetham, L & McGreevy, P 2007, ‘Rein contact between horse and handler during specific equitation movements’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 108, pp. 157 – 169

[4] Heleski, C.R, McGreevy, P.D, Kaiser, L.J, Lavagnino, M, Tans, E, Bello, N & Clayton, H.M 2009, ‘Effects on behaviour and rein tension on horses ridden with or without martingales and rein inserts’, The Veterinary Journal, vol. 181, pp. 56 – 62