Understanding gait abnormalities and behaviour in the ridden horse

Dr. Anne Bondi BHSI, PGDip, PhD, Director, Saddle Research Trust

In a 2-part article published in our newsletters last year, I described how, through a progressive series of 12 published research studies, the Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) was first developed and then successfully applied to assist pain recognition in clinical cases and in further research work. The RHpE has proved to be an important tool that has become integral to a growing body of research. I continue this series on the timeline of the RHpE by reporting here on the findings of the 13th study, which investigated links between the horses’ gaits, behaviour, saddlery and rider effects.
The study, which was supported by World Horse Welfare and the Saddle Research Trust, took place at ten different venues with 151 participants recruited from both professional and amateur rider groups across a range of competition disciplines and skill levels from leisure riders to 5* eventers. All the horses were in normal work and believed by their riders to be sound and working comfortably.

A standardised protocol was followed for every participant, beginning with an assessment by renowned orthopaedic clinician, Sue Dyson, who is a Diplomate of the European College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (fig 1.). Sue assessed the saddle (fig. 2) and noseband fit then evaluated each horse moving in hand for the presence or absence of lameness. Each horse was then observed being ridden through a pattern of movements (fig. 3) in walk, trot and canter on both reins, whilst being videoed. Jenny Routh, an experienced equine veterinarian formerly of the Animal Health Trust, determined the presence or absence of lameness or gait abnormalities in canter, such as close temporal or spatial separation of the hindlimbs, or lack of a suspension phase. As an experienced competition rider and qualified coach with specialist knowledge of saddle design and fitting, I observed the dynamic saddle fit to each horse and rider combination and documented whether the saddle bounced, oscillated from side to side or persistently slipped to one side. I also assessed the suitability of the saddle size for the rider, the rider’s position and whether they rode in balance with the horse (fig. 4). At a later date, Sue retrospectively assessed the videos, applied the RHpE to each horse and recorded a total score for observed behaviours.

The results showed that nearly 30% of the horses were lame in hand and over 60% were lame when ridden, with the total proportion of lame horses reaching nearly 80%. This difference may be because some horses showed bilateral lameness when ridden, although the trot was short stepping but symmetrical when observed in hand. The average lameness score was low-grade (2/8), in part reflecting that lameness grading is inaccurate when lameness affects both forelimbs or both hindlimbs. However, the average RHpE score was 8/24 (although some reached as high as a disturbing 15/24). A RHpE score of 8 or more signifies that the horse is likely to be lame or experiencing musculoskeletal pain. There was a positive relationship between lameness severity and the RHpE score. These results highlight the importance of observing ridden work in any lameness investigation. Recognition that a horse may be nonlame in hand, but lame when ridden, is of vital importance.

Nearly 60% of horses exhibited gait abnormalities in canter, which also highlights the importance of assessing ridden horses in all gaits. Currently, there is no method of objectively measuring gait abnormalities in canter, so it is important to recognise and understand abnormal variations in the gait so that early veterinary intervention can diagnose and manage any problems before they deteriorate or become chronic. In this study, some horses had a symmetric trot but a high RHpE score of more than 8; of these, nearly 75% showed canter abnormalities.

There was a disturbingly high proportion of ill-fitting saddles (fig. 5), with 84% considered likely to impair performance. The most common faults were the tree points being too tight or positioned against the scapulae, pommels too low with insufficient wither clearance, bridging of the panels, and seats tipping backwards. Adequate clearance under the pommel can be easily checked by the rider but in 27% of cases the fit was too low. This clearly demonstrates a lack of awareness in a high proportion of riders of even the most basic principles of saddle fitting. Tight tree points, seen in 75% of horses, were significantly associated with higher RHpE scores. This emphasises the need to assess saddle fit in cases of lameness or poor performance investigation because it would be impossible to determine other causes of musculoskeletal pain if the saddle was one of the primary sources of discomfort in a ridden horse.

Resources

This article is adapted from: DYSON, S., ROUTH, J., BONDI, A. & POLLARD, D. 2020. Gait abnormalities and ridden horse behaviour in a convenience sample of the United Kingdom ridden sports horse and leisure horse population.Equine Veterinary Education.   A short video abstract of the published paper is available to view here.
Previous articles about ridden horse behaviour can be found below:   Recognition of equine poor performance: The ridden horse pain ethogram An illustrated guide to the 24 behaviours that are 10 times more likely to be seen in horses experiencing pain is available to download here.
Part 1 – Background and development of the ethogram   This series of 7 peer-reviewed developmental studies gives credibility to the evaluation of ridden horse behaviour as a means of identifying the presence of an underlying pain- related problem. Horses are trying to communicate with us. We need to learn to listen to them and understand. Early recognition of problems and appropriate investigation and management are the keys to happy athletes and longevity of performance.   The next step was to determine if the ethogram could enhance diagnostic skills by actually using it in the field. In part 2, we document how the ethogram has been successfully applied to clinical work.   Download the full article here.
Part 2 – Application of the Ridden Horse pain Ethogram in the field   This series of five studies clearly demonstrated that the Ridden Horse pain Ethogram is an invaluable tool that can be easily applied in a wide range of settings in the field. This seminal work has highlighted the urgent need for education of all stakeholders in the equine sector including veterinarians, coaches, saddle fitters and other professional practitioners, riders and horse owners. The RHpE is a game-changer, but how quickly we can make a positive, permanent impact on the welfare and performance of every ridden horse depends on every one of us doing our best to educate those around us.   Download the full article here.

© Copyright Anne Bondi 2021. Images copyright Saddle Research Trust 2019. All rights reserved. This article may be shared anywhere, in full, but copyright must be cited.