Pressure Mat Technology for Saddle Fit and Horse Training

Saddle pressure mats used to be one of the great tools reserved for equitation scientists. But today, as technology becomes more affordable, they’ve become accessible to saddle fitters, trainers, and riders. And the many possibilities of what we can do with them are, according to one researcher, “fascinating.”

“As a rider myself, seeing the images made from these pressure mats really led me to understand what I feel when I’m riding and focus more on the horse’s movements,” said Anna Byström, PhD, an equine biomechanics researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala.

Although pressure mats have been used for more than a decade to help scientists visualize the kinds of pressures occurring between a horse’s back and a rider’s seat, they have far broader uses in the riding world, said Byström. She gave a one-hour presentation on saddle pressure pad technology and use during the Centaur Biomechanics Virtual Equine Sports Science Summit held Oct. 3.

One field in which pressure mat use is growing is saddle fit, Byström said. By revealing average pressure and peak pressure points through colorful mapping on a screen, the pressure mat allows saddle fitters to detect areas of poor fit. However, it’s important to check pressures in all gaits and not just in a standing horse, she added. And, while useful, the pressure mat isn’t a replacement for traditional saddle fit assessments. “It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it’s a good complement,” she explained.

Another interesting field for pressure mat use—one that merits more exploration, she said—is that of rider feedback. The on-screen graphics and readings can permit trainers and riders alike to “see” what’s happening at the interface between rider and horse.

The readings—which create a “movie”—also give riders and trainers feedback about how the horse is moving, said Byström. The unique look at the way a horse displaces his back and shoulders in each gait can help riders better understand his biomechanics and might encourage them to refine their feel. For example, in walk the overall saddle pressure increases gradually as the croup rises during the first part of each hind-limb stride and then decreases rapidly as the horse offloads the hind limb.

For many riders, this could be eye-opening, said Byström. “In the saddle pressure movie, this looks like a wave coming up from behind,” she said. “I was fascinated realizing that this is actually a picture of my feeling when I’m riding, and it challenged to me to go back in the saddle and try to really feel what I was seeing. Try it yourself the next time you are riding, see if you feel the wave.”

Meanwhile, at a sitting trot, the highest pressure is under the front limb that’s moving in the air, not the one that’s on the ground. That might be related to the muscle activity in the shoulder at that point, although a solid explanation would require further research, said Byström. For riders, though, having that awareness of their horses’ biomechanics—that additional bit of knowledge about how their horses really move—could help them ride better.

Going forward, pressure mats will likely be more visible in the industry, due to their greater accessibility as commercial products and the benefits they can provide, said Byström.

“It used to only be an option for researchers (due to the price), but now they’re more affordable, and I think they’re really a training tool of the future,” she said.