Once upon a time, I thought that a saddle’s only purpose was to help me stay on a horse while I went galloping around with the wind in my hair and the reins in my teeth. Then, when I believed myself to be older and wiser, and coincidentally saddles became more stylish, I was of the opinion that saddles helped me stay on while allowing for a bold fashion statement. Hey, you could buy one to match your horse and your boots!
Eventually I came to realize that saddles have a serious function. They are the adapter between the horse and rider, and their purpose is to allow the horse to be the best athlete it can be while having weight on it’s back (something that its structure does not come to easily). Plus it needs to support the rider to be a balanced and effective rider such that aiding is easy and immediate.
This functionality of the saddle is an important factor to keeping our horses happy and sound.
So how do we riders come into the picture?
Most of us have had the chance at some time in our lives to carry a child on our shoulders. And what we learned is that if the child remains balanced and responsible for his/her own body weight and balance, we can carry them for hours. But if they lean, lurch, wiggle or flop we quickly become tired, irritable and in pain. The pain either begins at the shoulders and neck and quickly travels down; or starts in the lower back and shoots up.
Either way, the only thought running through one’s mind is how to dump the child.
So now that we have established the uncompromising need for balance on a horse, how does the saddle help or hinder us?
Regardless of what equestrian sport we participate in, the rules of physics apply.
We need to be balanced over our feet. We can play around with the understanding of this by doing a few simple exercises in front of a full-length mirror.
Stand with feet horse-width apart, sideways to the mirror
Bend your knees (to accommodate the horse’s barrel)
Let your arms hang by your side
What can be noticed immediately is the relationship of one’s feet; to hips, to shoulders, to head.
This same alignment needs to happen astride your horse, in your saddle.
An added interesting point to note is that your upper arms, while hanging by your side, are actually hanging behind the small of your back. This is your balanced 3-point position.
In the forward seat we start in the same position as the 3-point seat, following steps 1 through 3 and then we add;
Slowly begin leaning forward till you arrive at your balanced forward seat riding position.
Notice that in order to remain securely balanced your hips move back.
2. Let your arms hang, being controlled by gravity.
Note the relationship of shoulders to feet; elbows to shoulders – pay attention to where your pelvis goes as well as the angle of your thighs.
After each of the exercises above, point your toes out and feel how this destabilizes your position.
If you then remain with your toes pointed out and squeeze your knees somewhat together (as if you are gripping a horse with your knees) you can begin to feel the stress to your knees and ankles.
This exercise is very important to understand as many saddles have either knee rolls or flap shapes/sizes that force riders’ thighs out so that they are no longer in a balanced position with the femur lying flat against the horse.
This destabilized seat is the cause of many a sore back, hip and knees. It also can contribute to a horse’s reluctance to move forward, a need for stronger aiding and/or general “disobedience” towards the rider. I put disobedience in quotation marks because it has been my experience that most horses are such good listeners and so sensitive to our aids that as we wiggle, jerk and squeeze on their backs involuntarily they respond. We often then interpret this response as disobedience being unaware that we have in fact been aiding them.
After practicing in front of the mirror until you feel you truly understand these balanced positions, take this information to the barn with you. Ask a friend to help by taking pictures of you on your horse while the horse is standing square and on a flat and level surface. Does your saddle allow you to stay balanced?
Remember that when we are in a saddle we have added an extra component to the balance equation. Our seat bones! These seat bones must be on the saddle such that our pelvis is absolutely balanced and in a neutral position, the only position that allows us to ride from a position of strength and flexibility.
What exactly does a neutral pelvis position look like?
There are many good books one can pick up on the biomechanics of the human body as well as many a good Pilates instructor that can explain this marvelously, and I would highly recommend learning more about this. A good way to feel a strong, neutral pelvis position is through the following exercise:
Sit in your saddle (assuming it fits and is balanced) with your horse at a halt and someone at the head of your horse to keep your horse at a standstill;
Bring both knees up to the pommel of your saddle;
Sit up as straight as you can being careful not to over arch your back if you are a woman or collapse your back if you are a man;
Move into the sweet spot of your saddle
Feel the part of your seat bones that are placed firmly on your saddle;
Hold this position with your abdominal grid while you slowly let your legs down one at a time and place them in the stirrups.
This is the jump-off place to be able to acquire an independent seat. Acquiring this balanced seat is dependent on saddles that accommodate all positions of a rider while not hindering the pelvis. This means seat size and swell; pommel height and angle; distance of the stirrup bar to the sweet spot in the seat; cantle angle; and twist.
Recently there has been a big push by some saddle makers to say that because a woman’s pelvis is different than a man’s that a saddle must be made specially to accommodate this. Though the theory that this marketing angle is based on is correct, what we find in the field is that many women riders are fully supported by saddles in which men ride and are balanced and comfortable as well as the reverse.
What is most important is that the saddle supports each individual rider’s conformation while never compromising the fit for the horse.
When evaluating your current saddle or purchasing a new one, find a professional with an educated eye for balance as well as fit, who can help you with all these important factors for correct saddle fit for you as the rider.