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Saddles need to fit their riders... or riders need to fit their saddles?

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Here's something I wrote... which was used by the FEI... It was hard writing in a grown up style, but it's all good practice i guess? Enjoy... By Poppy Webber, Qualified Saddle Fitter for the Society Of Master Saddlers. Owner of PeeWee Saddlery, covering the East of England, for over 12 years. She also writes regular advice posts, is a monthly magazine columnist and can be found by searching for #adayinthelifeofasaddlefitter

Adding a saddle and rider’s weight onto a horse often upsets the horse’s own balance and co-ordination. The extra weight of the rider should therefore be distributed in the most harmonious way possible. The saddle must fit the rider as well as the horse in order to create a comfortable, safe, secure and effective rider position. This will maximise performance and communication; and ensures minimal disruption to the horse’s balance and way of going.

Presuming the saddle is appropriate for the discipline and is well-fitting for the horse, the most stable (and therefore effective) position for a rider is one where:

  • they are comfortable

  • their pelvis is neutral and their spine is balanced

  • their hips and ankles are in vertical alignment without any muscular effort from the rider

  • the stirrup leather naturally hangs vertically from the stirrup bar

  • they are able to ‘feel’ the horses movement

  • they can influence the horse well

Stirrup bar placement varies according to the discipline and saddle type/make/model; it also affects the rider’s position.

On dressage saddles, the stirrup bars tend to be set further back thus opening the hips, and encouraging a straighter legged position. On jumping saddles, by contrast, stirrup bars are set further forward to allow for a shortened stirrup length. The angle of a rider’s hips, the length of their femur and the amount of padding on their bottom all contribute to how a rider’s legs are positioned. For this reason, different riders require different placements of the stirrups bars. When a rider is considering saddles, it is helpful to try a number of makes and models and to be aware of the importance of the stirrup bar placement according to the rider’s shape and anatomy.

If the bar is in the wrong place, the rider will be out of balance. Their lower leg can swing as they fight to maintain a correct and effective riding position; this is particularly noticeable during rising trot and over fences. An unbalanced rider can be thrown out of their natural centre of gravity, and end up ‘behind the movement’. Such a rider will attempt to secure the leg position by gripping with their knees which, in turn will restrict the horse’s movement.

Seat/saddle size is another factor which affects the rider’s positioning. The length of seat a rider needs depends on their thigh length as much as the size of their bottom, because the placement of a rider’s knee on the saddle influences where their buttocks are positioned. A very long thighed rider will try to tuck their knee in behind the knee block, which results in their seat bones being pushed back in the seat, past the point of balance.

Similar outcomes may be observed on a saddle that is too short in length, resulting in the rider being pushed too far back, or their knees being pushed out and over the top of the knee blocks. This creates tension in the rider’s hip joints, causes discomfort and makes their lower leg much less secure. Any of these will cause the rider’s aids to be less effective. Unfortunately there is no magic formula to work out what seat length a rider needs, as there are so many factors influencing it; including the depth of seat, the shape of the flaps, and the thickness of the riders thighs.

A saddle that is too long in length will cause excessive movement in the rider’s seat, resulting in insecurity and ineffectiveness. It is also likely to encourage the rider into a ‘chair seat’ as their seat bones drift backwards into the centre point of the seat, and their knees slide forward to the blocks.

A rider not sitting straight and correctly in the saddle will be more of a burden for the horse to carry. The horse’s performance will decrease and injury can occur more easily.

Rider discomfort will cause tension, and for them to become easily fatigued. Tension causes muscles to ache quickly, and this results in the rider losing contact with the horse meaning that their ability to give clear aids will suffer.

The external features of the saddle can also be important for the rider’s positioning. For example, the knee blocks need to fit the rider’s shape. A long thin legged rider tends to need longer blocks than a short, thicker legged rider. The angle the blocks sit at must mirror the angle of the rider’s leg. Knees naturally gravitate to the block, so if the block is at the wrong angle it will result in the leg sitting in an unnatural position, creating tension.

Similarly the saddle flaps need to be the correct length for the rider’s leg; too long and they’ll be too bulky, too short and they’ll catch on the rider’s boots. Both of which will impede the effectiveness of the leg aids.

Many riders have a favourite saddle, like an old leathery friend… but it doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for them. They can be used to sitting in a ‘chair seat’ and therefore when sat correctly can initially find the stretching of their hip flexors uncomfortable… or conversely, could be so used to their jump saddle pulling their lower leg back that they struggle to balance initially when they move to one that sits them ‘correctly’.

If you’re trying a new saddle (or want to check your current one!), get someone to check that your hips and ankles are in vertical alignment, both statically and dynamically (in all paces); and that your stirrup leathers hang perpendicularly to the floor. Your seat bones should naturally come to rest in the centre of the seat (without feeling too trapped, or without too much slipping around), and you should feel like your spine is straight above them. You should feel comfortable, like your pelvis is able to sit in a neutral position without force. And you should feel like your legs make good contact with the horse, and that you are able to give effective leg aids. Your local SMS Qualified Saddle Fitter will be able to advise.

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