Which saddle type is best for good rider biomechanics?May 10, 2022
Your saddle plays a crucial part in the correct alignment of your legs and body, and this proper alignment, in turn, is essential to riding well. This article covers commonly raised issues from my Horse Rider's Mechanic clinics regarding saddles and how your choice of saddle type affects your riding position, balance and security. It also describes different saddle types and how they might help or hinder you in your chosen pursuit. It concentrates on riding in the upright position (rather than the forward jumping position).
Why is the right saddle type so crucial for good rider biomechanics?
The type of saddle you use must be suitable for the style of riding you do.
Saddles have evolved over a very long time for very distinct pursuits.
So, for example, a 'Western' Saddle, Australian Stock Saddle or Dressage Saddle is unsuitable for jumping (there is more information about the pros and cons of different types of saddles later in this article). Therefore, if you do various activities with your horse, you may need more than one type of saddle. For example, 'event' riders that do a combination of dressage, cross country and show jumping combined into one event) usually have a jumping saddle and a dressage saddle to cover the different riding styles needed for these different events.
What is the correct position for riding a horse?
When riding 'on the flat' (not jumping), you should aim to ride with an imaginary straight line going through your ears, shoulders and hips to your heels. This position makes it easier for your horse to carry you and puts your legs in the correct place to apply the aids effectively. So, if you are sitting correctly, you would land on your feet without tipping backwards or forwards if your horse disappeared in a puff of smoke. This position applies whether you are riding Dressage, 'Western' or trail riding (hacking out).
If you never jump, an Australian Stock Saddle, a 'Western' Saddle, or a Dressage Saddle will all be suitable, depending on what you do. Although different to each other in some ways, these saddles are all designed to put you in the upright, balanced position described above.
A good modern dressage saddle is designed to do this, but the other two styles, providing that the anchor point for the stirrups (or fenders) are set far back enough, will also put your legs in the correct position.
Why is a 'general purpose' ('all purpose') saddle not good for riding in an upright position?
On the other hand, a jumping or 'all purpose' saddle (sometimes called a 'general purpose' saddle) does not help put your legs directly underneath you. These saddles are designed with forward set stirrup bars so that the rider can ride in a forward position, between and over jumps, with shorter stirrups.
The diagrams (below) illustrate why a rider cannot put their legs directly under their hips in a jumping or 'all purpose' saddle - because the stirrups bars are set too far forward to do so. You can see the difference between the stirrup bars and where they need to be for a classical 'flatwork' (longer leg/upright) riding position.
The following diagram shows what happens when a rider tries to get their heels directly under their hips (when riding with longer stirrups in an 'all purpose' saddle - or a jumping saddle); they have to pull the stirrups backwards to archive this.
As this is difficult to maintain, what ends up happening is that the rider's feet keep sliding forward again because that is where this type of saddle (an 'all purpose' saddle or a jumping saddle) is designed to put the rider's legs.
So, riding in a saddle designed to put your leg in the correct position when riding with longer stirrups on the flat makes more sense when you are not planning to jump.
How does the width and depth of a saddle seat affect rider biomechanics?
Other considerations when choosing a saddle are the seat's depth and the width of the 'twist' (the area directly under your seat bones). Saddles can range from shallow to deep in the seat and vary from narrow to broad in the twist.
Because everyone is unique, it stands to reason that different people will have different requirements. Some of the complications that can affect a rider's needs are;
- Historically, saddles were built by men for men, so they tend to be narrow in the twist - so it is a common problem for females to be uncomfortable when riding. Some people have narrow-set seat bones (narrow hips - males more often than females), and some have wide-set seat bones (wide hips - females more often than males). So, if the twist is too narrow, it will mean that the seat bones are not supported enough.
- Some riders can articulate their hip joints more easily than others due to how easy or how difficult it is for them to put their legs down and back. Even two riders built similarly in terms of the width of their hips etc. may still have different preferences for the width of the twist.
- A saddle with a deep seat will feel supportive to some riders but too tight to others. Generally speaking, males prefer a less deep seat than females.
- Some riders have previous injuries that affect what is comfortable for them.
- The rider's body weight will affect the hip and leg position - excess weight tends to push the thighs away from the saddle.
- The width of the horse. Some horse/rider combinations do not match if a rider has particular problems. Riders with 'problem hips' can find it uncomfortable to ride wider horses.
So, while most riders can ride in a range of saddles without any difficulty, occasionally, a rider may have a huge problem getting a saddle that fits them (as well as their horse). This is one of those areas where the Internet can be beneficial. As well as trying out as many saddles as possible, a rider can ask around on rider forums/Facebook groups to see if other riders with similar problems have come across a particular saddle that suits them.
How can you learn more about rider biomechanics?
What are the different types of saddles?
The general differences between the most common types of saddles:
There are many different types of saddles to suit the many different disciplines of horse riding.
How does riding in a dressage saddle affects rider biomechanics?
'English' (or European) saddles are used for the 'Olympic Disciplines' and are widely used for everyday riding. This group includes dressage saddles with the straightest flap (on the vertical plane). When riding dressage, the rider has longer stirrups than when jumping.
In a good dressage saddle, your legs can achieve the correct position much more easily because the stirrups bars are in the right position.
However, keep in mind that some older dressage saddles and even some newer dressage saddles still have the stirrup bars set too far forward.
A good dressage saddle has stirrup bars that are positioned well back and has correctly positioned thigh rolls that help enormously with the accurate positioning and security of the legs.
How does riding in a jumping saddle affects rider biomechanics?
Jumping saddles are at the other end of the spectrum. As already mentioned, these saddles are designed with the stirrup bars set further forward so that the rider can ride in a forward position between and over jumps. The rider has much shorter stirrups when jumping and the forward cut flap of a jumping saddle reflects this. These saddles are perfect for jumping.
How does riding in an all-purpose saddle affects rider biomechanics?
An 'all-purpose' saddle is a compromise between a dressage and a jumping saddle (although, as you can see, it looks more like a jumping than a dressage saddle). These saddles are meant to be ideal for riders that want to do both disciplines with one saddle, but these saddles favour jumping much more than flatwork.
It is difficult to achieve the correct leg position in a saddle that is, at best, designed to be a compromise between two very different riding disciplines (jumping and flatwork).
How does riding in a western saddle affects rider biomechanics?
'Western' saddles also have many variations depending on which western discipline they are designed for. These saddles usually have a horn at the front for roping cattle. They have no padding underneath the seat and therefore must be used with thick saddle blankets or saddle pads.
How does riding in an Australian stock saddle affects rider biomechanics?
Australian stock saddles evolved from English (cavalry) saddles but are used for a similar purpose to 'Western' saddles (for long hours spent in the saddle, working cattle or sheep). Again there are variations within this type.
Like the 'Western' saddle they are designed for comfort and rider stability when riding in steep country or when making sudden changes in direction (rounding up cattle or sheep). They have padded panels under the seat like an 'English' saddle.
Note that the 'ears' on an Australian stock saddle can prevent the rider from rising to the trot and standing in a balanced position.
A common myth - an inexperienced rider needs a saddle that 'holds them in', right?
What is the best type of saddle for a beginner rider?
Inexperienced riders sometimes think they need a specific type of saddle to help them stay on a horse. This is not strictly true. Buying a saddle that 'holds you in' (such as a 'Western' or Stock saddle) without actually addressing the issue of your position and balance is counterproductive. So, by all means, ride in those types of saddles if that is what you find most comfortable (and as long as it fits your horse), but don't do it simply because you think it will prevent you from falling off.
When you have a good position and balance, your saddle will enhance your riding, but it is not what keeps you on your horse.
Learning to distribute your body correctly and use your body correctly keeps you on a horse. Therefore improving your position and balance is imperative for your safety.
Learning about how to keep the lower legs ‘engaged’ underneath you, improving the stability of your lower legs, and improving your position and balance are at the heart of The Horse Rider’s Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course
Saddles - should you 'try before you buy'?
Always try a saddle out before you commit to buying. When buying a saddle, it is important to check that it helps rather than hinders correct leg alignment before you buy it.
So, it is best to think about what style of riding you plan to do when purchasing a saddle. If you plan to jump, you need a jumping saddle with forward-cut short flaps to accommodate your legs when riding with shorter stirrups. An 'all-purpose' saddle is also acceptable for low-level jumping because of the forward cut flaps. If you are not planning to jump, then a saddle with straight flaps will suit you better because you will aim to ride with your heels directly under your hips. This position makes it easier for your horse to carry you and puts your legs in the ideal place to apply the aids.
I usually advise not to buy an 'all purpose' saddle. Or if you do, then aim to buy a dressage saddle as well. Because, as I have mentioned several times, you will struggle to get your legs in the correct position in an 'all purpose' saddle. You only need a forward-cut saddle if you plan to jump; many riders do not, or at least only jump occasionally, so a dressage saddle makes more sense for most riders.
The key is to get your legs in the correct position and learn how to properly engage the lower legs to stay in the right place, no matter what the upper body does! This is what HRM is all about.
Should you get a saddle professionally fitted?
A saddle should be fitted to your horse by a qualified saddle fitter. Ask around in your area for recommendations.
Learning about how to keep your lower legs ‘engaged’ underneath you, improving the stability of your lower legs, and improving your position and balance are at the heart of The Horse Rider’s Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course
How can you learn more about rider biomechanics?