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Your saddle

by Jane Myers – The Horse Rider’s Mechanic (HRM)

Your Saddle

Your saddle plays a crucial part in the correct alignment of your legs and body, and this correct alignment, in turn, is crucial to riding well. This article covers some of the issues that are commonly raised in my (Horse Rider’s Mechanic) clinics with regards saddles and how your choice of saddle affects your riding position, balance and security. It also describes different types of saddles and how they might help or hinder you in your chosen pursuit.

Why is the right style of saddle so important?

It is vety important that the type of saddle you use is suitable for the type of riding that you do. Saddles have been designed and have 'evolved' over a long time for very distinct 'jobs'.

So, a ‘Western’ Saddle, Australian Stock Saddle or Dressage Saddle is not suitable for jumping, for example, (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 very different riding styles needed for these very different disciplines.

When you are riding ‘on the flat’ (not jumping) you should be aiming to ride with your heels under your hips, and your hips under your shoulders and ears. In fact, if you are sitting correctly, you would land on your feet without tipping backwards or forwards if your horse were to disappear in a puff of smoke. This position makes you easier for your horse to carry and puts your legs in the right position to effectively apply the aids. This position actually applies whether you are doing Dressage, riding 'Western', or Trail Riding (hacking out).

If you only ever ride ‘on the flat’ (i.e. you don’t jump) an Australian Stock Saddle, a ‘WesternSaddle or a Dressage Saddle will all be suitable, depending on what you do. These types of saddle, although different to each other in some ways, are all designed to put your legs under your hips, more or less.

A good modern dressage saddle is particularly designed to do this, but the other two styles, providing that the anchor point for the stirrups (or fenders) is set far back enough, will also put your legs in the correct position.

On the other hand, a jumping or ‘all purpose’ saddle does not really help you to put your legs directly underneath you. These saddles are designed so that the stirrup bars set further forward, 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 stirrup bar is set too far forward to do so. You can see the difference between where the stirrup bar actually is and where it needs to be for a classical ‘flatwork’ (longer leg) riding position.

So, when a rider tries to put their legs directly under their hips when riding in a jumping or ‘all purpose’ saddle there is a discrepancy between where the stirrup bar actually is and where it needs to be.

The next 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 actually pull the stirrups backwards to archive this.

As this is difficult to maintain, what actually 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 that is designed to put your leg in the correct position when riding with longer stirrups, on the flat, (a dressage saddle) makes more sense when you are not planning to jump.

The width and depth of a saddle seat is important too...

Other considerations when choosing a saddle is the depth of the seat and the width of the ‘twist’ (the area directly under your seat bones). Saddles can range from shallow to deep in the seat and can range from narrow in the twist to wide in the twist.

Because everyone is so uniquely different it stands to reason that different people will have different requirements. Some of the complications that can affect a riders requirements are;

  • 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 for example, it will mean that the seat bones are not supported enough. Historically, saddles were built for men, by men, so they have a tendency to be narrow in the twist - this means that it is a common problem for females to be uncomfortable when riding.
  • Some riders can articulate their hips joints more easily than others, so even if two riders are built similarly in terms of width of hips etc., they may still have different preferences for the width of the twist because of how easy or how difficult it is for them to put their legs down and back.
  • If a saddle has a deep seat it 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 body weight of the rider will affect the hip and leg position - excess weight tends to push the thighs away from the saddle.
  • The width of the horse. Riders with 'problem hips' can find it uncomfortable to ride wider horses. Some horse/rider combinations just do not match if a rider has particular problems.

So, while most riders are able to ride in a range of saddles without any difficulty, occasionally a rider may have a huge problem trying to get a saddle that fits them (as well as their horse). This is one of those areas where the Internet can be very useful. 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 a similar problems, have come across a particular saddle that suits them.

The general differences between the most common types of saddle...

There are many different types of saddle to suit the many different disciplines of horse riding.

‘English’ (or European) saddles which are used for the ‘Olympic Disciplines’ but are also widely used for everyday riding. This group includes dressage saddles which have the straightest flap (on the vertical plain). 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 correct position.

Keep in mind though that some older dressage saddles and even some newer dressage saddles still have the stirrup bars set too far forward.

A good dressage saddle not only has stirrup bars that are positioned well back but also has correctly positioned thigh rolls that help enormously with the accurate positioning and security of the legs.

Jumping saddles are at the other end of the spectrum. The rider has much shorter stirrups when jumping and the forward cut flap of a jumping saddle reflects this. 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.

An ‘all purpose’ (AP) (or sometimes called a 'general purpose' - GP) 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 the one saddle, but they favour jumping much more than flat work.

It is very hard 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).

‘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 for padding.

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.

(Please note though that the ‘ears’ on an Australian stock saddle can prevent the rider from rising to the trot and standing in a balanced position - covered in detail Horse Rider's Mechanic Workbook 2: Your Balance).

‘Half breeds’ are a combination of a ‘Western’ saddle and an Australian Stock saddle. These are becoming increasingly popular with pleasure riders due to having the comfort of a ‘Western’ saddle but they are ‘hornless’ like an Australian stock saddle. They do not have padded panels on the underside.

An inexperienced rider needs a saddle that ‘holds them in’ right?

Inexperienced riders sometimes think that they need a certain 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 saddle 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 you will fall off more easily in a saddle that does not have a horn (a ‘Western saddle) or ‘ears’ (an Australian Stock saddle). When you have a good position and balance your saddle will of course enhance your riding, but it is not what keeps you on your horse. Learning to distribute your body properly, and use your body properly, is what keeps you on a horse. Therefore improving your position and balance is imperative for your safety.

Aim to 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, you need to think about what style of riding you are planning to do when buying a saddle. If you are planning to jump, you need a jumping saddle with forward cut short flaps that will accommodate your legs when riding with shorter stirrups. An ‘all purpose’ saddle will also be fine for low level jumping because of the forward cut flaps. If you are not planning to jump then a saddle that has straight flaps will suit you better because you will be aiming to ride with your heels directly under your hips. This position makes you easier for your horse to carry and puts your legs in the ideal position 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 learn how to get your legs in the right position and learn how to properly engage the lower legs so that they stay in the correct place no matter what the upper body does!

Exercises that train you how to achieve the correct leg position are at the heart of The Horse Rider’s Mechanic books and Horse Rider's Mechanic online course - why not have a look?

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