August 2019 - The Saddle as a Prosthetic?
Written by by Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE, ©2019 Saddlefit 4 Life™ All Rights Reserved
Thursday, 01 August 2019 22:15
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dressage

Proper saddle fit has many therapeutic benefits.

by Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE, ©2019 Saddlefit 4 Life™ All Rights Reserved

I realize that discussing the saddle as a purely “therapeutic device” for riding may be a bit of a stretch, but I do want to make a point here for the use of the saddle as a helpful “prosthetic” when allowing a rider to sit properly.

The fit of your saddle is really a very personal thing for the rider. Some people prefer a fairly flat seat with minimal leg supports (thigh rolls, knee rolls, calf rolls), while others prefer a deep seat, high cantle, and a lot of leg support. The not very politically correct name for this latter type of saddle is “prosthesis” – an aid for someone who needs all the help they can get to sit and ride properly. But what’s wrong with that? If your saddle is comfortable and fits you – and of course fits the horse as it should according to my 9 points of saddle fit – then I say, “enjoy your ride!.”

A dressage saddle with a fairly flat seat and minimal leg support (left) and a dressage saddle with an extremely deep seat (high cantle) and a lot of leg support (right). The not very politically correct nickname (especially in Germany) for this type of saddle is a ‘prosthesis.’

Some people maintain that a “pure” saddle with a flat seat and no leg supports is the only true option for an experienced and well-trained classical rider. Others insist that saddles with well thought out design features such as leg supports, higher pommels and cantles and various seat sizes absolutely have their place all the way from beginner to Grand Prix riders. Many a rider may need these little extras to be able to achieve a balanced and secure seat; to be able to ride in harmony with the horse. When a horse is moving with full suppleness and engagement (“swinging”) a less experienced rider may have a hard time staying put. We found the same phenomenon occurring even in advanced riders when air-filled panels were all the rage about a decade ago. They were difficult to ride for less experienced riders.

Nowadays many riders don’t start riding until a later age. The demographics of the industry have changed so that aging female baby boomers are the largest and fastest growing market segment – either just learning how to ride, or starting to ride again. They want to feel secure in the saddle – no one can afford to break a bone at any age, but the older you get, the more problematic this possibility becomes. So why not use a saddle that can help?

Rider collapsing to the right in the saddle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Joanna Robson, DVM

A saddle-fitting colleague recently presented this dilemma:

“The saddle is on the horse, the tree fits, the panels are leveled (flair), and the rider is sitting on both her seat bones in balance, so statically everything looks OK. Then the horse starts moving. The saddle does what it has to do; it stays in place and I am satisfied with how the saddle is working for the horse. But then the rider gets crooked in her saddle. Nine times out of 10, the problem begin in her pelvis and legs. Most riders compensate in the lumbar area of their backs, frequently resulting in rotation elsewhere in their back, which can lead to one shoulder being higher than the other and lower back pain.

“When I take the saddle off, the dust pattern is good, but I always have the impression that I have a little more dust on one side, mostly the side where the rider is ‘heavier.’ I have seen only two horses where the trapezius and the long back muscle were even. Both horses were ridden with a saddle with an adjustable tree, and their riders were almost straight.

“When you want to protect the horse against long term damage, you also have to help the rider. But then the trainer says the horse is the problem because it is crooked. So do I adjust the panels so the rider is less crooked or leave it as it is? Doesn’t the rider have the responsibility to take care of her body (i.e. exercise and get fit) so she won’t ‘damage’ her horse?”

Horse with a noticeably larger left shoulder than right shoulder.

My response:

More than one factor can influence the horse’s or rider’s physical conformation within a very short time frame. The saddle fitter, trainer and rider have three options, based on the individual circumstances:

  1. The air or stuffing in the saddle panels can be adjusted to compensate if the rider is “structurally” uneven.
  2. If the rider has poor posture, then the rider needs to work on his/her straightness. The saddle should never be considered as a Band-Aid prosthetic. The saddle is there to protect the horse and rider from long-term damage and not to be used as a crutch if the rider has no body control.
  3. If the horse has a larger left shoulder, then the saddle will sit straight in the static fit but in the movement the larger left shoulder will push the saddle to the hollow side (the right side).

In this case you need to do a geometric adjustment on the saddle: open the left by “x” cm and support the right by the same amount of “x” cm. This way the saddle has an opening on the left side and room for the larger left shoulder to come through without pushing the saddle to the right during movement. Shims can be used to even out the difference in balance temporarily.

We all know that it’s important that your saddle fits your horse well, but did you know that saddle fit also affects your horse’s posture and rideability?

Horse's back is inverted and its leg somewhat ‘camped out’ behind.

Postural Changes in the Horse

When a saddle fits a horse poorly, the horse may try to compensate for the poor fit, or the pain caused by changing his posture. The horse may hollow its back to escape the pain, or his back may simply not “engage” properly. Poorly fitting saddles often distribute weight unevenly, causing pressure points and significant pain. Horses experiencing saddle pain tend to raise their heads high in the air as they are saddled, when the girth is tightened, or when they are ridden. Dr. Sue Dyson has recently published a paper on pain ethograms for horses – recognizing the signs that they are in pain by physical behaviours and facial expressions.1 I always say the eyes, the ears, the tail don’t lie. Listen to your horse!

If the saddle is a terrible fit, you may notice changes in the horse’s “rideability” almost immediately. In many cases it may take a few weeks for these issues to manifest as your horse experiences more and more pain. Saddle fit issues don’t always cause obvious pain for your horse, but if your horse is attempting to please the rider (tolerant beasts that they are!) there will always be physiological consequences down the road.
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1 Dyson, Sue et al. Development of an Ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculo-skeletal pain. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 2017.