Test-Ride that Saddle!

When you and your horse move together in comfort and support with a well-fit saddle, you’ve got harmony in motion. But if your saddle doesn’t fit, it’s like an uncomfortable shoe, leading to pain, imbalance, and, in some cases, bad habits. 

Obviously, saddle-shopping starts with careful evaluation—you look for a saddle that fits you, and you check measurements to see if it will fit your horse. But once you’ve found a saddle you think fits you both, your next step is to take it for a spin. The saddle is a communication device in this situation, and it’s important to learn to read the messages it gives you.

In this excerpt from my new book, The Western Horse’s Pain-Free Back And Saddle-Fitting Book, I’ll explain how saddle fit affects rider balance, and discuss some of the causes of imbalance. Then I’ll tell you how to take a test-drive in a saddle you’re considering (or your existing saddle), with pointers for evaluating feel and fit. You’ll have a friend videotape you to record the ride and your impressions of the saddle’s fit and performance. 

Saddle Fit Affects Rider Balance

There are many riders who don’t know what “riding in balance” feels like. They’ve never experienced the freedom of movement that a well-fitting saddle provides both rider and horse. These riders simply grow accustomed to the pain their saddles create, or unconsciously assume defensive postures to avoid the pain. They wind up crooked and rigid, which interferes with their timing, balance, and ultimately, their horse’s performance.

Unless your instructor is aware of the intricacies of saddle fit and how a crooked saddle can sabotage your riding, you could spend countless hours, days, and even years—not to mention dollars—trying to correct a problem that’s mistakenly been attributed to you.

Clearly, the saddle’s balance on the horse is critical for correct rider position. This includes the tree’s levelness from front-to-back, the saddle’s symmetry from side-to-side, the stirrup position, and the shape of the entire seat. A well-balanced saddle offers:

Greater comfort and effectiveness. When the saddle is level from front-to-back and symmetrical from side-to-side, and the stirrups are positioned correctly, you can remain in balance over your feet. You don’t need to use grip to stay in place, because gravity works with you, not against you. If the saddle fits the rider well but is out of balance on the horse’s back—slopes forward on a horse with a high croup, for example—the rider will be uncomfortable and ineffective. 

Rider confidence. Many riders with fear issues are simply off-balance in their saddles. When this is the case, your inner ear (your instinctive equilibrium monitor) warns you that you’re out of balance and could fall, and since you don’t know why you’re unbalanced, you may feel insecure or frightened as a result.

Improved position and performance. The classical position—where a vertical line can pass down through the rider’s ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle—is the ideal rider alignment. This position is effective because the angles provide a biomechanical advantage that allow you to move with your horse while remaining in alignment with gravity. The horse’s motion can then be absorbed by those joints best designed for shock absorption—the hip, knee, and ankle—placing less stress on the stabilizing structure of the body—the spine.

Better timing and fluidity. Shake one of your hands in the air. Now tightly curl one finger while shaking your hand. Notice how tightening one finger affects the entire hand, reduces free motion throughout the fingers and wrist, and even restricts your breathing. Transfer this concept to the saddle. If it restricts your hips or lower back, it affects your entire body. The restriction of one area of movement not only interferes with your balance, it also affects the timing and fluidity of every other movement. When your timing or ability to follow is off, your horse’s movement will be hampered. 

Causes of Imbalance

Imbalance can result from crooked saddle structures, the rider, the horse—or a combination of these. Sometimes there’s a “chicken-and-egg” situation. For example, a crooked horse affects the rider, or a crooked rider affects the saddle, which affects the horse. Look for these causes of side-to-side imbalance:

Saddle structure. Warped trees, irregular seats, asymmetrical stirrups, and uneven rigging can all cause you to sit crookedly in the saddle.

Uneven stirrups. Sounds simple, but uneven stirrups create uneven forces and cause damage to both your saddle and your horse’s back. Many people aren’t aware they ride with uneven stirrups and have become so adapted to riding with them, they find it painful to ride with them adjusted correctly. Others believe their legs are uneven, when in reality, muscle tension holds their bodies out of alignment.

Uneven rider position. Try this experiment to see if the problem might be you. Put two bathroom scales down on a level, solid floor, and put a foot on each scale. Bend your knees and assume a riding stance, looking forward, not down. When you feel level, ask a friend to read the weight on the scales so you don’t alter your position. You may be amazed at the difference in the weights indicated by the scales! If the weights are different, try adding or reducing pressure on each of your legs until the readings are the same. Then strive to remember this balance so you can reproduce the feeling when you’re riding.

Saddle wear. If you’ve been riding with an uneven position for several years in the same saddle, the saddle will have adapted to your position and become crooked. It’s not uncommon to find saddles with trees weakened on one side because of years of uneven riding.

Your horse’s conformation. When your horse is physically uneven, the saddle can’t sit squarely on his back. Many riders are accused of riding unevenly, or they assume bad saddle fit, when the problem is really the horse’s conformation. In many cases, once a horse is treated for sore muscles or poor shoeing, the saddle—and rider—will be carried evenly without modification.

Now let’s see about evaluating saddle fit with a test ride.

Get Ready, Get Set…

First, well before the actual day of your test ride, do all you can to educate yourself about saddle fit (for both horse and rider), the parts of the saddle, and saddle condition (if you’re looking at used saddles). Talk to a knowledgeable trainer or saddle expert, or look for books and DVDs on the subject. 

If you’re evaluating a new saddle, plan to protect it during the ride with a clean 1-inch thick saddle pad. Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid cinch marks on the latigos, so before you ride, make sure the retailer will accept a saddle returned with marks on the latigos or billets. 

Enlist a few friends to help you. First, you’ll need someone to videotape at least the part of your ride where you evaluate how the saddle feels to you. A video is a great way to observe how a saddle affects your riding. Ask your videographer to shoot footage from all angles. Then, be prepared to ride straight lines and circles to see if the saddle shifts while your horse is moving. Later, you’ll watch your test-ride video several times, if necessary, plus share it with others to evaluate whether the saddle interferes with your riding, your horse, or your ability to communicate with each other.

If possible, ask another knowledgable friend to be available during your ride to watch and even switch places with you, to give you a second opinion. For example, if you’re not sure whether a problem (such as your leg drifting forward) is due to the saddle or your own bad habits, trade places with your observer. If your horse is reasonably symmetrical, you’re both fairly balanced, and you both experience the same problem, then the saddle is probably the culprit.

All set? Then it’s time for your…

Test Ride!

Get a good start by using a mounting block. Without one, you not only risk twisting the tree of the saddle when you mount, but you may also hurt your horse’s withers and spine. 

Then, once you’re aboard, consider first how the saddle fits…

Your horse. Warm him up for about 20 minutes, then ask your observer to note whether the saddle stayed in place or shifted to a new position during this period. If the saddle moved from its original place, dismount and reposition it correctly, then ride again. 

See if it continues to shift. If the saddle slides forward or backward, check to be sure the cinch is in the correct place. If the saddle shifts from side-to-side, the tree may be too narrow (a common problem with fairly wide, flat-withered horses). 

Ride on a straight line, away from your observer, while she watches to see whether the saddle remains squarely on your horse’s back during motion. Ideally, the saddle should move the same on each side. It shouldn’t slip to one side and remain there, or consistently move across the horse’s back one way more than the other. If the skirts shift to one side, check the horse’s shoulder conformation and, of course, be sure your stirrups are even. Also, check for a manufacturing defect, such as an uneven tree.

If the saddle is slipping to one side, even though it’s even and level, it may be because of how you sit or ride. Many riders are uneven, or ride in a way that shifts the saddle to one side.

Next, ride a circle, about half the size of your arena, and ask your observer to watch the saddle’s skirts. Ideally, the back of the saddle should move up and down very little—especially at the jog—to avoid bruising the horse’s back or creating a friction rub. If the saddle does rock forward, lifting at the back, it may be too wide, or the tree may have too much rocker (curve to the bottom of the tree), forcing the saddle to rotate forward and backward over a central point.

The even side-to-side movement seen from the front or back on a straight line should change when traveling on a circle to the left. The saddle should move slightly farther to the right than to the left (toward the outside of the circle). When you reverse direction, the saddle should move exactly the same amount to the left as it did to the right. Some horses work more fluidly in one direction than they do in the other. If you know your horse moves stiffly in one direction, expect the saddle to move differently on the stiff side.

Now, continue to ride while you consider how well the saddle fits and suits…

You. At the halt, test your balance by slowly tipping forward and backward. Is there a place where sitting is effortless? If you can’t find this “sweet spot,” perhaps your saddle is the reason why. 

Next, have your friend read the questions below aloud as you’re being videotaped, so you can record how you feel as well as how you look. Obviously, any question you answer in the affirmative points to a potential saddle-fit problem.

Step 1 

With your feet in the stirrups, tilt your pelvis forward and backward until you’re in a position where you feel your seat bones are pointing straight down.

  • Do you fidget when you first get on, trying to find the “sweet spot?”
  • Do you feel as if your hip joints are being stretched across the saddle?
  • Do you feel contact with the saddle at your pubic arch, as well as both seat bones? Is this painful?
  • Do you feel pain in your lower back? 
  • Do you feel pain in your hips?
  • Does the saddle make you hollow your back?
  • Does it feel as if the cantle of the saddle is pushing your pelvis forward and down, making it difficult to keep your seat bones pointing down?

Step 2

Take your feet out of the stirrups.

  • Do your legs hang in a different position than they did when your feet were in the stirrups?
  • Do you have to reach your legs forward to find the stirrups?

Step 3

Without stirrups, ask your horse to walk.

  • Is it difficult for you to maintain a level pelvis once you start to move? 
  • Does your back abnormally hollow or round? 
  • Does your pubic arch hit the saddle and does the position of your pelvis alter in response?

Step 4

Put your feet back in the stirrups and begin putting your horse through his paces. Ask your ground person to observe your leg position and balance.

  • Is it difficult to keep your leg correctly positioned?
  • Do you feel unstable or unsure of your balance, especially when working at speed
  • Do you experience crotch pain?
  • Other than feeling the usual muscle soreness, would you experience pain after riding in the saddle for an hour? 
  • Do you feel yourself pushing back onto the rise of the cantle?
  • When your foot is in the stirrup, does the stirrup leather hang straight down, or is it angled forward or back?
  • Are you pushing too hard on or bracing against the stirrup? 
  • Are you sitting squarely in the saddle in the classical position, or are your legs and body out of alignment?
  • Can you follow the quick movements of your horse, or do you have to continually reposition yourself?

Step 5 

Ask your videographer to shoot you from behind.

  • Are you leaning off to one side or the other?
  • Are your stirrups uneven in any way?

The video that results from your test ride will be a valuable tool in evaluating the fit and appropriateness of the saddle in question. Watch the video several times, if need be sharing it with others who may be able to help you interpret the saddle’s affect on your ride. 

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