Home › The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design. Fashion and Function

Dr Ian Bidstrup spinalVet, Kilmore, Victoria, Australia

The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design

Part One: the essentials of saddle design and function

Horse riders today are being offered more options in saddle brands and design than ever, making the purchase of a new saddle an even bigger challenge than in our less well informed past. The market place for saddles too has become increasingly competitive which has encouraged manufacturers to try to sell their saddles via some special feature or another. How does the rider know whether a saddle's design is suitable or a special feature is good or otherwise for their horse? This article is part one of a series aimed at helping riders better understand saddle design and saddle fashion involving the underside of the saddle - the tree and panels in particular.

Years ago it was thought checking a saddle was right for a horse was pretty straight forward. You found a saddle that was considered fairly well matched for your horse and tried it out. The horse would then tell you by its reaction to being ridden in the saddle as to whether it was suitable. If it worked well in the saddle it was good, if not then it was not suitable. Simple. Sadly the world of saddle fitting is rarely simple. Very often the saddle purchased via this method is the same saddle that three weeks to three months later is one the horse does not work well at all. If the basic saddle design is not right for the horse no amount of alteration to the underside of the saddle or saddle head angle ('gullet') is going to make that saddle right for the horse. Expensive and frustrating to the rider - yes, surprising to me, no. New saddles, like new shoes for ourselves, very often put pressure on new places for the horse and reduce the pressure on old sore areas so seem like a breath of fresh air for a start. As the new saddle starts creating its own pain footprint the real truth is revealed about its real suitability, and the answer may not be good. Because many riders use the simple method above a number of saddle makers have gone to great lengths to make a saddle as well cushioned as possible when brand new, by using very soft and bouncy saddle flocking and leather that is soft on the horses back and wither from the outset. This is a very successful sales ploy and coupled with good traditional fitting may cover up problems with saddle design that lead to soreness as the flock settles and the true grip on the horse's back becomes established.

The Role of Saddles

Saddles have two principal roles. The first is to provide a stable, secure, comfortable and balanced platform for the rider, the second is to make the platform as comfortable as possible for the horse. Both functions are inter-related. If the rider is not well balanced the horse's action and performance will be upset. Likewise if the horse is not as comfortable as possible its posture, movement and performance will be negatively impacted.

Saddle structure

To help us discuss saddle design firstly a little on saddle components and structure. English saddles are composed, from the inside out, of a frame or saddle tree, a saddle head plate, commonly referred to as the gullet plate of the saddle, the saddle panels or cushioning, saddle leg flaps, pommel, twist and seat.

The saddle tree or internal frame of the saddle is one of the most important parts of the saddle. It supports all of the components of the saddle and must be of a shape suited to the shape of the horse's back to allow the best distribution of the rider's weight. In its optimal form it broadly supports the panels and spreads the riders weight over a large and comfortable area, in its poorest form it does so only scantily, or results in pressure on the more sensitive parts of the back. Materials used for the saddle tree vary from more traditional laminated beech wood to high tech combinations of carbon fibre and Kevlar.

The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design
(From the side - parts of an injection moulded plastic tree)
The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design
(The Underside of a saddle with a plastic tree after removal of the panels, showing the gullet and tree point.)

The saddle panels sit under the tree of the saddle. They cushion the pressure applied to the tree by the weight of the rider and pull from the girth. Panels vary greatly in shape and fill. Generally the most comfortable panels are those that spread the weight of the rider over the greatest horizontal surface. This relies on the panels being of substantial spread. It also relies on broad support from the saddle tree above them. At the same time the panels need to avoid applying pressure to the more sensitive parts of the horse's back and wither.

The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design
(Below - A saddle with a small effective bearing area.)
The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design

Maximising saddle comfort for the horse

Saddle comfort is largely related to pressure under the saddle. Basically the smaller the footprint of the saddle, the more localised and heavier the pressure on the horse's back. Contributors to saddle pressure are both the girth pulling the saddle onto the horse's back and the weight of the rider being transferred to the horse's back through the saddle tree and panels.

Saddle soreness occurs when skin and muscles under the saddle are damaged by pressure which slows or stops the blood flow to these tissues for significant periods of time. Poor blood flow causes a damaging build-up of muscle cell bi-products such as carbon dioxide, heat and lactic acid, with cell damage and inflammation resulting in muscle soreness.(Yes heat is one of the by-products of muscle function. Blood flowing through muscle removes heat just like water from a car's radiator runs through the engine to drain heat from it. Heat under the saddle is often put down to the saddle material, whether leather or synthetic in particular, or the amount of airflow under the saddle, but is much more a function of how much pressure from the saddle slows the blood flow through the muscles)

The Underbelly of Dressage Saddle Design
(Blood flow through the muscles can be readily stopped by pressure from the saddle and rider combination. Reduced blood flow causes build-up of damaging chemical cell waste and heat and starves the muscles of nutrients including oxygen. It takes a mere 17grams per square centimetre or weight of three $2 coins/cm2, to stop blood flow through the small blood vessels (capillaries) which feed the muscle. Pressure under saddles can be as high as 320 grams per square centimetre in badly fitting saddles (weight of 48 $2 coins /cm2). Picture source - Internet)

Another basic aspect of saddle fitting for comfort is that the saddle minimise the pressure on the more sensitive parts of the horse's back. Sadly this is an area of knowledge that many of the saddle fitting community only partially understand, and is complicated by deeply imbedded misconceptions about the back of the horse, and in particular the strength of the loins of the horse. The upper part of the wither, the muscles directly over the spine, the angle of the ribs as they emerge from under the back muscles, the saddle seat area and where tender from arthritis, the loin or lumbar area of the back. These all can be particularly sensitive areas for a horse.

Comfort for the horse is also about the saddle and rider hugging the horse in a stable way. A saddle that moves more than a little when the horse changes direction can put excessive twisting pressure on the horse's back, throwing it off balance, or can unseat the rider. Similarly a saddle that is fitted correctly can become quite uncomfortable if it moves forward once the horse gets in motion.

Thus there are three basic aspects of saddle comfort for the horse - how well the weight of the saddle and rider is spread, whether the saddle avoids pressure on sensitive areas under the saddle and thirdly whether the saddle is stable on the horse's back. These all affect how each saddle's design will suit a particular horse and rider combination.

Subsequent parts of this series will take you deeper into the pros and cons of different variations in saddle design for each section of the saddle - the front, waist, seat and girthing aspects of saddles.

Click Here for Part 2 >>