Home › Buying a Saddle to suit the Rider

Buying a dressage or show saddle, for some, is not a joyful experience.  A number of riders end up with a saddle that at first seems comfortable for the horse but, within weeks to months, is causing pain and behavioural problems. Months later and a trip or two to a saddler, things are either under control or, because of saddle incompatibility with the horse, the horse is unhappy and behaving badly, and the rider is about to take up jogging.  Below is the first of a two part series on selecting a new saddle.

So you have found a saddle that appears to suit your horse.  What about yourself?  Saddles need to suit the style of riding that the rider wishes to adapt (very upright posture or more of a slight chair seat). (Upright posture is certainly more bio-mechanically kind to the horse's back). They need to be comfortable for the rider, so that the rider is not, say, protectively tensing in the inner thigh or favouring one side of their body. 

Saddles are designed mainly for men and thus suit the narrower male pelvis, and more highly set hip sockets. Eighty per cent of women have a wider distance between seat bones, lower pubic arches and effectively lower set hip sockets, than men of the same height.  Saddles that are more suited to women are ones that have a broad flat seat that have enough room between the seams for the seat bones and that do not put too much pressure on the inner thigh and pubic arch.  Saddle seats which rise up quickly from the saddle seat to the pommel are likely to readily jar the pubic region.

Strangely enough, according to the latest research (Dr Bernie Masters PhD “An examination of the neuro-musculo-skeletal health of the horsewoman in relation to saddle design”), experienced women seem to have adapted unconscious strategies to cope with the saddle being too narrow, to the point, that where given the choice, experienced riders keep going back to saddle types that they are used to.  It is only the new riders that more immediately select saddle shapes that are more ergonomically and physically suited to them. 

As a result it will probably be some time in the future before the public, and thus the manufacturers, are ready for saddles that are specifically designed for the wider female pelvis.  Change takes time, and eventually many women will wonder how they ever sat in the older saddles.  (Change will occur because women will ride better in saddles that are more comfortable for them.)

Conflict of ideals and comfort often occur when choosing a saddle.  Close contact reduces the movement between the horse and rider and thus stresses the horses spine less.  Vertically challenged women, however, might find that riding large horses with a close contact saddle causes their hip joints to be stressed.  The need to spread one’s legs more directly around the horse as one gets closer to the horse can make a huge difference to some, especially those suffering from arthritis of the hip joint.  As a result some riders require saddles which are raised higher off the horse.

The location of stirrup points varies a little between saddles and is important to both rider posture and comfort.  Sufferers of hip problems will usually be more comfortable in saddles with forward stirrup points in that such saddles create more of a chair seat.  The more forward the leg, the easier it is to get one’s leg around the horse and the more comfortable is for the hip.  Stirrup points that are set further back allow a more correct, upright posture, but as mentioned this can be uncomfortable for some.

Saddle seat size – basically the rider should be able to fit their hand comfortably between their behind and the cantle of the saddle seat.  Small saddles are likely to cramp the rider and shift the rides weight toward the rear of the saddle.

Saddle seat depth is another issue. A deeper seat is usually suited to less experienced riders, flatter more open seat for well balanced riders. More open seats allow more movement of the rider as the rider accommodates for different gaits and postures of the horse, thus making being ridden more comfortable for the horse and also making possible the use of more refined seat aids.  Deeper seats usually require a bigger saddle if the saddle is to be comfortable for the rider

The standard for flap length is that the flap of the saddle should extend to the middle of the calf of the rider’s leg.  Tall riders, in particular may need specially fitted saddle flaps.

My guess is that many horse owners are surprised to find out how complicated it is to select the optimum saddle for both the rider and the horse.  It is a long process and is full of compromise.  However knowing more of what to look for, and a bit more thought about factors that are going to affect both the rider and the horse, is going to do one thing – make that new saddle and future riding much more of a pleasure.