Dressage Saddle Fit Importance

Dressage expert Max Gahwyler offers his views on saddle fit and how it affects horse and rider performance.
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Dressage expert Max Gahwyler offers his views on saddle fit and how it affects horse and rider performance.
Max Gahwyler, MD |

Max Gahwyler, MD |

Ask Max Gahwyler, MD, about saddle fit and the popular dressage judge, clinician and author from Darien, Connecticut, shares an anecdote:

"One day I went riding and forgot to put on the girth because I had a telephone call. I came out and rode and when I came back an hour later, I realized I had no girth! But the saddle fit the horse and the saddle fit me, and we didn't really need a girth," he says.

An equally important factor, Gahwyler continues, is that "my saddle is made for the way I sit. Every person has different legs and thighs. We have different seats and the relationship of the thigh to the upper body varies. We must always take into account the way we want to sit on a horse whenever we look at how a saddle should fit.

"Because of the way I develop and train my horses they go on a long time," Gahwyler continues. "That is why it is worth it to me to have a saddle custom made. My old horse was 40. The young one is 26, and I ride him every day. If you have a horse for 30 years, it is worth spending money to have a good saddle. I am over 80 years old, but I can still sit on a horse and do whatever I want and never have a backache," he says.

When having a saddle custom made, "the saddle maker must have two sets of data--one for the horse and one for me," Gahwyler explains. "It is essential to have the saddle made exactly for the back of the horse I am riding. But the other side of the saddle should be made to my specifications--the length of my thighs, the length of my legs, the configuration of my body from the seat down."

Gahwyler believes that some modern saddles are too straight down. "They may fit the horse," he says, "but they don't allow for sufficient angle in the rider's legs. Stretching the legs down puts you on your crotch. If you sit on your crotch with your legs way down, you have a hollow back. This does not help you communicate with the horse, and you are not as well balanced," he says.

"My saddles are not vertically down. They are built a little forward," Gahwyler continues. "I want the saddle to have a balanced seat and fit the way I want to sit. A rider should beware of excessively stretching down. If you look at the great German riders, they have more of an angle with a more pleasing line of balance."

Gahwyler would like to see saddle makers "build saddles that accommodate the pelvic conformation of the customer." He recommends that female riders choose a dressage saddle with a wider seat and pommel to get better support. "The saddle design should be flatter for women than for men," he says. "In addition, saddle flaps should be built more forward and knee rolls not exaggerated since they push the rider's thighs outward. A woman's saddle should accommodate a more flexed leg position." Gahwyler's final thought: "Whenever a saddle fails to conform to the rider's body shape, there will be problems that are then blamed on the horse."