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 book, The Western Horse's Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit 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:
|Saddle position||-Evenness, side-to-side and front-to-back
-Maintains position in motion
|Rider balance||-Vertical line from ear, to shoulder, to hip, to ankle
-Weight distributed evenly
-Center point ("sweet spot")
|Ground seat||-Comfort level|
-Stirrup leathers perpendicular to ground
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 allows 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: