Another skirmish site has formed in the ages-old battle of the sexes, this time in the field of saddle design. Some women are asking themselves whether saddles designed mostly by men for equestrian disciplines developed historically by men are working with them or against them. See Consider This.
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The traditions in English riding trace their roots to the military in Europe and in Western riding to ranching in America, both male-oriented. For centuries, saddle design has developed more from use than from biomechanics - dressage, jumping, cross-country, hunting, endurance, reining, roping, pleasure and hybrids. In the last couple decades, however, saddle design has become more subtle, with myriad features that can at times seem to be more for the sake of marketing than for practical application.
Saddles may be divided into two basic groups - saddles whose main job is to support the rider above the horse's back and saddles whose function is to help the rider sit right down on the horse. Among saddles in the first group, with shorter stirrup leathers and relatively less structure, are those for jumping and racing. Among saddles in the second group, with longer stirrup leathers and relatively more structure, are those for dressage and cow work.
Another way to describe this form/function relationship is the familiar two-point/three-point rationale. Differences in design aren't so critical when stirrup leathers are short and there's a layer of air between the rider and the saddle surface - the two points being the rider's two legs. The question here is whether basic biomechanical differences between men and women call for basic design differences in saddles where the rider's seat stays attached to leather at all times - the three points being two legs plus seat - especially when sitting on a big-moving warmblood.
Actually, the three points of contact to consider in the second group are really the two seat bones and the pelvic arch and whether they're supported and cushioned by the saddle or are rubbed by the saddle. These areas vary in width and angle where they meet the saddle in men and women. Does this really matter in saddle design? It turns out this isn't a one-size-fits-all, or even one-size-fits-most, matter.
In August 2011, Horse Journal listed concerns for a rider to consider when purchasing a dressage saddle. We would now like to go a step further and discuss whether understanding male/female seat structure will help the majority of dressage riders (dressage in North American is vastly a female sport), plus anyone who spends more of their time in three-point than two-point, to find their perfect saddle. We talked to several saddle experts to get their thoughts on the subject.
One person who feels strongly that there is a critical difference is Sabine Schleese of Schleese Saddlery. "A man can ride in a women?s saddle more easily than a woman can ride in a man's saddle," she said.
WOMEN VS. MEN. Because the midsection of the sexes can vary in several key ways, these are points to consider in order to achieve an ideal riding posture, which is where the ear, shoulder, hip and heel are in vertical alignment. These points include upper-leg length, hip angle, thigh shape, seat-bone width and pelvic angle.
The upper leg in a woman tends to be longer than the lower leg, while the ratio of the two areas in a man is roughly equal. Because of this, women tend to prefer a stirrup bar that is set further back in order to avoid a "chair seat." Another example of the difference is that riders with a longer femur - usually women - tend to tilt their bodies more ahead of the vertical when they post the trot than do riders - usually men - where the two leg sections are equal.
"Women with narrow hips and equal length of upper and lower leg have an easier time with fit because they are more like men," said Schleese.
Men also have a straighter hip angle (more up/down) while a woman's hip socket sits higher on the pelvis, which can also cause her to tilt forward and strain her lower back, especially in sitting trot. At the same time, a woman?s inner thigh tends to be more rounded, while a man's is flat, causing the leg to hang down differently from that hip socket.
"Imagine two people with the same proportions, both six feet tall and the same measurement bone-to-bone," said Gene Freeze of County Saddlery. Ligaments might hang the leg differently. Taking a measurement of the length of a leg doesn't take into account the angle of the leg.
The seat-bone width on most men is narrower than on most women, so the padded part of the saddle (between the seams) needs to be wider for a woman. Don't confuse seat width with twist, which is the most narrow portion of the saddle, located just behind the pommel.
Depending on the pelvic angle, the pubic area on a man is higher than on a woman, so her pubic area becomes closer to the saddle. As a general rule, women tend to go out at the hip and in at the knee, "knock-kneed" if you will, exacerbating the problem. And for some, the pelvic floor is more tipped than flat, something only they can tell when they sit in a saddle.
When you combine the pelvic angle with hip width and the shape of the thigh, as a general rule a woman is going to prefer a twist that is more narrow than a man would prefer, although Kitty Garrity of L'Apogee Saddles points out that if a woman has given birth that her pelvic area may have spread and that she may then prefer a wider twist. The rounded shape of a wider twist will allow the man's leg to drape down from his hip but would rub the front of a woman's seat and cause her legs to stick out from her sides. A narrower twist provides a space for a woman's rounded thigh to support her seat without rubbing her crotch.
"Sit in it. How does it feel?" asks Schleese. "Do you have to rock to find your comfort zone? Does it hurt to sit on your pubic bone?"
All this information is interesting but where does it leave you when shopping for a saddle? Are there really saddles out there designed more for women than men? If so, how can you tell, whether you're looking for woman-specific features or you're a man trying to avoid them? Most of the concerns mentioned above will be addressed under the surface of the leather, if at all, so you can't just know by looking.
You might be able to identify a few of the women-specific areas by sight, however, especially when a row of saddles are lined up for comparison in the tack shop. These areas include:
You can start by measuring the distance between the dents your seat bones make in your regular saddle and take that measurement to the tack shop to see if you can find something wider, but you are mostly going to have to eyeball this. When it comes to "size" (the measurement from the pommel nail to the center of the cantle), most saddlers in the U.S. use a consistent and familiar dimension listed in inches. However, when it comes to width (the distance between your seat bones), this could be listed in a variety of ways including S-XL and centimeters. You'll likely become frustrated trying to make a comparison.
Twist: Viewing saddles from above, look for a narrow, tapering twist vs. a wide, rounded twist.
Look for a slope that isn't abrupt.
Flap: Look for a longer, more angled flap. A monoflap, where there is one layer of leather rather than two, with the girth rigging on the outside, will have less leather between you and the horse. That mountainous terrain of a thigh block may also work against you if there's not enough room for your upper leg and thus your seat is forced back onto the cantle.
Some of the areas you can feel more than you can see:
Stirrup bars: It can be hard to compare the placement of the stirrup bars on two saddles placed side by side because the location is relative to other underpinnings.
The stirrup bar is a fulcrum, and the stirrup/leather combo is a pendulum.? You shouldn't have to feel you need to swing your leg back in order for the stirrup to hang straight down.
Waist: This is the area that drops down from the twist. To a certain extent, you want to feel it give way. You certainly want to feel that it allows your leg to drop down.
Some of the areas where you may have to take the word of the saddle manufacturer:
Crotch padding: Some saddles, including ones made by Schleese, have a channel cut out under the pubic area and filled with foam or possibly gel.
Specific features for women:
There are manufacturers who are addressing these concerns, but how much they succeed can remain in question. You are more likely to find some of these subtle features in more high-end saddles and those that are custom-fitted.
"it's incorrect to put all women in one box," said Freeze. "When we design, we design for the individual. Saddle design for individuals is complex.
"You can't necessarily tell what is scientifically relevant and proven and what is marketing," said Freeze. "Within the female population the differences can also vary. You can't draw a mathematical equation. There are too many variables."
If you are shopping in a tack store for a new or used saddle, you should pick the brain of the shop's best saddle expert. Often, they can tell by looking at you in a saddle on the shop's dummy horse which saddles are likely prospects, so you'll take home one or two to try rather than considering a line-up of a dozen.
Remember, though, that you won't have stirrups in the shop, and that can make all the difference. If you're trying a used saddle at the barn, You'll have to compare it for yourself to your usual saddle.
We can't emphasize enough that getting the help of a saddle fitter can be worth the added cost, usually around $100 for a visit to your barn that may be refunded if you purchase a saddle from them.
You'll get expert advice and ride in a variety of saddles that are brought to you rather than gathering them yourself, saving time. Remember, though, that a fitter is also usually a salesperson who is likely representing a specific brand.
"You have to sit in a lot of saddles," said Garrity. "You have to have an educated seat. The person helping you can't tell what you are feeling. You have to ultimately know what you want."
When an advertisement or label tag claims a saddle is designed specifically for women, this can sometimes be a marketing ploy as much as a reality.
When you take out a saddle on trial, make sure you get an adequate period to tell that it fits both you and your horse, ideally a couple of weeks. Verify the terms of the trial period before you hand anyone a check or credit card.