The Saddle – How this can affect your position and horse’s way of going.
By Mark Fisher (Master Saddler of the Society of Master Saddlers, Registered Qualified Saddle Fitter, and Consultant to the British Equestrian Federation.)
Mark works with the Team GB horses. He also travels abroad training on behalf of World Horse Welfare.
Russell Guire, of Centaur Biomechanics, and Mark Fisher worked together in the development of the Fairfax Girth.
We are always hearing “sit up, shoulders back” for example.
In a lot of cases it is the SADDLE BALANCE which is at fault, adversely affecting the rider.
It can be too high or too low at the front or the back.
It can be off-centre.
It can be too low on one side or the other.
If it is slipping more to one side, it will usually have specific effects, for instance if the saddle is slipping to the Right, the horse will usually be worse in Left canter.
Basic fact: you can’t sit straight if you are on an unlevel surface.
Causes of Saddle Imbalance.
Flocked saddles: Settling of flocking.
Foam filled panelled saddles: change in shape or condition of the horse.
Saddle too wide – tips forward.
Saddle too narrow – tips back.
An asymmetric horse, either the gait or the shape of the horse can be asymmetric. The asymmetric gait has more of an effect.
An asymmetric rider – weight or position.
An ill-fitting saddle.
Incorrectly positioned saddles. He sees this a LOT. Using a numnah clouds people’s judgement. Saddles are frequently fitted too far forward, on the horse’s scapula.
If it is on the shoulder, it is out of balance before the rider even gets on. It will be up on the shoulder and down on the back.
The effects of an out-of-balance saddle on the rider.
It is difficult/impossible to maintain your position.
There will be constant criticism of the rider’s position.
It leads to instability and added muscular stress, particularly lower back pain.
There will be torque and stress on the lower back in every gait.
These ALL affect the rider position and effectiveness.
The effects of an out-of-balance saddle on the horse.
Restriction of gait.
Increased gait asymmetry.
Performance is affected.
The PLIANCE pressure mapping system.
This is jointly owned by the BEF and the SMS.
It is a mat with 252 individual sensors, and sits under the saddle. It cost £14,000 for the mat and they are on their 5th one!
After being used on about 36 horses it needs recalibration or replacement.
It sends information to a laptop via telemetry.
Every square on the screen represents 1 square cm of the pressure mat. There are absolutely no gaps between the squares – cheaper pressure mapping systems have gaps, giving an unclear picture.
There was a case of a show-jumper which was bucking on landing every time after a fence.
With the use of the Pliance system they were able to prove that it was a veterinary issue rather than a saddle issue.
Pliance gives objectivity. When you add in the gait analysis at the same time, you can prove that is is working better, as well as feeling better for the rider.
(Same background, but the voice-over is different and very interesting!)
The video is taken at 50 frames per second. It is an experienced rider, in a very well-fitting saddle, over a 1.40m fence.
You can clearly see the peak of pressure on the back of the saddle as the rider sits down (there is an explanation on the video, of the effect of the inside hind on the pressure picture) on the approach the fence, and the big peak of pressure on the front left on landing.
There is a higher peak of pressure on the non-landing leg, 26-28 lbs of pressure.
It was previously thought that the leading leg took the most pressure, but in fact this proves that the second foreleg to land takes the higher pressure, because the leading leg moves on so fast. In fact ALL of the horse’s (and rider’s) bodyweight is on the left fore at that moment.
The Pliance machine can be calibrated to show up to 36 lbs of pressure. It has three settings, showing up to 9, 18, or 36 lbs of pressure. When you go higher you get a less pin-point accurate picture.
It has been proven that just 0.6 lb of pressure is enough to reduce blood supply to the capillaries.
For a study such as this, they would repeat each exercise on both reins, and would jump a jump say 3-6 times on each rein, then take an average. If there was a spook or trip, for example, they would erase that one and do it again.
The surface has a huge effect on the results. If the surface was harder, the pressure would increase. Ditto if it was an unbalanced saddle, an unbalanced rider, or a heavier rider.
Well balanced saddle pics.
To get this picture they walk, trot and canter on both reins, and then take the average.
The horse has the biggest effect on the pressure picture.
Then the rider and the saddle.
A well-fitting saddle:
The middle of the seat needs to be the deepest and flattest part.
The pommel-cantle height ratio varies a bit according to whether it is a jump or a dressage saddle.
They then took this well-fitting saddle and deliberately put in a narrower gullet-plate to make it too narrow for the horse.
SORRY, no picture because it was so bright
with higher pressure colours that it was
impossible to see, my camera couldn’t
make sense of it against the lit screen!
This put the saddle up in front and down behind, which pushed the rider’s lower leg forward, making the rider round-shouldered. The rider lost the curve in the lower back. This effect was worse in rising trot, because it causes the rider to fall onto the back of the saddle.
If the saddle starts to bridge, there will be pressure points more at the front and the back, less in the centre. There will not be a lot of contact through the middle.
The same saddle was deliberately fitted with a too-wide gullet-plate to make it too wide for the horse.
If the saddle is too wide, the pommel drops.
More pressure will be put in the middle.
The saddle might well start wobbling, moving the rider too much, creating instability.
At the same time as the Pliance results were taken of the well-fitted, too wide and too narrow saddle, carpal motion (knee action) results were taken by gait analysis.
With own well-fitted saddle:
Reading of the left knee: 111
Reading of the right knee: 101
With saddle made too narrow:
Left knee: 111
Right knee: 102
With saddle too wide:
Left knee: 110
Right knee: 104
These numbers are ANGLES, so the lower the angle, the higher the flexion.
The horse is flexing its RF knee more in all 3 saddles.
The wider saddle actually allows more flexing.
So, there is very very little difference in the FRONT end movement.
From the Pliance results:
There was 9 lb of difference in the narrower saddle.
There was 0.25 lb difference in the wider saddle.
More pressure in the narrower saddle, because it goes to 4 point, creating a problem at the back more than the front.
The hock motion results:
(again, these numbers are angles, the lower the number the better)
Well fitting saddle.
Reading of left hock: 115
Reading of right hock: 116
With saddle made too narrow:
Left hock: 108
Right hock: 117
With saddle made too wide:
Left hock: 109
Right hock: 120
So, with the well-fitting saddle, the hocks were just 1 degree different.
The right hind can be seen getting weaker with the badly fitting saddles.
With the extra-wide saddle, there is an 11 degree difference.
This is a VERY SIGNIFICANT change at the back end, because the rider is put out of balance.
So, WHEREVER the weakness is in a horse, it will be exacerbated by bad saddle fit.
Remember, it takes 6 weeks to adjust the blueprint of the horse’s movement…
Russell works on a green, amber and red light system (self explanatory!)
Over five degrees of difference between left and right is a RED light.
With elite horses they are looking at very small differences.
Ref: Sue Dyson’s recent work on hock lameness.
Is horse moving that way for a reason?
If you straighten it, will it cope?
It could be rider related, but coming from the horse initially.
Saddle slippage pics.
The dots, from the bottom up, are attached to: Dock, Sacro-iliac, Center of Cantle, Center of rider’s back.
The correction was done quickly and Mark admitted he had overcooked it slightly and compensated too much.
(It would be possible to get it exactly straight.)
Riders have to get used to the new feel. It will feel odd initially, then ten minutes later they say that it feels fine. New proprioception.
When asked whether he prefers to adjust with flocking in the saddle, or shims in the saddlepad, he replied that it depends how far out the asymmetry is.
Shims will balance but not necessarily get it straight.
The question is, whether it is slipping across, OR slipping across and dropping over.
There was a Pliance picture of a saddle slipping to the right, with a peak pressure of 9.25 lbs, which is significant.
The pressure was on the left side of the withers. The rider was sitting to the left, and there was higher pressure all down the left side of the horse’s back.
Hock motion with a slipped and a straight saddle.
Left hock: 123
Right hock: 125
Left hock: 118
Right hock: 120
(again, these numbers are angles, the LOWER the number, the better).
So, the straight non-slipping saddle is much less likely to break the horse. The horse feels freer.
An ill-fitting, unsuitable, out of balance saddle will:
Have a significant effect on rider and horse performance.
An out of balance saddle = an out of balance rider,
which leads to
Increased pressure and force on the horse’s back.
Answers to questions from the floor.
About heavier riders:
There was up to 30% more pressure (measured trotting on a road) from a heavier / less experienced rider.
About Treeless saddles.
If you take the tree away it is usually worse because it is less stable.
You reduce the pressure but it is less stable.
People then tend to over-tighten the girth.
They used the Pliance pad across the back under a treeless [not exactly how it was designed to be used, but they needed to see pressure on the spine, which it would not normally show], and when the rider went into sitting trot, it immediately showed high pressure along the spine. The gait analysis at this point was much worse, the trot shut down.
The results from treeless were no better than a well-fitting tree’d saddle, and in some cases far worse.
You can definitely distribute the weight better with a tree.
About using a sheepskin half-pad or a Prolite.
They used to believe that this would make the saddle tighter, now they know that isn’t true. It just lifts the saddle.
This is often better for the horse but not always for the rider.
If you’re not sure, use the pad for a week, then leave it off for a week, and see what difference you feel.
On the difference between pressure and pain [[because horses, like people, have certain areas where they can cope much better with pressure, and pain and pressure are not necessarily the same thing.]] The gait analysis, used with the Pliance pressure testing, really helps, leading to increased performance.
The highest peaks of pressure seen were from mounting from the ground. This showed MORE pressure than when jumping a 1.40m fence.
About his preference for flocked vs foam filled panels in saddles:
Foam is a good shock absorber, but his personal preference is flock because it is more adjustable (to the individual horse).
About people buying saddles cheaply on eBay and fitting them themselves.
This elicited a wry grin and he didn’t need to say anything, really, to convey his opinion!
I think the whole lecture showed the absolutely HUGE effect that a poorly balanced and/or poorly fitting saddle can have on the rider and the horse. It was fascinating to see the Pliance in action and to see the results of the gait analysis married up with the Pliance results. This is cutting-edge stuff, huge thanks to the Society of Master Saddlers and the British Equestrian Federation for their investment into this truly groundbreaking technology, and to Mark Fisher and Centaur Biomechanics for sharing this information.