Saddles: constructive, destructive, defensive?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Most people who ride horses at some point or other use a saddle.

For as many people riding horses there are at least as many opinions about Saddles… style, fit strategies, size, weight, placement, tree type (if one at all), then add the question of pads… material, shape, thickness, shim, more, less… and if anyone has been riding horses more than one year it’s likely they’ve held several different very strong opinions as well.

I don’t know a single horse owner who hasn’t struggled with the saddle dilemma in some form. Some are fortunate enough to have a slight issue that gets easily solved.

Most have more serious situation that results in multiple saddles bought and sold to sort out something the horse and rider can live with. Some end up with severe problems that seem to take endless resources and no good answers regardless of how many experts consulted and dollars are spent.

Something I’ve found confounding is watching some of the folks who’ve suffered the most dead ends have gone through custom saddle fitters-makers who have had a saddle made to fit the exact horse. Few people I’ve known who have tried that have been successful with their custom saddle problem-free for very long.

My journey has been somewhere in the middle- I’ve had rubs, pain and white hairs develop in all the horses I’ve owned at some point and needed to change and adjust my program to make the horse more comfortable and have had decent luck finding something that was workable for the horse.

Here are some bullet points I have confidence as truths I’ve learned:

  • The worst place for saddle fit advice is Facebook.
  • Most people who’ve struggled to a breakthrough in a saddle fit dilemma thinks the saddle they found will be the answer to others who are struggling.
  • The answer to any saddle question depends on a lot of variables between both horse and rider and include ability and confidence of rider.
  • A saddle that fits great while a horse is standing still may not be a great saddle after 50 miles of riding in it.
  • A saddle that fits great in June may not fit so great in January.
  • A saddle that fits in 2018 may not fit in 2020.
  • The worst place for saddle fit advice is Facebook. (Yes I know I listed that twice!)

It is a great mystery to me how people used horses for so many miles in transportation all those years ago and somehow didn’t lame, cripple or kill the animals in the process yet having way way fewer options to choose from and probably less resources available.

Since getting khaleesi 4 years ago as an unstarted 4-yr old I’ve used 6 saddles and a bareback pad not including ones I’ve borrowed to try for various periods of time.

Started her with an inexpensive western saddle for stability. It was ok at first but quickly became too narrow at the withers.

Tried out then bought a paragon Granada saddle – supposedly great for gaited horses and a good inexpensive saddle. I loved it for a while and seemed fine for K. But the position was too feet forward for my trotting ‘gaited’ horse. I had a hard time finding my balance to post so I moved on to a used …

Wintec adjustable with the CAIR system. This seemed great for a young horse still developing her body. The saddle could grow with her! Unfortunately I was getting pressure points and sore spots no matter what I did.

In the end I wondered if my unadvanced riding skills were coupled with a minimal surface area to distribute the posting impact on her back and something with a better tree would help. Nothing I tried made the saddle more comfortable for her so I sold it and moved to an endurance style saddle that had been wonderful for Faygo.

Working with the folks at Phoenix Rising was great. I have a good friend who has been riding in their saddles for many years. The saddles hold up well to much trail riding abuse and the horses are happy in them. I borrowed one temporarily from her and found that khaleesi was better in this saddle than the wintec. I bought an endurance style standard tree that fit her topline splendidly.

Life was good and we were off doing 25-30 mile limited distance riding and though it was fine at first, after a few months I began to get rubbing and eventually sore places. Honestly I didn’t want to think about it! I found the right saddle! It fit when I bought it. Was working great… why would that change?

Luckily Faygo had the wide tree model and although when I bought the standard tree the wide had fallen down onto Khaleesi’s spine (confirmation it was the wrong size!) now it seemed to fit beautifully. So saddle #5 was the Phoenix Rising wide tree.

Now all was good enough to begin to move up distance and khaleesi and I began to compete in 50-55 mile endurance rides.

I stumbled upon a riding coach who saw the saddle and had not thought much of it at first. After seeing us ride in it though she said Khaleesi likes it, she moves freely in it- and you guys are good.


Then almost a year later in working with the same coach I asked her how she found khaleesi’s back, topline and saddle fit. I wasn’t having problems but I valued her extensive experience and knowledge and only had access to it a couple times a year. She had an interesting approach.

(2016 was when the standard PR tree began causing problems. Her back had changed and I moved to the wide tree)

(2017 the wide tree PR working fine, but not as good as constructive saddle would)

She told me the saddle was ok and not causing pain. But you can see the beginning of muscle atrophy behind the withers and though I may not have pain or rubbing I would not be able to encourage good topline development with the current saddle I was using.

That is when I began to learn about constructive saddling as opposed to traditional saddle fit.

The company that has the most information and research for this concept is Balance International. I highly recommend doing a little digging into their Information Centre where there are well written articles on constructive saddling, defensive saddling, remedial saddling and how their saddles work.

What I learned was in short form, a saddle tree that fits my horse while she’s standing still will not allow the most freedom to use her back muscles while she’s in motion.

Treeless saddles do somehow work for some people but for most they do not distribute weight, pressure and impact (posting) well enough causing long term problems for the horse. Basically these are usually just barely better than a bareback pad with stirrups.

(Picture from August 2018- you can see how much muscle growth has developed over a year of riding in balance. A traditional ‘V’ shaped saddle would not fit her at all anymore.)

Most horse’s backs look a lot like a traditional saddle. A ‘V’ shape. A healthy and strong back with good topline muscling looks more like a ‘U’ shape. Riders would love their horse to have this kind of topline and spend time and energy forcing a horse into carrying herself with a lowered hind end, lighter on the forehand and asking for ‘collection’ in between (the middle of those horse lifted, rounded, where the rider sits). Doing it the way many riders are taught using force from hand (rein) and leg aids creates a fake, forced way of carriage and movement.

If you set the horse up right (and saddle is a big part of it but not the only part) you can have beautiful unforced self-carriage because the horse will literally push up into the rider, bring her hindquarters lower to engage her engine, and lift in the front.

It is the best way of moving for them once they try it they will begin to do it more on their own – unless you have a traditionally fitted saddle pushing their back muscles down and making them unable to lift up into the saddle. Add to that the fact that most riders have hollowed out backs and sit slightly leaned forward pressing their sit bones right into the spine making it almost impossible for the horse to move freely.

The beautiful thing about Phoenix Rising (PR) saddles is they are constructed so well that it allows a lot of freedom despite being a basically traditional saddle. The materials and design are to enable gaited horses the most movement possible in their topline. (Khaleesi trots and the saddles are great for any horse- don’t let the gaited marketing fool you)

I believe this is why Khaleesi went from the standard tree in 2015 which fit beautifully to a wide tree in 2016 just under a year. I had also been learning how to ride in a way that encouraged self-carriage and she had a saddle that allowed some freedom to do it.

The next step was to make the leap to her 6th saddle which is a Balance saddle.

The balance saddle is basically the widest saddle you can find traditionally then like 3 times wider. It’s shaped like an upside down ‘U’. Her back isn’t quite this shape yet but it will be. So until then I need to add felt padding to give it support. The felt padding has some give so it allows her to move and grow yet give structure to the places she hasn’t grown into yet.

( you can see how the saddle is a wide ‘U’ shape. The panels almost seem like spreading wings to me)

I love this concept and am amazed at how well it works. I can feel my horse lifting in self-carriage more and more often and I can see the shape of her back changing over time. Her back is strong, wider than ever and muscled- her neck is more muscular on the top instead of underneath as can happen when horses move with necks either too high from being inverted or strung out ahead of them.

It doesn’t come free though.

There is a commitment from the rider that has to be in place or the saddle will do more damage than good. Because the saddle doesn’t perch exactly onto a V-shaped back, I have to stay centered or the saddle will move. I also have more influence over how she moves for better or for worse. If I continue to improve my balance, stability, and grace she will continue toward self carriage and a strong back which I want for my long distance riding.

I have committed to this. However it seems the more I learn the more daunting it is!

Changing diagonals to use the weaker side, learning how to sit the trot and use the side-to-side movement instead of only up and down and keeping a quiet seat through all kinds of terrain and situations pose all kinds of challenges for me. Just when I feel like I get better I am humbled by something off kilter!

I’ve been using this saddle a year now with great changes in both her and me- but in the recent few months have been struggling with rub spots, white hairs and very minor sore spots (not where the rubs are).

I have been going through trial and error with shimming my pads, changing my thin base pad, and trying to sort out my riding. Focusing much effort and time on the side-to-side movement of the trot while sitting has been eye opening but also causing some of the rubbing as I’m still getting it slowly. Sometimes I end up with too much side-to-side I think and it takes me time to hone in the subtlety of the movement. Meanwhile I’m moving way too much.

As always it’s the horse that suffers!

But she knows I’m trying. I also know this matters and once I have another option in our riding toolkit to change gears over long miles it will help us both.

Ironically it’s because the system is working that I’m struggling.

The saddle doesn’t fit the same today as it did a year ago!

One switch that began to help was upgrading to a base pad made by balance with wool instead of a thin cotton-polyester all purpose pad.

Finally yesterday I believe I found the current solution. I borrowed a different type of shim pad from a friend who also rides in a balance saddle. The pad I began with was a mattes half pad and I had shims for the front half and back half. When the front shims became too much I removed them… then the issues got worse. I tried adding back shims that made it worse yet.

What I needed was actually something right in the middle like where the saddle was bridging slightly.

I began tacking up with a 1/2″ pad and the mare would have none of it. She glared at me and snarled her teeth then tried to bite me as I tightened the girth.

So I stood back and thanked her for her honesty and began to untack. I decided to at least try the same idea but with a 1/4″ pad and she relaxed and stood quietly for the entire process. Not a cross eye or a fidget.

On the ride it felt great- she was moving very relaxed and easy so I will see how that goes for a while and hope the rubbing and on and off soreness goes away.

I would love to sing to the world that all horse owners should be using these saddles! That this is the answer to horses building topline naturally without force and moving comfortably without pain….

But as amazing as the saddle is and the concepts behind it… it is not for everyone.

They are all-purpose, dressage or jump seats and don’t offer a lot of security for those who need that (green riders or green horses).

They are not so easy to find used- and I believe the company insists you get help from a representative before buying new. They are aware that damage can be done if you don’t understand the whole equation and the company is committed to helping horses not hurting them. So it’s not so easy to just ‘get’ one.

They take paying attention over time to fit and the ability to trouble shoot your changing horse’s build, fitness and weight. Even I struggle with this (as you can see!)

They take a commitment to balancing as a rider without much help from your equipment.

As much good as the saddle can do… it can also do harm if the rider is physically incapable of riding well. Or not interested or unwilling to improve.

Either way I highly recommend doing some reading about the concept of constructive saddle fit. Knowledge is power.

And if you’re not sure you’re ready to jump into the balance world… take a look at Phoenix Rising Saddles. They are a fantastic saddle, well made, reasonable price, great customer support and I can’t speak highly enough of them.

You can take the concept of constructive instead of defensive saddling if you go with the wide tree and add a mattes half pad to add some shimming and watch your horse grow into it!

In fact you can take the concept to a lot of other wide tree saddles and consider shimming and allowing your horse to strengthen. I was told years ago that no pad or shim can make a saddle that doesn’t fit work.

I disagree with that advice now. Wider is better and if you take the time to understand how the back and saddle function and work with your horse you can change from a defensive saddle approach to a constructive one.

The saddle question is one of the most evasive and elusive, shifting one we deal with as riders.

Wherever you are in the cycle of it good luck out there!