We all know that having to buy a new saddle is literally a pain in the rear. It’s worse than trying to find a new swim suit or even a pair of jeans! What makes saddle shopping so difficult is that first the saddle has to fit you, THEN it also has to fit your horse. Trying to find something that fits two “people” at the same time is hard. I’m only going to discuss dressage saddles in this installment since I have more experience with them, but I’m sure that my basic points will apply to other styles as well. And I say “installment” because there may be more to this as we go on.
Many dressage saddles claim to put you into the “correct” position. Supposedly, the “correct” position in dressage is that you’re sitting directly above your sitz bones (ischial tuberosities), your pelvis is in neutral (vertical), with your torso directly above your pelvis so that a straight line can be drawn through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heels. The ear part is very hard, even for a standing person, so we could leave that out for now. And your legs should be fairly long in the stirrup, some say approaching straight.
How does this “correct” position relate to you as a rider? How can you define your default position anyway? Let’s look at pelvises to start. Most of us are on one side or another of neutral. If your pelvis is lordotic or tipped forward, you have too much arch in your lower back. In this position, you’re on the “forks” or in what’s called the “fork seat”. If you sit rolled back on your pockets, you have what’s called a “flat back” or no arch in the lower back. This position is known as a “chair seat”.
Moving down from the pelvis are your legs, so how do they wrap around your horse? Despite the “correct” ideal of a straight leg, It can’t be straight at the knee while you’re sitting on a horse, well, maybe if the horse was Flat Stanley. Since a horse has a barrel, you have to bend your knees to sit a horse. There’s just no getting around it any other way. (Tee hee.)
Some saddles make your leg go very, very straight, often with those huge thigh blocks to “help” you keep your thigh down. That was popular for awhile several years ago. Is this actually a good thing? Forcing the thigh back into an almost straight leg will quite likely cause other problems.
Straightening out the leg, or pushing it backwards, will probably cause the pelvis to tip forward. If you have a flat-back posture, this may help you find a more neutral pelvis. If you have a lordotic posture, this will increase the arch in your lower back and may cause pain. Do you really want the saddle that forces you into the “correct” position at the expense of your low back?
Other saddles put you in the non-ideal “chair” seat. If your default posture is a slouchy, tucked under pelvis posture, you’re going to feel more natural in a saddle that puts you in a “chair” seat. And if you have tight hip flexors and your pelvis is tipped forward, a chair seat position will probably be comfortable, too. Do you really want the saddle that accommodates your chair seat because it’s comfortable?
The ideal may be a certain profile or silhouette. But you need to honestly assess where your posture is and where it’s tight. In most people the hip flexors are too tight BECAUSE we sit too much. If you don’t stretch those hip flexors enough, they will pull the top front of the pelvis forward and down, causing arching in the low back. The leg bone’s connected to the “hip” bone.
Decide how far you are from the ideal and try to determine what you need to do to get closer to the ideal. Maybe what you really need is a saddle that pushes the boundaries of your comfortable chair seat. A good saddle can move you a little toward the ideal, but not all the way to it. Getting our legs under us while sitting is not a habit or skill that we’ve developed except when we’re trying to ride a horse, so you need a plan to move towards correctness. Pilates, Yoga, or some other core stability workout will help you stretch the hip flexors and stabilize your pelvis, so that you can move up the levels in saddles toward your goal.
Knowing where you are now and where you want to be, will help you find the perfect saddle for you. When you first sit in a potential new saddle, what is comfortable for you and why? Assuming the twist is not too wide or too narrow, the seat is the right size for your thigh, your knee is not hanging over the front, and the flap isn’t too short or too long, in what position does the saddle place you? How does the saddle interact with your default posture – tipped forward (lordotic) or tipped backward (flat back) pelvis?
Now that you have some good saddle candidates for you, go home and try them on your horse. I did say this article might involve installments.
Happy saddle shopping!
Do you have any questions on this? Please contact me and ask. Thanks.