The information in this blog will probably be my most important life contribution to the contemporary world of dressage. Be warned, my opinion comes from a school of traditional riding. It works for me, and I have witnessed it work over and over and over again, at clinics all over the world. If you study the information in this blog and look at the previous blogs called “About the Saddle”, “About the Saddle Part 2” and “GRFS,” you will have all the simple secrets to my success.
Unlike the world of fast food, where you get more for your money if you “Supersize it!” the same is not necessarily true about saddles. Having just returned from a short clinic tour in the USA, I think it is my duty to tell my fellow Americans what I have already told many riders across Europe: “Stop the Insanity!” When it comes to dressage saddles—don’t supersize it!
Here are some facts that need to be visited:
1) If a little knee roll helps you a little bit, a big knee roll will not necessarily help you more.
2) Your saddle should not distribute your weight evenly over your horses back.
3) Lengthened and broadened panels do not make your horse’s back more comfortable.
4) A short girth restricts shoulder/front leg freedom.
5) When you engage your pelvis in the saddle, your back pockets should not come in contact with your supersized cantle.
6) The ear, shoulder, hip, heel line that has been touted as an equitation ideal is useful in saddleseat riding, but not in dressage.
7) Sitting on a ‘three point’ seat—pubic bone and two seat bones—is painful and wrong!
8) In balanced riding, the rider’s knee should never be behind the horse’s center of gravity.
9) THE RIDER HAS TO BE IN NATURAL BALANCE WITH HIS HORSE SO THAT HE CAN—THROUGH GRAVITY AND RELAXATION—LEARN TO FOLLOW AND ENCHANCE THE NATURAL MOTION OF HIS HORSE’S BACK.
1. If a little knee roll helps you a little bit, a big knee roll will not necessarily help you more.
Oh Rita, this is going to be a long night! Let’s start with No. 2 as No. 1 sends my blood pressure to the top of the charts! A knee roll should only be found on the menu of a Chinese restaurant. It has nothing to do with good riding. That will become clear if you read the following.
2. Your saddle should not distribute your weight evenly over your horses back.
Your dressage horse is not a pack animal. He is not carrying a dead weight of 150 lbs over long distances at the walk. He is an athlete in motion. He is being asked to shift his own balance more onto his hind legs than his front legs. His back and his rib cage have to swing freely in order for him to engage his loin muscles and achieve these goals.
A rider, as opposed to a pack, must use his own balance and weight to help the horse—therefore, logically, the rider must be balanced as closely as possible over the horse’s center of gravity, and he must be able to move in the saddle so that he can use his own weight and his own motion to affect the horse’s balance and movement. Your saddle should place your weight as close to the horse’s withers as possible so that your weight is balanced over the horse’s center of gravity. “Distributing the weight” over the horse’s back, especially toward the rear of the horse, reduces the effectiveness of the rider and makes the horse struggle to carry you.
3. Lengthened and broadened panels do not make your horse’s back more comfortable.
They do just the opposite. They cause pressure points at their rear border, especially when coupled with large knee rolls and thigh blocks. Large knee rolls and thigh blocks prevent the rider from getting his knee forward enough in the saddle. Because of the huge knee roll, the rider cannot get his knee over or in front of the horse’s center of gravity, so he shifts his seat toward the back of the saddle. If you use a short girth, the saddle is probably sitting too far back on your horse already (see below). Now, both saddle and rider are dangerously close to the horse’s center of motion, which is located in your horse’s loin. If you lean back on such a saddle, the panels will put pressure on the weakest part of your horse’s back—the loin.
4. A short girth restricts shoulder/front leg freedom.
A short girth has an uncomfortable buckle guard that lies just behind the horse’s elbow. It does not secure the saddle as well as a long girth. The two leather straps that are attached to it are much less comfortable than a broad, multi cord girth on the horse’s belly. Because of the buckle guard, the short girth has to be placed further back on the barrel to avoid causing pain when the horse’s foreleg is at its furthest point of backward extension. The whole saddle ends up closer to the horse’s loin because of the short girth.
“PLEASE! STUDY YOUR HORSE’S ANATOMY! He has a rib cage made up of 18 pairs of ribs. The first nine pairs of ribs attach to the front of the dorsal spine and the sternum, ending at a point just behind the withers. (Near the horse’s center of gravity!) The last nine pairs are “floating” ribs that are not attached to the sternum. They are held in place by muscle and connective tissue, and therefore do not offer as much support to the back as the first nine pairs. Your horse’s loin is completely unsupported by the rib cage.
LOGICALLY, THE FURTHER FORWARD YOU PLACE YOUR SADDLE TOWARD THE WITHERS, THE MORE ABLE YOUR HORSE IS TO CARRY YOUR WEIGHT COMFORTABLY. THE FURTHER BACK YOU PLACE THE SADDLE, THE CLOSER YOU GET TO THE WEAKEST PART OF THE BACK—THE LOIN.
The muscles of the loin also happen to be situated over the horse’s center of motion. If you would like to enhance your horse’s motion, leave this area free, do not restrict it by placing weight or the edge of an elongated panel anywhere near it.
Rita, please stop trying to sit your horse’s loins.
5. When you engage your pelvis in the saddle, your back pockets should not come in contact with your supersized cantle.
Engaging the pelvis means to tuck your seat bones under you toward the front of the saddle while squeezing the muscles of your lower back. In good riding (and assuming your horse can feel you do this through your saddle), this engagement of the pelvis has a variety of effects on the engagement and motion of your horse. In an ill fitting and badly balanced saddle, this action of your seat only puts pressure on the cantle of the saddle and succeeds in digging the extended panels into your horse’s back. I see this syndrome most often when the saddle is too small for the rider. The same saddle probably also has large knee rolls and elongated panels that extend past the cantle.
6. & 7. The ear, shoulder, hip, heel line that has been touted as an equitation ideal is useful in saddleseat riding, but not in dressage. Sitting on a “three point” seat—pubic bone and two seat bones—is painful and wrong.
In dressage, you must sit with your knee far enough forward to avoid tilting onto your pubic bone. If the knees are forced backward, 99 percent of the riders in the world are tilted onto the front of their pelvis.
You should sit relaxed on your two seat bones with your thigh and knee extended comfortably in front of you. If you pull your knee backward, you will tip onto the front of your seatbones toward the pubic bone. Your hips will lock. When you restrict the motion of your own pelvis, you also restrict the motion of your horse’s back. To avoid a chair seat and get closer to the touted line, simply bend your knee, placing your foot on the horse’s barrel. Do not pull the knee backward!
Now Rita, study the reality. How many top dressage riders present an ear, shoulder, hip, heel line in real life? The best ones almost always have their heel slightly ahead of this line. In classical Greek and Roman sculpture, you will find riders sitting in natural balance on the horse—with the knee placed well forward and the lower leg falling comfortably out the knee toward the ground. Why? Because these sculptures were created by artists who studied anatomy, and this is how a human skeleton best fits an equine skeleton. It’s natural interspecies physiology.
8. In balanced riding, the rider’s knee should never be behind the horse’s center of gravity.
If the knee is behind the center of gravity, the whole rider is behind the center of gravity. Balance is lost, and the horse struggles to carry your weight when you are placed backward toward his center of motion in the area of his loin. Placing the knee behind a large knee roll on a saddle that sits too far back on the horse immediately takes the rider out of natural balance.
The resultant straighter leg position from a large knee block, constricts the natural motion of the rider’s pelvis and usually results in the motion of the horse’s back being absorbed by the upper back or neck of the sitting rider, rather than their pelvis and lower back. Riders in these types of saddles cannot move their pelvis freely. They grip with their knees, force their heels down and clamp their lower legs on the horse’s barrel. This whole combination serves to block the natural motion of their pelvis AND the horse’s back and rib cage. It also locks the rider into a rigid position on a moving horse and results in back, neck, hip and knee pain in riders who are struggling to sit the trot. Imagine what your horse is feeling.
9. THE RIDER HAS TO BE IN NATURAL BALANCE WITH HIS HORSE SO THAT HE CAN—THROUGH GRAVITY AND RELAXATION—LEARN TO FOLLOW AND ENCHANCE THE NATURAL MOTION OF HIS HORSE’S BACK.
This is otherwise known as properly sitting the trot. It is almost impossible in an ill-conceived saddle design. If you are riding in a supersized saddle, don’t be surprised that your horse does not move freely forward like he did when you bought him. He can’t do this if you strap a rigid tree on his back with extended panels that dig into his back because the supersized knee roll you are using has pushed you behind his center of gravity and forced you to sit on your supersized cantle, which has in turn placed too much pressure on the back of the panels and caused a pressure point.
What’s more, you can’t learn to feel and follow the natural motion of your horse’s back because you are not only sitting on the wrong part of it, the saddle you are using is cloaking it with extra layers of leather and gel.
Rita, don’t supersize it! Buy a close contact saddle with a flexible tree that is properly balanced with the sweet spot of its seat as close to the horse’s center of gravity as possible. Strap it on with a long, cord girth. (Made of 100 percent nylon—cotton and mohair cause chafing.) Learn to feel the natural movement of your horse’s back. Use your seat to follow, enhance and amplify your horse’s impulsion and movement!
I’m Catherine Haddad, and I am sayin’ it like it is, with flamesuit on, from Vechta, Germany.
Training Tip of the Day: Study the anatomy of the horse and use logic in choosing a saddle design. Don’t follow trends unless they make sense to you.