Designs on different disciplines
As more riders want specialist saddles, from dressage to jumping, Steph Bradley assesses how these products have evolved.
Saddle fitters who read the feature and submit correct answers to the quiz via www.equestriantradenews.com will be awarded CPD accreditation by the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS). SMS Registered Qualified Saddle Fitters are required to maintain CPD fulfilment as part of their registration.
In 1904, the Olympic record for running the marathon was set at 3hr 28 min 53 sec by gold medal winning US athlete Thomas Hicks.
In 2022, Kenya’s record-breaking runner Eliud Kipchoge clocked 2hr 8 min 38 sec to win gold.
An improvement of just over 80 minutes in 118 years! Have athletes really improved that much in that time?
At the end of his 1904 race, Thomas Hicks was near collapse and hallucinating - a side-effect of being administered brandy, raw eggs and strychnine by his trainers who believed the concoction to be performance enhancing.
Reasons behind improvement in athlete performance over the past century can be attributed to:
- A far deeper, ever improving understanding of athlete body and mind; for example, strength and conditioning, nutrition and psychology.
- The impact of environment; for example, surfaces.
- The development of the equipment used; for example, the design of running shoes.
In addition, thankfully, coach education has broadened to include better knowledge of performance enhancing nutrition and the effects of administering of poisons!
Equestrian sports have equally moved forwards in knowledge and understanding.
Horses appear to be more capable physically - both stronger and faster from selective breeding programmes and via improved understanding of how they mature musculoskeletally. Although there’s still much work to be done to analyse how to prolong the longevity of our performance horses in this brave new world.
Riders are viewed as athletes in their own right. Their physical and mental strength and conditioning is being developed, measured and monitored by coaching workforces who themselves are required to have a broadened knowledge to care holistically for their athletes.
Knowledge of horse and rider anatomy, physiology, pathology and kinesiology (including biomechanics and skill acquisition) has raised far greater awareness of the marginal gain that can be realised, and how performance can be improved and optimised.
In turn, this knowledge has informed all aspects of horse and rider care, with saddle design and fitting being just one of these areas.
Saddle fitting has also evolved and developed over the years. It is now a profession in its own right with specific qualifications for saddle fitting. But this is a more recent phenomenon.
EARLY EQUESTRIAN SPORT
Equestrian disciplines were introduced at Olympic level in 1900 with jumping, high jumping and group riding being some of the disciplines.
By 1928, it had become three distinct disciples of jumping, eventing and dressage, each eventually becoming sports where men and women competed equally against each other.
Horses were for centuries an essential mode of transport until the development of the automobile. Saddle and harness were
an absolute necessity. The fit of the saddlery would likely be something not considered high priority.
The Worshipful Company of Saddlers is one of the very oldest of the City of London Livery companies with the oldest surviving records of a Guild of Saddlers in London dating from circa 1160 AD. Saddlery was simply an essential piece of kit.
Even back in the days of dressage’s conceptualisation, saddles were minimalistic, utilitarian pieces of equipment. Basic at best.
It was during the 1800s that riders’ requirements began to change with increasing interest in fox hunting, cross-country riding and jumping.
It was at this time that English saddles for various sports also became more common, and dressage saddles moving toward those one would expect today: a longer, straighter flap; higher pommels and cantles; a stirrup bar that attaches farther back to accommodate a straighter leg, and long billet straps.
SADDLE FITTING ARRIVES
The Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) was established in more modern times (1966) as a trade organisation. Saddle fitting as a separate qualification to saddle making was not introduced until 1995.
Saddle manufacturers and saddle fitters have seen a shift in the type of horse typically taking part in the disciplines, with more warm blood types being competed.
Their conformation has led to saddle design altering. Wider gullet space between panels to allow for broad dorsal processes and broader space at the pommel to allow for the wither are two examples.
Biomechanics of the horse in locomotion have been analysed; the engaged back generally being flatter, and saddle trees and panels designed to accommodate this.
Riders have become far more discerning in terms of saddle choice. Many competition riders now have two saddles - a jump and a dressage saddle.
The general-purpose (GP) saddle still has its place, depending on the aspirations of the rider. I tend to see a demand for Pony Club GP saddles, but rarely am I asked for a true GP saddle for an adult as, by then, they have decided their discipline. Or if wanting to do everything, a GP/jump is very popular.
There is a huge increase in riders with aspiration - and from a wide spectrum of ages! Not many sports can boast this.
Ambitious riders of all disciplines are quick to observe changes to equipment of the top athletes in their sport - and want to replicate. Clever marketing and sponsorships are ensuring that the grass roots know what saddle brand top riders are using. This is big commercial business.
Saddle sponsorships of the coaches and riders heavily influence the brands these riders choose - sometimes a mistake as one brand cannot possibly suit all. Many SMS Qualified Saddle Fitters pick up the fallout when this goes wrong.
As expectations and aspirations of riders from Pony Club age through to adulthood have increased, more and more is being asked of everyday equines starting at grass roots.
The day of the old fashioned ‘all-rounder’ seems to have ended as evidenced by sales adverts suggesting a horse’s potential to be trained to x level at dressage, show jumping or eventing, or its achievements listed on the horse’s personal curriculum vitae.
MANUFACTURERS USING RESEARCH
The impact of this has borne witness to saddle manufacturers rethinking product lines. Saddle ranges seem to be focused on discipline specific saddles that give marginal gain, to increase the chance of the sought-after red rosette.
Riders’ requirements have become more specific; for example, pelvis and leg position/freedom has become critical. The balance of the saddle, space in the seat and angle, and consistency and length of the knee blocks are all aspects the rider and saddle fitter need to consider for optimum rider balance to encourage the horse and rider centre of mass to be synchronous.
The more balanced the rider, and the more knee blocks absorb dynamic rider kinematics, the greater the range of movement of the horse.
This has been investigated by research conducted in 2021 by R. Murray; V. Fairfax; M. Fisher and R. MacKechnie-Guire (2021) who researched “Could saddle knee-block design influence the kinematics of the equine thoracolumbar spine in elite sports horses?”
The research went on to prove that, in their study, knee-block design influences the movement of the horse’s back.
Research such as this is then disseminated to the saddle fitter workforce who can harness this knowledge and optimise equine ridden performance, using science to back up what they see anecdotally.
CRYSTALS AND MOCK-CROC
Consumer demand for greater personalisation and options of a visual nature is a more recent phenomenon.
‘Matchy-matchy’ saddles to team colours, crystals, mock croc, patent, coloured piping, leather colours and leather textures are all seen nowadays on dressage saddles, plus individual coloured piping designs on jump saddles. Of course, there are still the traditionalists who prefer no ‘extra’ detail.
I dread to think what the classical riders of 100 years ago would have thought of the blinged-up dressage saddles seen today! Although, at the Spanish Riding School, the fully trained stallions wear a gold-plated crupper and breastplate called a Goldzeug, and gold-plated double bridles for performances.
From a consumer perspective, rights to return post-sale a bespoke saddle with personalisation is far more limiting. The definition of ‘a bespoke’ is not part of the supplier’s standard range of goods and which have been manufactured to the customer’s specific order, design or specification.
Having a bright pink saddle returned on ‘day 13’ post-purchase because the client has changed their mind and no longer likes the colour does not bear thinking about... So at least consumer law protects the supplier here.
RACING AND POLO
Other discipline specific saddles are supported by manufacturers too. Endurance saddles, polo saddles, racing saddles, vaulting saddles, mounted games, side-saddle, Western saddles, horse ball, polo crosse - the peak forces through these saddles are immense at times.
In all my years as a saddle fitter, I have been to only two racing yards, seen one mounted games pony, and one polo crosse pony. And on doing a straw poll with colleagues, it seems I’m not alone.
Given the dearth of stock of these discipline specific saddles, it is no wonder what we tend to observe is ‘making do and mending’. And rarely are riders getting these saddles checked for fit - which has its own implications. Given small alterations make a big difference, I wonder why not?
An additional consideration is the financial cost of these sports - racing and polo in particular. It’s interesting that investment into saddle design has not been that apparent.
The difference in stride length of a racehorse not impeded by too narrow a tree point could make a vast difference. A more supportive force absorbing saddle for a polo pony with a male adult rider could enable quicker turns on the polo field. If these disciplines are looking into research and development, they might well be keeping it under wraps for competitive advantage!
TAKING WELFARE SERIOUSLY
There’s no doubt that saddle design development is an area that will continue to develop - in some disciplines far more than others.
Research and product development must continue to improve and further the welfare, performance and longevity of a horse’s ridden life.
And the message must get out there to the general public that we take the welfare of our horses very seriously indeed. This is what drives our quest for progress.
And who knows, we might yet see a Nike or Adidas saddle design in years to come.
BEVA Congress 2021 https://beva.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/evj.15_13492?af=R
About the author: Steph Bradley, the proprietor of Freedom Saddlery, is an SMS qualified Master Saddle Fitter, Master Saddle Fitting Consultant (MSFC) and a UK Level 3 Riding Coach, BHS Accredited Professional Coach and BETA Retail Member.