Website designed by Basha O'Reilly
With Members scattered all over the globe, there are any number of topics which might appeal to our readers. Yet one subject takes precedence – Saddles. Thus, what has long been needed is a concise history of saddles, an explanation of why they didn't work and advice on how a Long Rider could fix them.
Saddle historians are an uncommon breed and finding one that understands the challenges of equestrian travel rarer still. Luckily North American Long Rider Lisa Stewart has the knowledge and experience not only to assist today’s equestrian explorers, but just as importantly, leave a valuable record for posterity.
After riding more than 3,000 miles across the USA in the early 1980s, Stewart helped launch one of that country's most successful saddle companies. Yet Lisa Stewart is no salesman, eager to sell a saddle to gain a commission. She is a Long Rider who made mistakes, and learned by them. She faced obstacles, and overcame them. She was presented with ancient riddles, and discovered solutions.
For more than two decades Stewart has studied the history and construction of saddles. The result is that this unique Long Rider has now shared her experiences and wisdom in this unprecedented research paper.
Why does one horse excel at its sport, and its stable mate, who is just as well-bred and well-trained, flounders and fails? Why does one horse stretch long and low on a loose rein at the beginning of a ride, and another cannot walk calmly?
It is common that a young horse, just beginning formal schooling, can extend at its gaits quite naturally, yet months later, under the very finest training, must be warmed up 20 minutes before it is able to relax, stretch its neck downward, and extend.
Even more common is the horse that can perform what is asked of it, but only in the company of irritating, even dangerous vices. These sometimes include biting, rearing, falling down when girthed, or pitching when mounted, until the horse “gets it out of its system.” It may be hard to catch or continually flip its nose or evade the aids.
Why is it that often the horses with the most potential, both physically and mentally, reach a brick wall in their training beyond which they seem unable to progress? They understand what is being requested, they have been physically capable of doing the work in the past, and they obviously are willing. Yet the end is reached for the horse’s career, even after years of systematic, professional care and training.
In these cases, there often is no diagnosable injury to explain the horse’s problem. The riders sense there is discomfort or unevenness gait, yet X-rays and thermography show nothing. The back has no visible sign of pathology. Muscle massage helps the horse, but it must be repeated nearly every time the horse is ridden, because the good effects never last.
One might blame all of these problems on poor training, but experienced trainers have seen all these things as well and have watched horses be sold that should have been able to win.
If any of these horses were given the opportunity to perform under an experienced rider without a saddle the results might be astonishing. The truth is, in dressage, moderate jumping, cutting and roping, humans are asking no more of the horse than the movements that come naturally to him when he is romping and playing in the pasture.
The Invisible Saddle
The cause of these problems may be so simple it is complicated. It lies between the rider’s seat and the horse’s back—the saddle. Very few people ever question whether their saddle truly is designed to safely transfer hundreds of pounds of concussion over a large enough area of the horse’s back to prevent bruising. It is as if the saddle were invisible.
The vast majority of riders will confidently state, “My horse has never had a sore back. My saddle fits him well.” How do they know this? Do they know how to detect edema (fluid) under the skin from the early stages of a bruise? Do they know the correct procedure for detecting soreness caused by friction? Can they palpate the correct muscles with the right amount of pressure in the right way to determine if there is deep muscle soreness?
The truth is, most of us do not understand that a saddle can cause debilitating pain to a horse long before any damage can be seen by the untrained eye. Most 21st Century equestrians spend, on the average, less time riding our horses than we spend reading our email. We no longer use our horses for transportation, to carry us into battle, to provide our children with milk, or to give us hard bone for tools and weapons.
The saddle each of us uses comes to us from our most trusted sources: our mothers and fathers, our local tack stores, or the trade show at such places as Spruce Meadows in Calgary or at Devon. Large color ads in magazines assure us that Olympic riders trust the same brand we use, and so should we. Our riding instructors support our belief in our saddles, because they own a similar model, or they have checked for us and affirmed that this saddle should be used on this horse, and that saddle on another. If nothing else, we can rule out the saddle as the cause of our horse’s poor performance or its behavior that is turning nastier by the week. There is no pathology on the back to indict the saddle, particularly since we may be using multiple pads to mask the problem.
And what a relief! Because this particular saddle just happens to fit us perfectly, and in it, we can ride our best. In fact, if anyone were to tell us that the saddle we depend on is really the source of our horse’s trouble, we might be tempted to tell him to take a flying leap.
The thought of breaking in a new saddle and getting used to a new seat is daunting, especially when we can’t be sure it will overcome our horse’s uneven gait or performance problems. Furthermore, our veterinarian cannot confirm the saddle is the problem.
Absolutely no time is spent in veterinary school instructing students how to properly palpate the horse’s back for soreness caused by the saddle. On the contrary, many veterinarians believe that palpating the horse’s back automatically causes a reaction in the horse and is not a reliable diagnostic technique. Surely not all horses are sore under saddle, they say, and most tend to show a reaction.
The belief that palpation cannot be trusted merely comes from not knowing how to palpate a horse’s back properly, and not knowing how to discern a natural reflex from a genuinely sore muscle. Seldom do veterinarians place saddles on the backs of sore horses to match the saddle to bruises from pressure points. Have you ever seen a veterinarian do this? At best, they can be heard advising that a horse has “strained” its back while performing its work.
Knowing the anatomy of saddles is just as important as knowing the anatomy of the horse when determining whether a horse’s performance is being damaged by pain caused by its saddle. Unfortunately, veterinarians know the anatomy of the horse, but they do not know the anatomy of the saddle. They cannot know everything. This article is not meant to judge veterinarians. It is meant to encourage us all to take a closer look at a profoundly important and largely ignored factor in the movement and behavior of the horse—the saddle that is transferring all our weight to the moving flesh of the horse’s back.
The saddle has become invisible, because all our horses are being used with the same basic European design or same basic Western design. All our horses are dealing with the same inherent features that can cause three problems that damage performance and behavior: 1) pinching of the withers, 2) saddles resting too far forward on the horse, and 3) an inadequate weight-bearing surface. These problems may be found among all brands of European and Western saddles, due to their basic design. For this reason, all horses tend to rebel in the same way and suffer the same types of lamenesses. Since performance horses share similar problems, and they all are wearing saddles made with the same basic design, who is to question saddles, particularly in the absence of pathology on the skin?
Training techniques are being perfected to teach horses to operate under this constant discomfort that we successfully mask with the use of our choice of dozens of wonder pads now on the market. Could this be why docile Warmbloods have become preeminent in dressage today—because their personalities can accept long durations of sitting trot on a weight bearing surface that is too small and too severe to prevent discomfort?
We may be taking for granted behavior problems and overlong paths to upper level performance, because we are working against an antiquated device for carrying our weight. Today’s saddle has shrunk to its current proportion due to the introduction decades ago of the forward seat, artificial stadium conditions, and the influence of fashion—not the practical standards required by transportation and warfare on horseback.
Our forebears who rode in cavalries might be aghast at the narrow panels now found standard on dressage and jumping saddles. Theirs were at least twice as large to spread out the rider’s weight. I suggest that if a saddle cannot carry the rider’s weight traveling eight hours a day, six days a week for three months, it cannot be trusted to be comfortable to the horse while hacking for two hours, much less carrying the rider at a sitting trot for most of an hour. These cavalry masters might be shocked at the overlong and straight Western saddle tree bars that are found in all traditional Western saddles today. The rider may train hard for an hour, or work cattle or hack for several hours, put it away, and then ride again in two days, the same duration. The padding prevents pathology developing beneath the cover of the coat from bruising. The rider always allows enough time for a healing process to begin. He or she never rides enough hours in a row, enough days in a row, to allow the pressure points to cause visible damage. Yet the horse’s performance may be a bit off, or he may be cranky or hard to catch.
Even our forefathers had failed to learn from history. In his book, The Saddle, Elwyn Hartley Edwards writes, “Napoleon suffered enormous horse wastage in his campaigns, losing some 30,000 animals in his abortive attempt to take Moscow. Nearly 50 years later the French had still not learnt the lesson. At the battle of Solferino in 1859, the French cavalry complement amounted to 10,206, but no more than 3,500 horses were fit enough to be put in the field. In the South African Boer War the British lost 326,000 horses out of 494,000 between 1899 and 1902.” Edwards goes on to say, “Enormous wastage resulted from ill-fitting saddles, a fact recognized by one of the most articulate of nineteenth century cavalry reformers, Francis Dwyer, a professional soldier employed as a Major of Hussars in the Imperial Austrian Service.”
Ancient Warriors Shunned the Use of Saddles
Modern historians still seem puzzled over why these warriors never adopted what the historians, in their limited perspective, view as such a tremendous advancement as the saddle. Excavation of tombs proved that saddles of various types, both with and without rigid trees, were in existence while these ancient horsemen rode bareback. Unlike other inventions brought home from conquests and quickly put to use with other pillage, the saddle was never adopted.
The Romans were among the first to use the saddle in its cavalry, as late as 400 A.D., notably during the decline of the Roman Empire. In Man on Horseback, Glenn R. Vernam writes, “The Germanic tribes of that period thought such sissified contraptions as saddles were unfit for real men. They despised the Romans for succumbing to such luxuries and called them babies and old women.” Later, Attila’s Huns swept down on them with unbridled, unsaddled horses and defeated them.
The ancient, fast-striking warriors sometimes rode more than a thousand miles to battle, traveling continuously with three horses each, switching from horse to horse and stopping only a short time each hour to rest and feed the horses. They bound their torsos and legs against the relentless concussion, inventing pants and boots in the process.
These magnificent horsemen surprised whole cultures, sweeping down upon them with thousands of unsaddled horses. They often shot their bow and arrows from over or under their horses’ necks, anchored and concealed on the side of the horse by vice-like legs and an arm thrust through a loop of knotted mane. They used only their legs and seats to control their mounts, leaving their hands free to use their weapons.
They dared not use saddles. They knew something we can’t seem to accept with the short view of our 21st century understanding: You cannot put a solid object between the rider and the moving flesh of a horse’s back over distance and duration without rendering the horse unable to obey subtle seat and leg aids demanded in life-and-death battle.
The fierce Scythians, their neighbors and successors, understood this fact. During those thousand-mile campaigns, traveling at speed, they could not trust the same saddle to fit three different horses, all of which were changing shape as they lost weight along the way. Rather than take an arrow in the eye, or be flung from his horse and hamstrung because his horse’s back was too sore to obey his command, the ancient warrior gladly put the soundness and comfort of his mount above his own. His life depended on the comfort of his horse’s back which allowed the horse to respond and maneuver, remain focused, and travel efficiently. Instead, the rider used nature’s best saddle—the hydraulic cushion: his buttocks and thighs.
The more modern each culture became, the less linked to the horse it was. Slowly lost was the telepathic harmony with the horse that only could have been cultivated and maintained by a life intimately intertwined with it.
Saddles first were adopted by kings for pageantry. As cultures modernized and became less nomadic, saddles were adopted by cavalries. So were stirrups, severe bits, and spurs, which were required to control their mounts. Yes, continued conquest and development of civilizations were made possible by this most majestic and tolerant of animals—but they were made at its expense, in spite of the saddle and stirrups, not because of these so-called advancements.
Remember, humans have ridden horses without saddles for as long as 10,000 years some historians believe. We have ridden horses with saddles for less than 2,000 years. We’re still trying to determine if it’s possible.
A Brief History of the European Saddle
The European Saddle:
saddles have reached their current construction not through careful
consideration of the horse’s anatomy and health but by the availability of
materials, the whims of fashion, and the desires of horsemen for comfort and
convenience. The underlying structure of the early European saddle came into
being around 400 AD and has changed little since. It descended from a crude,
wooden frame that was comprised of two bars that rested on the back muscles on
either side of the horse’s spine. The bars carried the rider’s weight and were
fastened together with a high arch in front and another in rear, resembling a
pack saddle. The seat, made of leather or cloth, was suspended lengthwise
between the two arches.
Prior to the days of mass manufacturing, European saddles had the best chance of fitting horses without injuring them, because they were custom-fitted to the horse. Horses were ridden by persons of status whose saddlers re-stuffed their horses’ panels and maintained them in proper shape according to the horse’s level of fitness and body weight. Allowing that the best possible saddle may be no saddle at all, this early European version, with wide, firm, custom-fitted panels, was probably the best comfort horses could hope for. As long as they were not ridden too many hours per day, too many days in a row, that is. As we will explore, custom-fitted saddles also pose a problem, because the shape of the horse’s back changes dramatically as it moves. As traditional saddles go, these early, custom-stuffed saddles with large panels were preferable to today’s saddles.
Jumping for sport changed saddles forever.
After the World Wars, the needs of horsemen changed from transportation and combat to show, hunting, and sport. The organized sport of jumping changed all the rules regarding how saddles were to look and how they were to be ridden.
Prior to the late 1800s, jumping was avoided and done astride only when there was no other way to get from one field to the next. Riders stood in the stirrups and heaved their horses’ heads upward by the bit, and the whole, tortured process was considered very unnatural to the horse.
Just after the turn of the century, Frederico Caprilli, an Italian cavalry officer, discovered that by allowing the horse to travel in a more natural frame on a much looser rein, he could jump much more easily. The rider helped him by leaning forward at the appropriate moment, and then not moving a whisker. His research involved many trial and error jumps involving dummies strapped on horses’ backs, and many of his own crashes as well.
Caprilli was forced to use did not allow riders to assume a forward position.
They were designed for sitting upright with long stirrups in the middle of the
horse’s back. Caprilli’s student, Count Elias Toptani, refined his mentor’s
forward seat after Caprilli’s early death. Toptani developed in the early 1950s
a saddle that would make forward seat jumping much easier to do and learn.
In order to narrow the twist, Toptani had his saddler move the bars of the saddle tree very close together where the rider’s thighs pass over them. In order to do this, each panel had to be narrowed at least by two-thirds. This placed the rider close to the horse and prevented his or her legs from being spread apart uncomfortably. Reducing the size of the panels had a devastating effect for horses, because it slashed the weight-bearing surface of the saddle. This caused the pounds per square inch to skyrocket and ended the hope of fitting many horses’ backs safely.
The narrowed bars often bridged the horse’s back in the center. This caused the rider’s weight and concussion to be transferred to the horse’s back only through the arch and rear of the panels. Most of that weight was transferred through the arch, because the stirrup leathers are hung from the points of the arch. When the rider places more weight in the stirrups and less weight in his or her seat, the arch bears the majority of the weight on a very small area, with the shearing force of the V shape. This shearing downward force causes pinching at the withers or shoulders. Meanwhile, the flatter portion of the back—more able to bear weight without being pinched—is not fully contacted by the panels. As long as the rider is standing, all his or her force is being transmitted to the arched surface of the withers and shoulder area in a downward, shearing force.
Less knowledgeable saddlers of Toptani’s era, and later most manufacturers, flocked to copy the original, unpatented Toptani design that riders were buying up as quickly as they could be produced. Many bad versions came on the market, and without the cavalry masters alive to place the gentle hand of perspective upon the shoulders of young riders, a saddle fashion became entrenched that was sure to hurt horses the world over.
While Caprilli invented the “forward” seat for jumping, he never would have advocated that riders place their saddles forward. It was a torso position he advocated, to be used only at the correct moment to help the horse jump more easily. This forward position had nothing to do with the horse’s balance overall. Caprilli’s notes were clear. The saddle should be well away from the horse’s moving shoulders. The term “forward seat” was an unfortunate misnomer.
Saddlers responded to their riders’ misguided desire to get forward to “help the horse” and rigged the saddles so that they could stay on or against its shoulders. As I will explain later in my section on Center of Gravity, riding as close as possible to the horse’s withers does not help it; it hinders the horse.
Dressage saddles were caught in the current and swept along. In an effort to narrow seats and bring the rider close to the horse’s back, the panels on dressage saddles also were narrowed. This narrowing critically reduced their weight-bearing area. It caused these panels to bridge the back on many horses, placing excess weight at the arch and the rear of the panels.
Dressage horses require the freedom provided by the comfort of a large weight bearing area, and unrestricted movement of the shoulders to perform their paces with fluidity. (Certainly all horses need this freedom, but dressage horses are especially judged for it.) The reduction in overall panel and saddle size, and the tendency to rig the saddle so it would stay forward, ensured that the arch would pinch the trapezius muscle at the base of the withers on many horses. Pinching at the trapezius muscle causes an automatic dipping of the back (dorsiflexion), lifting of the head, and tension throughout the shoulder which affects the forelegs. For this reason, many riders are forced to spend extra hours, months and even years to bring a horse to the zenith of its career simply because both they and their horses are working against the horse’s natural reflex to hollow its back when pinched at the base of the withers.
Surely, I want to say myself, trainers and riders are not blind to the fact that a rigid arch (however stuffed and muted with saddle pads) must cause a shearing, pinching, downward force on the trapezius muscle. In truth, many are not blind to this fact. In general, however, today’s saddles do not allow horses to freely move their shoulders, and do not disburse the rider’s weight and concussion over a large enough weight bearing area. Good riders and trainers do a good job with the modern saddle options they have. Great riders and trainers are open to questioning the very design of saddles in the 21st Century.
Who let this haphazard evolution of the European saddle occur? We riders did. Saddlers did. Many saddlers have never sat on a horse’s back, and even fewer tree makers have any association with horses at all. Over the years, saddlers and tree makers have made changes that trainers and riders suggested. They have built what sold at the moment, with no knowledge of, and in a few cases, conscious disregard for how the final product would affect the horse.
A Brief History of the Western Saddle
Many of today’s Western saddles have inherent design features that can hurt horses. Retracing the history of the Western saddle puts the industry into perspective and makes it seem a little less hallowed.
The earliest Western saddles were a direct response to the needs of explorers, trappers and entrepreneurs who left what was to become St. Louis, Missouri, in pursuit of their dreams and fortunes in the Wild West. Imported European style (English) saddles that came across the ocean with the colonists were all these travelers had to use on horses for the most arduous treks they would ever undertake. These saddles were unsuited to carrying heavy loads or standing up to the daily punishment and weather of such travel, and they offered little rider security.
The first explorers to successfully reach the present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico, on that Westward journey out of St. Louis, found at the end of the trail the saddle of their dreams. It was a version of a Spanish Vaquero saddle—a bare, wood structure with high fork, high cantle, horn and rigging straps. It was the perfect structure to carry these explorers and all they needed on subsequent treks west. The first copies to return to St. Louis doubled and tripled their owners’ money, and soon, St. Louis became the cradle of the Western saddlery trade. Later, St. Joseph, Missouri, became the locus of the Western saddle industry.
As the land was settled, the original “Santa Fe” saddle was adapted to suit the needs of its users. The seat was covered with leather for added comfort. Large skirts were added to help protect the horse from scrub brush in Texas. Double rigging was traditional in that area, too, while in Oregon, cowboys preferred smaller, rounded skirts and single rigging. The geography affected the way cattle were run on the range, and this determined how the cowboy told his saddler to make his saddle.
The best saddlers listened to the cowboy and were willing to make many unsuccessful attempts at building a new style or feature until the cowboy gave it his seal of approval.
For instance, the full-double rigging of the Southwest and Texas met the center-fire rigging of Oregon when the two breeds of drovers converged in Nebraska. An enterprising saddler devised a compromise, a three-quarter rigging which came to be known as the Montana three-quarter rigging after that saddler moved to Montana.
Then, just as today, any new development was considered suspect under the very kindest circumstances, and the Texans and Oregonians looked on each other with downright distain for the other’s “unsuitable” rigs. Time eroded the dividing lines between cowboys. Finally, by the turn of the century, when the long cattle drives were over, the majority of saddle consumers had completely different needs.
World War I and the automobile changed the saddle industry forever, and the new consumer, as a rule, spent more time reading his daily paper than riding his horse. Saddle styles followed fad and fashion, not function and fit.
Champion rodeo riders gave their names to saddles for a little money on every copy sold, and the styles that came out of the rodeo arena became accepted as the best for all riders, no matter what they did on their horse. For example, forks were lowered to make certain types of rodeo competition more convenient, and this reduced withers clearance, making them unsuitable for tall-withered horses. The less experienced rider, or those who would never ride a horse through a rodeo arena gate, nevertheless copied his rodeo heroes by buying the saddle they rode. The novice rider used enough padding under the saddle, and rode seldom enough, never to notice the design flaws being built into these saddles. He not only missed seeing the flaws, he paid a lot of money for them.
Modern western riders lacked something very important: they lacked the perspective which could only have been offered by the drovers of the 1800s—the men who spent most of their waking hours in the seat of a saddle, not an afternoon at a local roping.
The drovers of the 1860s didn’t corner the market on an understanding of saddle fit. One of their common chores, according to one old diary, was to wash the backs of saddle-sored ponies. You see, for all its advantages for the trapper, trekker, and cattle drover, the western saddle had a problem for the horse. When a solid object is placed on a moving horse’s back for any length of time, it renders him unable, or less able, to perform the very movements that come naturally to him in the pasture. The saddle was designed for the comfort of man’s derriere. It had nothing whatever to do with the horse.
© COPYRIGHT 2001 - 2014