Saddle Fit to the Rider, Part I
Buying a saddle that fits both you and your horse is a daunting task, usually done with a “shotgun” approach. Usually a rider tries dozens of saddles at random trying to find the right one. I recommend a more methodical approach that will likely save you money and time.
First, learn about your own pelvic structure, and here’s how to do it. Jump up and down three times. Now look down at your feet. How far apart are they? Since your feet are connected to the leg bones and the leg bones are connected to the hip bones, your feet should naturally land under your hip sockets. Your now have an idea of your pelvic width. If the distance between your feet is less than 8 inches, you will probably need a saddle with a narrow twist. If the distance is greater, then you will need a medium or wide twist. (If you are “knock kneed” or “bow legged,” results may not be accurate and you can skip this step.)
Second, learn the relative position of your hip joint longitudinally. This will determine the best position for the working center or “sweet spot” in the saddle. Wearing jeans or other slacks with a side seam, stand sideways in front of a full length mirror. Watch the side seam. Lift the knee nearest the mirror until you are in a “stork position.” Follow the side seam down from the waist and note the point where it changes direction. Point your finger at this spot and lower your leg to standing position. This is the location of your hip joint. Now look at the profile of your entire torso between waist and upper thigh. Is your hip joint centered? If so, you should find that saddles with the “sweet spot” like diagram A is most comfortable for you. If your hip joint is further back, then you will find a seat shaped like diagram B more comfortable. Since saddles are designed for your hip joints to land in the sweet spot (lowest part of the seat), it’s important that the saddle’s sweet spot be compatible with your own joint location.
Third, before visiting a tack shop, do some research. Search online to find saddles with features such as steel and wood trees that can be modified to fit your horse, wool flock stuffed panels that offer further saddle fit options, different girthing systems, Velcro attached leg support, etc. Call tack shops in your area to determine whether they have assorted saddles of your size in stock, and ask if you should make an appointment to try them. (Not all tack shops have a saddle specialist on staff every day, nor have your size in stock.) Bring the following items with you when you visit the tack shop: notebook and pen, your stirrups buckled at your correct length, a carpenter’s level or straight edge, small roll of tape, camera, and assorted padding items such as small towels, bits of fleece or old polo wraps. And wear your riding breeches and boots.
At the tack shop:
1. Select a saddle of appropriate size and twist width, attach your stirrups, and place it on the saddle buck (fake horse). Balance the saddle by using some of your padding items (stirrups should be run up or crossed over the withers and out of the way). Mount and dismount, re-adjusting the padding as necessary so that you feel comfortably balanced – neither pitched forward nor backward. Lift your knees up toward the pommel and allow your butt to slide down to the “sweet spot.” Do you still feel balanced? If not, then re-adjust. Do you have four fingers width both in front and behind your butt?
2. Carefully dismount without disturbing the saddle or any corrective padding. Take note of how high the cantle is relative to the pommel. I like to place one end of a carpenter’s level on the cantle, balance the bubble, and then note how many fingers fit between the bottom of the level and the pommel. Write this information down in your notebook. If you decide to demo this saddle, you will need to duplicate this balance on your own horse. Place a small piece of tape at the lowest point of the seat. Is the tape in the center? Or 2/3 of the way back? You will find that you will be most comfortable in a saddle where the seat’s “working center” matches your hip joints. (see photos)
3. Remount and allow your legs to drop naturally (no stirrups). Do you feel laterally and longitudinally balanced and supported? Can you drop your legs down and around your “horse”? Are your knees resting softly against the flaps and pointing forward? Are your toes pointing naturally forward? (If not, the twist is too wide and you should try a different saddle with a narrower twist.)
4. Put your feet into your stirrups. Check ear-hip-heel alignment by looking in a mirror or have a friend take a photo of you. This is not a vain exercise; this ear-hip-heel alignment is physics, not fashion. It is the only way you can balance yourself. You should naturally and unconsciously do this without any tension. Your legs should be able to drop naturally down and around the “horse” and you should have good ear-hip-heel alignment. If so, this saddle might be a “keeper.” Have someone take a photo of you mounted on it and then another shot of the saddle alone. If you need to consciously move your leg back to correct your position, then the stirrup bars are too far away from your working center. This is not the right saddle for you. (Yes, your foot size combined with hip location actually is part of good saddle fit.)
5. Evaluate the flaps. Are they long/short enough? Is your entire thigh on leather? Is leg support positioned to give you support without restriction? Leg support should never force your leg into an unnatural position.
Repeat these steps with other saddles of interest. Hopefully you will have two or three finalists. Now it is time to try these on your horse, where everything will feel totally different. Your horse will be shaped differently and the element of motion is added.
Do you know an independent saddle fitter (one who is not trying to sell you a saddle)? Do have a riding instructor? Do you have a knowledgeable friend? It’s time to get them involved. Make an appointment to meet with them at the barn and bring your “finalists.”
Part II will deal with how to demo saddles.
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