BY ZSUZSU ILLES
Over and over again I hear “I need a narrow twist.” So why do I repeatedly answer, ”Not necessarily so”? Because a saddle with a narrow twist may not necessarily be the best fit for you and your horse. Correct fit has many more aspects to it.
Unfortunately, rather than effortless tools of communication, many riders experience saddles as “instruments of torture,” as one rider/member of the CRC in the UK so aptly described. The unfortunate result of this is riders experiencing the sport of riding as, at best, a constant struggle and at worst, a repetitively painful sport. And thus from this common occurrence of groin, pubic, inner thigh and/or back pain, has been born this repetitive myth of the narrow twist. This focus may be far from the needs of many riders who purchase saddles based on this assumption. Sadly many of them continue to have comfort issues and end up believing that there is something wrong with their bodies or their aptitude for riding.
Why is saddle pain so common?
The foremost reason for saddle pain comes from riding in a saddle that does not fit the horse. When this occurs we find that we are riding a stiff, resistant horse with a braced back. This, of course, translates to our experience in the saddle and therein begins the cycle of resistance. Rider and horse resist each other and create tension and pain for themselves and the other. Even with an independent seat, but especially if we do not have an independent seat, we end up twisting and tweaking our bodies trying to get the horse to respond and perform, hence the beginning of pain in the saddle. Additionally, an ill-fitting saddle can often be unbalanced creating a platform from which we fight to remain in balance whilst aiding: again creating more pain.
The second reason the saddle can create pain comes from the complexities of anatomy and physiology. The differences between our bodies, namely our pelvis, are not only evident between genders but also from one individual to another. The way one rider looks and sits in a saddle may not be imitable for another rider, even if they are of the same gender. We often look to the top riders of our discipline to determine what the ideal riding position is. But if we carefully observe the seat and leg positions of the top riders in each discipline, we can see that in fact, they do not look identical to each other.
Most riders need a larger flat area to sit on than they assume. This not only allows for more room from which to aid, but also the certainty that one can remain in the center of the saddle, and thus over the horse’s center of balance. However, just focusing on the seat area does not give us the entire picture. A saddle with a larger flat area in the seat, but with flaps and knee rolls that do not accommodate the rider’s leg position, may still create pain in any or all the previously mentioned regions of the body.
For example, flaps that drop straight down with average knee rolls only work for those with a wide enough pelvis (e.g. women with hourglass figures or men who do not have narrow hips) that allows the legs to hang down, and one whose thighs are of short to average length. Riders with longer thighs and pelvis’ that require a flat seat will, however, find such flap and knee roll combinations painful as they do not accommodate the length of their femurs (thigh bone). In such a situation they are forced to sit on the beginning rise of the cantle, or to rotate their thighs outwards, or have their stirrups adjusted too long, which bring with it a myriad of other problems.
A situation whereby one’s thighs are not accommodated by the flaps renders a seat ineffective and unstable. The thighs are rotated out which then forces the seat bones together creating an arched back and a seat that I liken to a cabbage on a table. This then encourages the rider to grip the horse with their legs in order to stay on (again the source of yet another list of “training” issues). Additionally, the arched back and incorrect pelvis tilt (with more weight on the pubic bone) draws riders into absorbing the horse’s movements in their lumbar region incorrectly, damaging both their own and their horse’s back. This also causes the bumping up against the pommel instead of the rider being able to absorb the horse’s movement. Often riders sit in a saddle that seems to fit and then find that that when the horse moves they experience the discomforts of an unsuitably constructed saddle.
The same problems can arise when we sit in a saddle with a more cuppy seat, one that rises more quickly at the pommel and cantle and falls more quickly at our inner thigh (which is what we often describe as a narrow twist) even with the correct flap to accommodate our thighs and legs. Now couple that seat with flaps that do not allow room for one’s thighs, and the pubic bone will most likely hit the pommel. This makes sitting on the rise of the cantle more apt to occur. In this position of absorbing the undulation of the horse’s back by arching rather than straightening one’s back, the movement of the horse pushes the pubic bone on to the rise of the pommel with each step as well as creates lower back and hip pain for the rider. To avoid this pain riders will do so, again, by sitting on the cantle and thereby rendering their seat ineffective. For the horse, this seat translates as a harsh and unforgiving seat. For the rider, this leads to resistance and unharmonious riding not to mention all sorts of aches and pains.
So what does a rider need to look for if not a narrow twist?
Let’s first say that a narrow twist can indeed help some riders assuming that it allows for effective and efficient aiding for their body type and if it is appropriate for the horse’s back. As a side note, it is interesting to mention that many European trainers only like the wider flatter seat. In fact several years ago, after a stint in Germany training and studying with top trainers, a well-known US trainer was quoted as saying that it was her opinion that all riders should ride in an 18″ seat saddle. Could it be because it allowed for enough space for a rider to be effective and balanced? So back to the horse, since the twist defines the angles of the rails of the saddletree, which sits on the horse’s back, it must basically mirror its shape. Therefore – narrow twist equals narrow back. Not infrequently, riders who purchase a horse with a broad back attempt to ride in a saddle with a narrow twist. Eventually the horse will resist this bad fit and what follows is pain for both horse and rider as well as what is described as training and/or rider issues.
Most often what a rider needs is a combination of a number of factors:
• a flat enough sitting area, from front to back, on the saddle that accommodates their pelvis such that the seat bones are sitting in the center of the saddle and not on the rise of the cantle which is often the case.
• a seat width that allows for their seat bones to sit on the appropriate part of the saddle, not on the rails of the tree.
• stirrup bars that are appropriately set such that neither they nor the stirrup leathers will protrude into the rider’s legs.
• the correct relationship between the center point of the seat of the saddle and the location of the stirrup bar such that the rider’s legs hang effortlessly under them; an appropriate rise of the pommel, whether it be a higher or lower profile, that accommodates the rider’s pelvic tilt and pelvis to leg relation.
• the correct stirrup length that supports all these needs in a saddle that fits the horse.
I would like to stress to all riders – the saddle must fit the horse if we are indeed to achieve our own personal riding goals let alone be concerned for the welfare of our horses. As we work with tack stores, saddle manufacturers, saddles reps and independent fitters, the first and foremost conversation to have is how to fit the horse. Then and only then, do we proceed to our own comfort.
The good news these days, for those petite riders with very broad horses, is that saddle and tree manufacturers have come up with some new designs that allow the tree to fit the horse and the seat to be built up in such a way as to give a slightly narrower feel for the rider. On the other hand, some saddle manufacturers build saddles whereby the panels are made for broad horses but the tree inside is still a narrow twist and as such would not fit the broad-backed horse. These types of saddles should be avoided.
In conclusion, the saddle is made up of many more elements than just the twist and an indiscriminate focus on the seat’s twist should be avoided when in search of a saddle.
These other elements are:
• a tree that fits the horse which correctly distributes our weight on its back.
• a flap angle and length suitable for the rider’s thigh and lower leg length as well as thigh shape.
• a thigh/knee roll that is correctly shaped and sized for the rider so that it supports the leg and does not push open the thighs.
• the distance between the stirrup bar and the sweet spot of the saddle that accommodates the rider’s pelvic structure and thigh/lower leg length
• quality workmanship such that the saddle is built accurately and evenly on both sides.
• and quality leather which allows us to be comfortable in the saddle and have a saddle that lasts.
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