Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saddle fit and performance - a rider's point a view.

I won't pretend for a minute to be a saddler but what I do know is what I like.  Being 6' 2" I know from experience there's a difference between what some saddlers say fits and what doesn't.  "That fits nicely", "Actually I'd rather ride bareback than ride in that..." That said some saddlers are top knotch and even better there's the odd few that have ridden round 4*'s...


First point, if you've got long legs you're going to have trouble finding saddles that fit you.  Firstly, if you've a long hip to knee leg length then you end up having to have a very forward cut saddle to accommodate your leg with short stirrups.  If you've got a long knee to ankle length it's easier but that's not so common... The most forward cut saddles are XC saddles or event saddles.  The name suggests they're designed to go XC in but a lot of people SJ in them as well.  It's worth noting that I'm assuming people are riding in separate saddles for dressage and jumping.  


The next bit is down to personal preference.  Blocks and thigh supports.  There's a million different combinations out there.  One good feature of quite a few synthetic saddles is that you can adjust the position of the blocks (they're attached by velcro).  The degree of forward cutness varies hugely from saddle to saddle so you have to try them.  However, with adjustable blocks you need to have a second flap over the top to cover the velcro so you can't have a single flap saddle with this design.  There's a few different designs of block.  


Banana rolls are the long rolls that go down the front of the saddle around the front of the knee.  These are very obvious on the Wexford jumping saddle.  


On most single flap saddles you get thigh rolls.  The idea of these is not so they trap your thigh.  They shouldn't rest against your thigh when you sit in the saddle.  They are only supposed to come into action if you shift forward against them or if you lean against them when galloping.  The Bates momentum is a prime example of these.  That said, thigh rolls do come in varying sizes.  Smaller ones like on the momentum or larger ones on saddles like Antares or Devecoux but these tend to be custom made - at a price....


You also get calf blocks.  These are positioned on the back of the flap ie behind the calf.  I find that if these are under the flap of a double flap saddle the shape is to gentle and the block actually pushes your calf away from the saddle instead of 'blocking' it in.  When you have calf blocks on a single flap saddle they very much act as a barrier and you know when your leg hits them.  These are very clear on the Vinici jumping saddle.  


Now for the single vs double flap debate.... Having ridden in both types of saddle I prefer single flap saddles but unfortunately they tend to be more expensive so what I want isn't the deciding factor... The blocks on a single flap saddle are stuck on the outside so are far more defined and give  more feel.  The degree of 'feel' through a single flap is far greater and you do sit closer to the horse.  However, some people do prefer double flap saddles for backing youngsters for example.  With a double flap young horses feel less movement from the rider - OMG! There's someone on my back!!! PANIC!!! Plus, attaching things like side reins to a single flap saddle isn't the easiest thing in the world.  Top tip.  Single flap saddles also use short girths so that the buckles aren't under the riders leg - chances are you'll buy a single flap saddle and forget this (I did!).  


Now for another misconception.  Close contact saddles.  Close contact saddles use foam instead of flocking in the panels so can't be adjusted.  This also means the don't need re-flocking and you adjust the fit with saddle pads.  The set up at the pommel is also slightly different so that you are sat closer to the horse.  It makes a difference, if you get the chance, sit in a non close contact saddle then sit in a close contact one and you'll see.  The misconception is that all single flap saddles are close contact and double flap saddles aren't.  This isn't true.  However, the idea stems from modern commercial trends.  You can get single flap saddles that aren't close contact and double flap saddles which are close contact but they are quite rare... 


The next bit is fairly controversial and a huge number of people have very strong opinions on the matter.  Go to the local point to point and look at the length of jockey's stirrups.  Chances are the well behaved and careful horses will be ridden with longer stirrup leathers and the careless, easily tiring or difficult ones will be ridden with very short leathers.  The reasoning behind this is that should the difficult horse get itself in a tangle the short stirrups mean the jockey gets shot straight out the door but more importantly he is flung miles away from the drama.  The longer your stirrups the more secure you are, give or take a bit, look at dressage riders... Now think of eventing. We don't ride in flat racing saddles but with comparitvely short stirrups and large blocks on our saddles to STOP us falling off.  When event horses fall you're not going to get thrown as far away... The thinking is that excessively large blocks make this situation even worse.  So supposedly saddles that are a more SJ style with flatter knee rolls such as the John Whittaker saddle range will mean you fall off more easily in the event of a horse fall therefore being safer.  But, bear in mind that's just an opinion...


The best solution?  Find a saddler that knows their game.  That way we're all happy and safe.  I haven't said anything about dressage saddles.... patience, I'll have to do a part 2.  To be continued....



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