A common problem for many riders is the dreaded “chair seat” position. It’s not caused by poor riding, but rather poor saddle fit to the rider. The distance between the working center (sweet spot) and the stirrup bar is too great for the size of the rider’s feet.
For many years there was only a standard bar, shown above. It was approved according to British Safety Standard and has a small hinged section that can be flipped upwards. (We never recommend doing this as most riders will leave it in the “up” position for years where it eventually corrodes and will not release in case of emergency.)
A number of years ago, in response to requests from dressage riders, extended bars were developed to bring the rider’s leg backwards about an inch into a more balanced ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment. Extended bars are now standard equipment on many dressage saddles and this works for many riders. Especially those using a 17” or 17 ½” (or smaller) seat.
But many of us need a larger seat and our feet are the same size as those of a more slender rider using a 17” saddle. As the seat size increases, the distance from the stirrup bars also increases, because after all, the bars are still attached in the same place on the saddle tree. The front of the saddle does not change with increased seat size. As the seat size increases, it places the rider further away from the stirrup bars which are still in the same location as the smaller saddles.
Smith-Worthington has researched, designed and contracted with a foundry to produce a “super-extended” stirrup bar that is now standard in our newer dressage saddles sizes 18 ½” and larger. We can also retro-fit many saddles with this and other styles of bars. (Some saddles cannot be retrofitted.)
If you need to bring your leg back an inch and if your saddle has standard bars, then ordinary extended bars will do the trick. It’s possible to extend too far. As my grandfather used to say “A little is enough… and enough is too much.”
You might need super-extended bars on one saddle and not on another. This is because the working center was placed differently. When the webbing is stretched over the framework of the tree, seat shape and the location of the sweet spot is determined. Some saddles are designed with a centered sweet spot, others with a more rearward placed sweet spot. Your butt will ALWAYS land in the lowest part. If that spot happens to be closer to the cantle, you might need super-extended stirrup bars.
Adjustable stirrup bars are sometimes a good choice…especially if riders of different body types are using the same saddle, or if a rider is using an AP saddle for multiple disciplines. But there are trade-offs:
1. You better not lose that tiny little screw that holds the bar in your selected position. It’s hard to find in the arena footing.
2. Bulk. Compare ¾” thickness to 5/16” of non-adjustable bars. Add the thickness of stirrup leathers and you have a substantial lump under your thigh.
Typically, new riders have no idea what good saddle fit feels like. They don’t know what balance feels like. They have spent a great deal of their lives sitting in office chairs, the car, or on a couch in front of the TV. They will often buy a saddle because they find it comfortable. Chair seat position seems normal and comfortable to them. But as they advance in their riding skills, they come to realize the importance of balance. They learn when they have it, and when they don’t. After a few years, that old comfy saddle typically doesn’t work anymore. Sometimes a change in stirrup bars can be good option. If that doesn’t work, it’s on to some really serious saddle shopping. The more you know, the harder it gets. But when you get the right saddle, it’s amazing how riding improves.
and Why Your Horse Cares.
The first consideration when selecting a saddle is the selection an appropriate horse. A rider needing a saddle that is larger than a horse’s usable back must consider riding a different, longer backed horse. This can be a difficult decision as we bond and become emotionally attached to our horses. We want to be kind to them, but we also want to enjoy using them. If a horse is too small, or too short backed for riding, perhaps driving is more appropriate. Or, perhaps the horse should be used by a smaller rider who uses a smaller saddle. And sometimes, if the saddle is only slightly too long (an inch or less), it can be modified to fit within the usable back.
The seat size of an English style saddle is measured from the center of the saddler’s nail to the center of the cantle. Use a yard stick or, if using a tape measure, hold it taut so that it doesn’t sag. This tells you the size of the seat…not if it fits. Common sizes are 17” or 18” but many riders are smaller or larger and need smaller or larger saddles. Many saddles are available in ½” increments, like 18 ½”.
The seat size is the second consideration. It must fit the rider’s pelvis and butt. When shopping for a saddle, a rider must sit on saddles. Lots of saddles. ..friends’ saddles, new saddles, used saddles, and saddles at a local tack shop. After a saddle is balanced on the fake horse, mount up. (Remember, it is not girthed on, so don’t use the stirrups.) Lift your knees so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Wiggle around a bit so that your butt slides down to the lowest part of the seat…the sweet spot. Now, without touching the saddle with your hands, drop your legs. Tall riders often develop the habit of pushing themselves rearward in order to fit long legs onto the flap. Don’t do this. If this is necessary, the saddle does not fit. The seat should fit the rider’s butt and the flaps should fit the rider’s legs. The rider shouldn’t self-adjust to fit a saddle.
In a correctly fitted saddle, the width of 4 fingers fits behind the back edge of the rider’s butt and the edge of the cantle. Four fingers should also fit in front of the pubic area and the front edge of the saddle. But seat size is only a small part of correct fit… a starting point. (More on this in future posts.)
Since fit to both horse and rider fit is important, the length of the horse’s usable back must be determined. The saddle must allow room for shoulder movement and not rest on the horse’s kidneys. It should be placed 2 fingers behind the bulge of shoulder muscle with the back edge of the panels resting on or before the 18th rib. This area is called the usable back.
The 18th rib is the last rib strong enough to support a rider’s weight. The 18th rib can be found by following the direction of hair growth on the horse’s back. Hair grows downward from the spine. The hair grows forward from the hips. At some point, the downward growing hair meets the forward growing hair forming a “Vee” with swirl of hair at the tip. Follow the point of the “Vee” upward to the spine. This is where the 18th rib attaches to the spine.
An appropriate saddle for the rider fit must fit within the horse’s usable back? If it does, great! If it doesn’t, the rider should NOT select a too small saddle with the belief that she will lose weight and eventually fit into the saddle. (It doesn’t happen.) Or that the horse’s comfort is of primary importance and that rider will suffer discomfort as long as horse in comfy. (also doesn’t happen). Even if a saddle is well fitted to a horse, it will not fit when ridden by a too big rider. The rider’s weight will no longer be evenly distributed across the length of the panels. Don’t do this. Neither horse nor rider will be happy.
It seems impossible that a part of your body that is so far from the saddle affects its fit, but it does. Here’s how.
Good riders strive for balance. The classic ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment is more than good posture…. its perfect balance. If the horse were to instantly disappear, the rider with this alignment would land on her feet in a standing position. This balance, not strength, is what keeps the rider on the horse. By being balanced, the rider helps the horse be balanced and therefore able to perform the tasks we ask of him, whether its leaping over an obstacle, performing dressage movements or safely navigating uneven terrain on a trail. It allows the rider to easily ride for hours without fatigue. A well fitting saddle will allow the rider to effortlessly achieve perfect balance while a poor fitting saddle makes it difficult (or sometimes impossible) to achieve it.
Every saddle has a “working center”. This is the lowest part of the seat of the saddle and the place where your butt will land with each step your horse takes. The stirrup bars determine where your feet will be. (Think stirrup bar connected to the stirrup leather, stirrup leather connected to the stirrup, stirrup connected to the balance point on the foot, and balance point connected to the heel.) If the distance between the working center and stirrup bar is longer than the distance between the ball of your foot and the working center of the seat, your heel will not be under your hip joint. You will be out of balance. This is commonly called “the chair seat”.
When you ride in a chair seat position, it is more difficult to rise to the trot. It’s like lifting yourself out of an easy chair with each beat. You need to lean forward to maintain balance and this makes it hard for the horse to “stay under you”.
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 your own pelvic structure. Jump up and down 3 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”, 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”. 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 “a” is most comfortable for you. If your hip joint is further back, then you will find a seat shaped like “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 certain 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 if they have assorted saddles of your size in stock and ask if you should make an appointment. (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
- 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?
- 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)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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 2 or 3 finalists. Now it is time to try these on your horse. 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”.
A few years ago, when I began riding a different lesson horse, the owner of the horse requested that only her own custom fitted saddle be used. Fine, except…..the saddle was too small for me. After one lesson, I was bruised and extremely uncomfortable.
I have options that are not available to most riders. I am able to have custom fitted and use any saddle in our demo program. I selected a different saddle to use that was my size and had it custom fitted to the horse. Subsequent lessons were far more pleasant.
A frequent comment that I hear is “I want my horse to be comfortable. I know my saddle is too small for me, and I can deal with that. But please, adjust it so that my horse is comfortable.” This has prompted me to write this post. Here is what happens when a saddle is too small for the rider:
- Rider is uncomfortable. Rider can become bruised and/or chafed from constant contact of the ramp of the saddle with the pubis. OUCH! It is impossible to ride correctly and this makes carrying the rider more difficult for the horse.
- It is impossible for rider to sit in the “working center” of the saddle. The rider sits in a position further back towards the cantle: The dreaded “chair seat” position. This off balance position makes riding more difficult for both horse and rider.
- There is proportionally less bearing surface for greater weight. And most of that weight is concentrated at the rear half of the saddle. The cantle drops under the added weight while the pommel becomes higher, relative to the cantle., The rider is thrown off balance even more.
- With every beat of the trot, the saddle is pushed forward because the rider’s weight is not evenly distributed. As the saddle moves forward, it eventually meets the horse’s shoulders. Shoulders become pinched and sore.
I have never been able to measure the distance that the saddle moves, but if the saddle moves forward 1/100 inch (the thickness of a human hair) with each beat, in 100 beats the saddle will be 1” closer to the shoulders. 200 beats = 2” closer. If the saddle was appropriately placed 2” behind the shoulders to begin with, after 200 beats, the saddle is banging into that shoulder muscle with each stride.
I counted beats during a recent training session. My count was 60 sitting beats around the arena. A little over 3 times around the arena and an undersized saddle, moving only 1/100” each beat would have moved forward almost 2”. And I know I go around the arena at least 40-50 times each practice session. Number of strides will vary from horse to horse, but you get the idea.
If you really care about your horse, you will invest in a saddle that fits you and can be custom fitted to your horse.
A sweaty saddle pad can tell you a lot about saddle fit since the sweat marks happen dynamically as the horse is moving.
Much of our information about military saddles comes from Stephen Dorsey and Ken McPheeters’ book The American Military Saddle, 1776-1945. This book contains more than 400 pages of information and photographs of all sorts of horse related military gear…bits, harnesses, girths, saddle bags, stirrups, and much more. According to this book, there are many versions of the military saddle. Many were experimental. Others were for officers only or for specialized purposes. I recommend this book for serious re-enacters and anyone interested in military saddles.
There is a great deal of discussion about twist width and a lot of mis-information. Here are the facts:
- Twist width refers to the narrowest part of the saddle tree. The British call it the “waist” which is actually a lot more accurate. Here is a picture of a saddle tree which clearly shows the “twist”.
- Once the saddle is made, you cannot see the twist. And it is almost impossible to measure. The shape of the leather on the seat DOES NOT indicate anything about twist width. The shape of the leather is purely a matter of style and not at all indicative of twist width.
- Generally, riders with narrower hip/pelvic structure find a saddle with a narrower twist more comfortable. And, riders with wider hip/pelvic structure find a wider twist more comfortable. But other factors enter into whether a saddle is comfortable for a rider.
- How do you know what kind of hip/pelvic structure you have? Jump up and down a few times. Then look at your feet. Are they more than 8″ apart? If so, you will likely prefer a medium or wide twist. If closer, a narrow twist may be correct. This formula is a generality. If there are any abnormalities of your knee or ankle, the results may be skewed. But if your joints are normal and your thighs are not overly heavy, this gives you a good starting point.
- Heavy thighs might force you into a narrower twist than if your thighs were thin. Think about it. Your hip joints evolved for walking. They have tremendous range of motion front to back, but only limited range side to side. Your hip joints can only spread just so far. When you are riding, not only the twist of the saddle and horse need to be accommodated by your hip joints, but also your flesh. If you cannot reduce the size of your horse or your body, the only thing remaining is to change the twist width of the saddle.
Like twist width, seat width determines comfort of a saddle. And what is comfortable is determined by pelvic/hip structure of the rider. If seat width is too wide, it will prevent the rider’s legs from dropping naturally down and around the horse’s sides.
When we sit on a saddle in the showroom of a tack shop, we are sitting on a molded and un-moving “saddle buck” which feels nothing like a real horse. And many of us don’t know what we’re feeling. Riding on your own horse allows you to really feel a saddle. Try this test with the help of a knowledgeable observer.
- Tack up and ride for 5-10 minutes to warm up. Ask for the rising trot.
- If you are riding correctly, you will have ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment.
- Sit the trot. Ask your observer to watch your alignment. Do your legs move forward into a “chair seat” position after a few beats? If they do, then the seat of your saddle’s seat is too wide. It gets in the way of your leg and if you’re trying to ride correctly, you should try a different saddle with a narrower seat.
Last week, after about 3 weeks of not riding, I went to the barn after work. The Morgan/Arab mare I’ve been using had suffered an injury and was recuperating for about 3 weeks with only light ground work. This was the first time I rode her after her injury. I was alone and somewhat apprehensive about riding her. Was she OK? Would she object to my weight on the saddle? This very sensitive and well behaved horse allowed me to mount but she had trouble rounding up and relaxing her back. I was also tense…she probably sensed my anxiety. At the end of my ride, I examined the sweat marks on the saddle pad. It showed some serious bridging — lots of pressure at the cantle and pommel with little or no pressure in between. I knew that we needed to address saddle fit for her, as she had probably changed shape in the weeks following her injury.
The next day I had my regularly scheduled lesson. Same horse, same rider, same saddle and a clean saddle pad. My instructor (Deb Moynihan of Irish Acres Farm in Bolton, CT) worked with me to release the tension that I carried in my shoulders and hips and corrected my position. As my riding improved, the mare began to release the tension on her back and began to round up. By the end of the lesson, she was reaching forward to the bit and moving in a steady, beautiful trot. After un-tacking, I examined the saddle pad. What a difference! It was evenly marked with sweat. It looked like the saddle had been refitted between rides….but it hadn’t.
Conclusion: Riding correctly is extremely important to proper saddle fit and riding lessons actually affect saddle fit. Even experienced riders tend to get sloppy and fall into old habits. Everyone needs a brush up from time to time. Your horse will appreciate the calm, steady and strong rider that you will become.
Place appropriate saddle pad on horse’s back near the withers. Then slide back to the shoulders. Then place the saddle on on the saddle pad keeping the saddle behind the shoulders. Attach girth (cinch) to off side. Then buckle loosely to near side billets. Your entire hand should fit between your horse’s side and the girth. DO NOT MOUNT.
If you are a historical re-enactor: DO NOT MOUNT. Unbuckle girth and remove saddle and place on an appropriate saddle stand for display. It’s difficult to see the saddle when it’s on the horse and you’re standing on the ground.
Re-enactors are educators that make history come alive. The best re-enactments include more than a battle. An encampment is usually set up with authentic tents and other equipment. The public is invited to engage with the re-enactors to learn about different aspects of the era being re-enacted. Visitors learn about everyday life of the soldiers…what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore and much more. And in the case of cavalry soldiers who used McClellan saddles, there is far more than charging into battle with guns blazing. If you really want to educate the public about the cavalry, be prepared with the following information.
You will be using a modern saddle, NOT A MCCLELLAN SADDLE, for the battle re-enactment because….
The average cavalry soldier was smaller than most modern re-enactors. He was about 5’6? tall or shorter and he weighed about 120 pounds. He was very strong and lean and spent many hours every day riding. McClellan saddles were designed for riders built like this.
Cavalry horses were narrow and barely bigger than a pony. They were specially bred by the army to fit the McClellan saddles. Since your personal horse is was not bred to fit the saddle, it would be inhumane to subject him to such a painful saddle for entertainment of others. Even a short ride by a heavy rider can damage a horse’s back if the saddle doesn’t fit properly.
Even though the McClellan saddle was designed with a hole in the center to relieve pressure on the horse’s spine, it still doesn’t fit your horse properly. Horses can go lame from saddles that do not fit properly, especially when ridden by heavier, taller riders.
It is uncomfortable for most riders. and certainly torture for most horses. But cavalry soldiers didn’t whine and cry. They toughed it out. Horses suffered too. They often went lame and were destroyed when they were no longer useful. Most cavalry horses did not reach retirement age.
If you are a trail rider: DO NOT MOUNT. Even though your McClellan saddle has lots of handy rings and dees for attaching stuff, it was not designed for trail riding on modern horses. It will damage your horse. Take the saddle off and place in a dumpster. Then lock the dumpster so no one will “salvage” it. Do not sell the saddle. It will only be purchased and used by someone who is uneducated about saddle fit and cause suffering to a different horse.
If you are a mounted police officer: DO NOT MOUNT. Even though a variation of the McClellan saddle has been used by some big city police forces for years, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable for your mount (or you). But police officers, like cavalry soldiers, do not whine and cry about it. Most police forces with mounted units have horses of different breeds. Horses retire. Others are purchased or donated. McClellan saddles cannot be refitted to new horses. One size DOES NOT fit all. Add a large rider up on the saddle. Many (not all) police officers are tall and muscular and therefore, while certainly not fat, are heavy. And they sit on the horse’s back for 6 – 8 hour shifts. Police horses can quickly become back sore, unusable and rack up vet bills while they continue to eat hay even though they are on “medical leave”. City officials have budget concerns. It is far more cost effective to use modern saddles on police horses that can be refitted to new horses, as needed, or to current horses as their shape changes throughout their life. You must appeal to your police chief for proper equipment that can be refitted many times. I know that humanity towards our animals won’t get you very far, so don’t use that approach. But you could mention how proper equipment will save the city money by reducing vet bills, and keeping more horses on active duty. Perhaps the best approach would be to compare the expense and care of sore backed horses to the cost of modern saddles and refitting.
If you are a member of a ceremonial unit: DO NOT MOUNT. It doesn’t matter that you ride only in a few parades and funerals. Pain is always pain. And a horse in pain is a dangerous thing, especially when combined with gun shots, low flying aircraft, motorcycles, bands playing and all manner of funny looking people and scary activities. A berserk horse in a crowd….I don’t want to think about it. Relegate those McClellan saddles to a museum.
More than a century ago, Smith-Worthington made thousands of these saddles for the army. After the Civil War was over, many thousands remained in government warehouses. This overstock kept the army supplied in saddles until there was no longer a cavalry. If your vintage McClellan saddle is in excellent condition, it should be displayed in a museum. These saddles are not rare and thousands of others should be thrown away. They are a dime a dozen and not worth the damage they cause.
We worked with the Connecticut 1st Company Governor’s Horse Guard and their vet, the knowledgeable Dr. Peter Conserva. Last month (April) he graphically demonstrated to officers where the McClellan saddles pinched the spine, dug into the shoulders, bridged across dropped backs and put extreme pressure on two small areas at the rear edge of the saddle.
If you’re thinking of using a McClellan saddle, talk to your horse’s vet, talk with you saddle fitter and listen to your horse. “If your horse ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”