Archive for July, 2016

stirrup bars & the dreaded “chair seat”

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.


Stirrup bars attach to the saddle tree with three rivets…2 in the fork and 1 in the rails.

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.


Standard bar with extended bar

Standard bar with super extended bar










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.

Stirrup bar thickness: left=adjustable right=nonadjustable

Standard bar with adjustable bar at rearmost setting















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.


Step 1: How to Determine the Correct Seat Size for the Rider

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.