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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

The Women & Horses Newsletter - November 2004

Saddle Fit for Everyone

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I have had so many questions lately about saddles and saddle fit as well as fitting my new horse, Redge, that I think it is time to share more information with you about this important piece of equipment.

Remember this: "A man can ride in a woman's saddle, but a woman cannot ride in a man's saddle."

Let's start with this idea and move through the various traditions of riding and riding equipment.

The english saddle traditions come from the military, the cavalry and the hunt field. Before World War I there were english saddles made specifically for men and english saddles made specifically for women both side and astride. World War I changed everything as the demand for cavalry and military equipment was needed. All other saddlemaking was done away with. With the disbandment of the US cavalry in the 1950s, military saddles began to disappear and the hunt saddle for jumping and the cutback saddle for gaited horses took over for pleasure and show riders. Today, even though the horse rider market is predominately women, we still have a tremendous selection of male oriented english saddles and only a handful of female friendly english saddles to choose from.

The western saddle traditions come from ranching and farming. Late in the 19th and early in the 20th centuries women had western saddles specifically made for them to choose from including a Mexican and South American variety. But these saddles had high pommels and high cantels to hold "the lady" in her seat. This was not desirable to ranch women who wanted to be equal with the ranch men. Over the last 100 years western saddles have been designed for their use and not for the sexes. There are barrel racing saddles, reining saddles, cutting saddles, bronc riding saddles, ranch saddles, bulldogging saddles, and pleasure saddles. Almost all western saddles are built for the male body biomechanics and only three or four saddlemakers are considering the female rider biomechanics.

There are also Australian saddles, endurance saddles and hybrids out there that are making their way into the mainstream market. These saddles are almost always custom made giving the buyer the opportunity to have it fit their body and the horse's body, which of course is the ideal.

If you, as a female rider, go to a stable to take riding lessons you will be put in a saddle that more than likely will not give you the advantages you need to learn riding in a safe, comfortable, supportive way. I want you to realize that yes, you have a lot to learn when you take riding lessons, but your equipment has to help you in movement not work against you. So, in these riding lesson situations where you are borrowing a saddle and riding different horses, try to find a saddle that will work for you. The stable probably has a large selection. Even if they don't have a female friendly saddle, don't just accept what is given to you if it hurts, chaffs, pinches, or keeps you off balance. If worse comes to worse and you just cannot find a comfortable saddle try buying and using a seat saver. They come in wool and fleece and fit over any saddle's seat to give you some comfort.

Now, the next question is "What is a female friendly saddle?" The tack store employees don't know, your instructor probably doesn't know, your friends probably don't know - but you do need to know. And hopefully, in our lifetime people who are selling and making saddles will all know how to find a female friendly saddle for riders. It's a tall order I know, but it's one of my big wishes because in the end the horse's benefit.

A female friendly saddle is a saddle that:

1) Has a seat which supports the female pelvis and gives a base to the points of the pelvis or seat bones (ischial tuberosities. The seat of the saddle meets/joins the seat bones and is firmly underneath them. In narrow twist saddles the female is sitting more on her crotch than her pelvis. She is literally teatering in the middle with no support.

2) Has a twist or waist to the seat which tapers off slowly allowing the hip joint and upper thigh to move freely.

3) Supplies the proper amount of rise to the pommel which will alleviate friction on the pubic symphasis or soft tissue area of the crotch.

4) Places the stirrup bars under the hip joint for proper biomechanical line up of the leg under the torso.

5) Provides cushioning in the seat for extra comfort and give, tender seat bones, long hours sitting and menstruation discomfort.

I have a list of female friendly saddle makers on my website but highly recommend Balance International. I worked with them on fitting Anna's saddle and am doing so again with Redge and I continue to be impressed with their service, the professionalism, their attention to detaila and their superior product. This is a saddle company based in England. Balance International is owned, run and managed by two women who design and make all of their saddles. The saddles are made by women for women and if that weren't enough, they are also the best I have found for the horse.

"Traditional" saddle fitters take tracings of the back of the horse at the withers and again in mid-back. They make the saddle to fit into the deficits of the horse's back from those tracings on that day. The saddle will hold this shape unless it is reflocked, but the tree remains the same. No matter how the horse grows, changes in muscling, in diet, in exercise, in age the traditional custom saddle fit remains as it was on the day of the tracings. People will use pads and shims to adjust the fit as the horse changes, but the tree holds that initial shape and restricts the horse from growing and expanding through his back as he needs to in his work over time.

The Balance International concept (please go to their website to read more www.balanceinternational.com) is to make the tree wide enough for the horse to always grow and expand under it.

The BI saddles look traditional and some of their models are more traditionally made than others, but the shape of the tree is allowing and always open for the horse to grow into. It never restricts or limits the back through any changes.

I have seen these saddles settle horses that were nervous or flighty or bound up in their bodies. After only a short while in a BI saddle they begin to let down and relax and stretch out with their necks and through their stride. BI is only making English style saddles now but hopefully they will, in the future consider making western and endurance saddles too. I have ordered a new BI saddle for my new horse and it will last us a lifetime. It is made to fit me as a female athlete on his back and it allows him to move without restriction.

As you look at and ride in various saddles notice where and how they affect you. Keep trying saddles until you find one that works for you. It is an integral and key part of the horse/rider relationship and has to be supportive to both of you.

Hopefully, in the next year or two, I will be coming out with a line of female friendly saddles that everyone can afford. Until then, educate yourself and continue to search for something that will work for you. My book, "Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian" has all of the saddle fit drawings for the different genders. Use it as a guide and contact me if you have specific questions.

A good contact for female friendly western saddles is Dave Genadek at About the Horse. He custom makes saddles with all of the criteria listed above for women in his saddle line.

If you have to go the used or borrowed saddle route for now, look for a saddle with a wide seat that tapers off slowly, a stirrup leather or skirt that hangs down from under your hip joint not out in front of your leg, a pommel that has a slow rise to it and when you sit in the seat you shouldn't feel as though you are sitting on the front part of your pelvis but in the middle with no soft tissue pressure. The seat of the saddle should not set you back on your tailbone either. The lowest part of the seat or center of the seat should meet the center of your pelvis. Also, when the saddle sits on the horse's back the lowest part of the seat should be level with the ground.

I hope this will help you a great deal in finding a saddle that works for you no matter what type of riding you do. Just realize that for now it's a little harder to fit the female rider properly because the products are customized and not in the mass market, YET!

Stay Tuned... and Happy Riding, Mary

female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

Midkiff Horse Training, PO box 24395, Lexington KY 40524
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