The Saddle Dilemma

    Saddles today are basically divided into two styles and they are the English and the Western saddle. The western saddle is more or less a design from the old type of “box” or travel saddles as it could be called or as I will refer to it in such ways. One has to be aware of the fact that before the technology came, the horse was mainly a transportation object, especially here in the Big Country of America. Immigrants, farmers for the most part were not riders. The travel/box saddle is design to provide safe and secure seat for the non-rider (hence the popularity of it). It is more or less the old design of the “knight saddle” which main purpose was to prevent the knight to be unseated. 

Typical old box/travel saddle 
designed for the comfort of the rider 
rather than the horse. Note, how far the rider would sit supporting his butt with the cantle. Also note how far is the back support of the saddle extended to provide closer contact to the rear, hence improving the comfort of the "non-rider".

Typical older English saddle, more concerned with the horse. Note, much more shallower than today's saddles and with closer contact. Less stuffing in the rear and very thin in the lowest part. A good old broken in saddle with pulled up cantle and pommel. When new, the skin/leather was more stretched lengthwise across the saddle. This was uncomfortable in the beginning but in time the leather is pressed down by the raider's weight, causing the pommel and the cantle to be lifted and creating "nest" like place for the rider. Of course one has to know where to sit, in order to break in the saddle the right way.

Another photo of an older English saddle.
Note the thin/close contact on this 
"all around saddle"

    The knights of course could not ride at all since they were carrying at times 100 pounds of iron on themselves, while their horses were extremely front heavy, traveling way too much on the forehand, thus hard to control (That is why they always had to have some one lead them). The knights also did not fight always off the saddle as the later light cavalry did and the purpose of the heavy knight cavalry was for most part to intimidate and to trample down the opposition of the foot soldier. The knight horse, very heavy on the forehand, traveling in shorts strides of high action (otherwise the horse would fall down) was merely nothing else but a living tank that when sent into the higher speed/gait/gallop could not stop even if he wanted to; thus trampling down everything in his way. Development of the “Long Spear” however ended quickly such warfare. 

    This type of saddle also proved itself very practical to the non-riding public, because the prime concern was to keep the rider in the saddle and to make the ride as comfortable as possible. People were not getting any riding lessons. One got on the horse and learned as he went, simple as that since the purpose was to get from point A to point B and nothing else.

    All the non-riders suffer from the same syndromes, mainly the feeling of falling off over the head of the horse and constant sliding back toward the rear of the horse because of the tendencies of sticking the legs forward (pushing into the stirrups) to provide more false security to prevent falling over the head of the horse. (The stirrups prevent the sliding to the side.). Having a high pommel and the cantle provided the required feeling of security. Also forcing the rider to sit further back provided greater comfort from the bounce, since the hind legs are more springy (pushing forward), while the front lands somewhat stiff by the unbalanced horses. The Romans actually sat almost in the loins of the horses (there were no stirrups in those days!) where they found it most comfortable from the bouncing. Mainly the officers sat on horses to be lifted up above the soldiers. The cavalry was the chariots, serving to the same principle as the “knight cavalry” to trample down the foot soldiers. Very little fighting was done from chariot to chariot and the cavalries were not usually sent against one another but against the foot soldiers. The fighting from the chariots was mainly done in pursuit of the retreating opposition. The spear in the chariot or by the knight was a “onetime shot” since one would loose it in the body of the opponent, though the chariot was able to carry more than one spear and the bows and arrows could be used as against the knight who couldn’t use the bow and carried only one spear. (He did have a guy to carry his stuff, but in the battle the guy was somewhat worthless and hard to find). The sword was somewhat useless (often too heavy to use with one hand), since the horse was barely maneuverable and any farmer could easily beat/poke the knight to death with only a pitchfork, were he quick on his feet. (See Hussites warfare, where a bunch of farmers destroyed the entire well trained German knight army with sticks, forks, clubs, stones and other available objects)

    As the breeds of horses are dying out, so are the riders and horsemen. The saddles and the dilemmas related to them today testify to the degeneration of the horsemanship. The theories in building saddles are again focused on the rider and less on the horse (though often told otherwise for marketing purposes). To make the “rider” more comfortable often means to make it harder on the horses. This is where the confusion lies as the forgotten basics of proper seat of the rider are no longer taught, as many folks think that they can come up with new things while disregarding millennia of previous knowledge. 

    The height of riding could be placed at the end of the 19th century (and prior to the First World War) in the military of Europe (for most, the inland countries who had no need to spend money on the navy. Not in order of preference the best could be considered, the French, Italians, Germans, Prussians, Austria-Hungary, Eastern Europe including the Eastern and Southeastern part of Russia (the Don region etc.). England and Spain excluded, as their cavalry wasn’t worth much, as against their navy was the military might). As the horse proved itself useless to the military purpose so did the riders and horsemen. Hence, they are no more. Like it or not, but that’s the way it is and we are getting worse decade by decade since our “want to know” is about our egos and entertainment, rather than about understanding the horse.

Finding much happier place closer to the ass of the horse rather than to the withers. Also sitting comfortably on the butt, hence the knees are higher and the legs forward, which of course will result in leaning forward when riding bareback. Sitting like this seems to the non-rider much safer until the horse thinks otherwise.

Click to enlarge for better details.
This painting is mainly concern to depict the equipment and the uniform of the cavalry rider of that age. Note, how low is the cantle and how high is the pommel. Of course if you do not sit right, you will find yourself sliding backward in this type of saddle. (in reality the cantle is somewhat higher than depicted here, but still much lower than the pommel)

Click to enlarge for more details.
Note, the bit (not talking about the ends of the curb but about the part of the bit in the horses mouth), well above the hips depicted in most paintings of riders/horses of those days of light cavalry. In those days cavalry was sent against one another and no longer served as trampling down the foot soldiers. Fighting was done of the horse, hence the maneuverability of the horse was of the essence as much as the balance of the horse and rider. To run a horse with low set head would be down outright suicidal.

    To be able to recognize a good saddle for a rider (not for a non-rider) is to know where is one supposed to sit. The rider is to sit in the area of the lowest (last) vertebrae of the withers and the first (even) vertebrae of the back (hence horses with a longer/prominent withers are more suitable for riding). The deepest part of the saddle should be in the same area because the rider is to sit in the deepest part. (You can read more about “horse balance” on this site). The saddle should be large enough so the rider does not feel the cantle of the saddle with his butt. (Of course the rider is not to sit on his butt and you can read about the seat here.)

    The English saddle today is more or less designed for the “light seat” and not really for the “heavy seat” of dressage, which will be discussed later. Nevertheless, the English saddle today, especially for dressage is just another version of the travel/box saddle “English style”. These saddles often have a high cantle with too much padding behind and often they are too small (or people have too big ass). (Most people feel more secure when they feel support at the end of their butt.) To have the hind end of the saddle, the cantle and the stuffing higher than the pommel will result in pushing the weight of the rider forward, thus he will compensate by leaning backward in the heavy seat (usually one or two degrees behind the vertical, which of course will also give him a false sense of security; same principals as when riding down hill); this can be seen in the entire style of dressage riding these days and it includes the “best” (of the worst) in the world. The horse usually compensate for this imbalance by leaning more into the bit or refusing it altogether, thus traveling on his forehand. This is demonstrated in horses flexing in the center of the neck, rather than at the pole and often either refusing the bit and going behind vertical or pulling into the bit. Most of all however, is the fact that just about all horses, especially the dressage horses these days, carry their bits below the hipline and that proves inevitably that the horse is on the forehand. This type of saddle also pushes the weight of the rider more onto the withers, hence causing great discomfort to the horse and often making him sore in shoulders and the withers area. The high cantle seen by the Lipizzaners serves mainly for the work in the air (jumps), where it is practical and useful.

    The saddle dilemma is very sad, but the reality remains and that is, since there are no riders anymore, there are no decent saddles either, because the “riders” today cannot tell the good one from the bad. In reality, it is the rider who gives the finishing touch to the well made saddle (see comments to the photo above)

A typical western saddle sending the rider comfortably (though dangerously) to the rear of the saddle, further into the back of the horse, thus making him (falsely) more secure and comfortable. Note, the forward set stirrups to provide the same.

Note, how most of the saddles are depicted in catalogs. When in fact this saddle is put on the horse, the pommel is significantly lower than the cantle. Forward (light) seat has nothing to do with the forward out of balance saddle.

Written by Ludvik K Stanek a.k.a Lee Stanek