How Saddle Design Affects Your Riding Form

Eventing Olympian and top coach Jim Wofford explains how saddle design can help--or hinder--your riding form, whatever the discipline.

Do you lose your lower leg as your horse completes a jump, causing your upper body to lurch forward on the landing? Or do you consistently get left behind the motion at your fences–or, having trouble fixing your tendency to jump ahead of your horse?

| Photos by Jim Wofford

Before you put all the blame on your riding, check out your jumping saddle in the simple ways I’m about to describe. It could be part of the problem.

To ride your best, you need a saddle that puts you in the correct position for the discipline in which you’re riding: so that when your stirrup length is correct for your sport, your seat bones rest in the balance point of the saddle, and the saddle’s flap extends slightly beyond your knee when viewed from the side. If there’s padding on the flap, it should not interfere with your ability to keep your leg where it needs to be for what you’re doing, be it work on the flat, galloping, or jumping and landing.

In eventing, you need to sit in a different place for each of the sport’s three phases: In the dressage phase, your long stirrup leathers allow your leg to reach down and your seat bones to be deep and close to the pommel, which is where a dressage saddle’s balance point should be. As your stirrup-leather length shortens and your knee comes up, your seat bones move farther back in the saddle. While you’re not sitting in the saddle most of the time for cross-country (when your stirrup leathers are shortest), if you need to do so, you’ll want to sit closer to the cantle than you do for stadium.

Riders at the upper levels of eventing, where the differences in stirrup length for each phase are greatest, need a saddle that’s specifically designed for each phase; I’ll demonstrate this in a moment. But at eventing’s lower levels (where the greatest proportion of riders enjoy the sport), you’ll do fine with a dressage saddle plus a “dual-purpose” jumping saddle–if its design does not interfere with your position. (I’ll tell you what to look for.) And if you specialize in hunters or jumpers, read on: My comments about eventing’s show-jumping phase apply equally to you.

(This article concerns how saddle design affects you and your riding. Because your horse’s comfort and soundness are your paramount concern, we’ll assume that your first step in determining whether a saddle meets your needs is to be sure it fits your horse.)

Two Extremes Make The Point
For a dramatic illustration of how a discipline’s optimum stirrup length affects rider position and the saddle design needed to support it, let’s first check out the extremes represented by saddles No. 1 and No. 6 above.

Saddle No. 1 is a timber-racing saddle (not something I expect you to ever be riding in–it’s designed for steeplechasing). Four things to notice about it:

  1. The flap is dramatically forward of the pommel (note the almost 90-degree angle at which the flap meets the head of the saddle), because that’s where your knee is when your stirrups are the appropriate length for racing.
  2. The depth of the flap is reduced to allow your lower leg to remain in contact with your horse despite the short stirrup.
  3. The “balance point” is quite far back, a good 18 inches to the rear of the nailhead on the pommel.
  4. The saddle is constructed without thigh rolls, calf blocks, or other padding that affects leg position; there is only leather between your leg and the horse.

Saddle No. 6 is a traditional dressage saddle. Notice four very different points:

  1. It has almost no angle between the pommel and the flap, which drops straight down in a smooth flowing line, because in dressage your upper leg falls almost straight down from the hip.
  2. The depth of the flap is about twice that of the timber saddle’s flap because your stirrup–and leg–will be that much longer, with your knee that much deeper.
  3. The balance point of the seat is less than a foot behind the pommel, which is where your seat bones naturally want to rest when you ride with a long stirrup, your knee only slightly flexed and your heel on a vertical line with your ear, shoulder and hip.
  4. The thigh roll on the front of the flap helps support your leg in the correct position for this discipline. Because the leg moves relatively little in dressage, the padding’s not a hindrance.

Now, to really illustrate my point, imagine sitting in each of these saddles, but with your stirrups adjusted appropriately for the other sport. If you try to ride dressage in the timber-racing saddle, your leg will hang behind the flap. Your seat bones will seek the balance point, which will place you quite far behind the pommel; you’ll find it impossible to maintain a correct dressage position.

If you adjust your stirrups to galloping and jumping length in the dressage saddle, your knee will stick out beyond the front of the flap (whose thigh roll will also push your knee away from your horse, causing your lower leg to slip back). Your seat bones will be crammed back against the cantle, which will give you a “kick in the pants” at every fence, pushing your upper body forward and sending you ahead of the motion. These two situations are exaggerated examples of how you can have a saddle that actively puts you in the wrong place for a particular discipline, even though it fits your horse correctly.

The Middle Ground–What Works, What Doesn’t
Now let’s look at four saddles (like the first two, they’re from my own tack room at Fox Covert Farm) that fall between the two extreme examples. Some of them do exactly the job for which they’re intended; others look right but jump wrong.

Saddle No. 2 looks the part of a cross-country saddle at first glance; its seat has a balance point only a couple of inches farther forward than the more extreme timber-racing saddle–but the shape of the flap is nearly vertical. There is no place for your knee to fit when you ride in short leathers; and if you ride in it with stirrups short enough for big cross-country fences, the knee roll under the flap (you can see its almost-vertical line in the shadow below the pommel) absolutely pushes your leg back when you land.

Before I figured out what was wrong with this saddle, I assumed some very strange shapes in the air over big drops–my hip back above the cantle and my leg thrust straight forward from the hip–to survive the shock of landing. I finally realized that if there is padding in front of my leg, it should not extend lower than the point of my knee–so that the knee can slide under it when I land after a jump.

Saddle No. 3 is a “close-contact” show-jumping saddle that has been around the world with me. The flap angles forward from the pommel enough to accommodate a stirrup shortened to stadium-jumping length. The balance point of the seat is easy to spot because my seat bones have worn a darker area on the leather; notice that it’s further forward from the cantle than the balance point of No. 2.

This saddle has no thigh rolls; its only padding is that needed to cushion the tree. With only two thicknesses of leather between my leg and my horse, you can feel your horse’s shoulder muscles working. I like that sensation because I think that riding should aim for the closest possible connection between rider and horse; if you’re closely connected to his body, you’ll be more closely connected to his thinking as well. (To my thinking, the current theory that additional padding in front of and behind your leg increases your security is bogus.)

My major criticism of this saddle is the shape of the lower edge of the flap, which I’d like to see squared off and shortened to put more of the rider’s lower leg in contact with the horse. Although old-fashioned, this is an example of a saddle in which you could comfortably ride both the cross-country and stadium phases of a Novice or Training Level event. If you shorten your stirrups enough to ride cross-country at higher levels of eventing, however, your knee will start to pop out in front of the flap.

Saddle No. 4 is a modern close-contact jumping saddle. The flap extends forward at the same angle (about 45 degrees) as No. 3’s. The balance point is back where it needs to be for show-jumping and the cantle is as much as an inch higher than No. 3’s, making the seat a bit deeper overall. This deeper seat is a current trend in saddle design; although the extra depth doesn’t add to rider security, it does define the saddle’s balance point by making the lowest part of the seat more apparent when you sit in it.

I like the way the lower edge of the flap has been shortened and squared off (compared with No. 3’s), but I don’t like the puffy foam-filled knee rolls. Like a calf block behind your leg, they seem to promise to hold you in a secure position–but their actual effect is to prevent you from following your horse’s jumping motion correctly. We don’t want tack to hold us where we are; we want it to not dislodge us from where we need to be at any given point in time. Whatever level rider you are, the best way to be secure in a jumping saddle is to use a close-contact saddle with a small thigh block above the point of your knee, so that your knee and lower thigh can sink in behind the points of the saddle tree.

Except for the up-and-down shape of the thigh roll, this could serve as a dual-purpose (notice I don’t say “all-purpose”) jumping saddle for entry-level eventing. But shorten its stirrups to the length you’d need for cross-country at Prelim level or higher, and two things will happen: Your knee will be in front of the flap (and pushed away from your horse by the foam padding) and, as the shortened stirrups cause your hips to naturally slide back in the seat, your seat bones will be perched about two inches from the cantle. You’ll tend to jump ahead of the motion as a result, because the cantle will push you forward on takeoff.

Saddle No. 5 is a cross-country jumping saddle that is designed to be ridden in with a shorter stirrup leather than show-jumping saddle No. 4. Its balance point of its seat is farther back. (If you lengthened your stirrups enough to show-jump in it, you’d always feel left behind the motion.)

There is a slight thigh roll, but it’s angled forward rather than straight down, so that you’ll feel some support just above your knee as you land over a fence but will be able to maintain your leg position. The flap is shortened enough to keep your lower leg in contact with your horse (you want about six inches between the bottom of the flap and the top of your boot so your boot doesn’t snag on the flap).

There’s no calf block because there are times on cross-country when your lower leg actually needs to move back: For instance, when your horse is coming up a bank out of the water, you need to slide your lower leg behind the girth to keep your stirrup leather vertical to the ground. At that point, a calf block could force your leg forward and cause you to get left behind as he jumps up to the next level.

“All-Purpose” Or No Purpose? How To Check
Using a saddle for more than one discipline always involves compromise. For instance, if we take a show-jumping saddle design and begin modifying it for use in other phases of eventing, its suitability for show-jumping is compromised–and the more disciplines we try to incorporate, the less suitable it will be for anything. That’s why some saddles marketed as “all-purpose” are actually “no-purpose.”

There’s no way to design a saddle that puts you in the correct place for dressage and for cross-country, but there are jumping saddles whose flaps and balance points (more of a balance area now) accommodate a range of stirrup-leather lengths. These are the saddles to look for, using the following guidelines and the help of a salesperson or friend, when trying to find one that fits your conformation for both cross-country and stadium in lower-level eventing. (Such saddles are more accurately termed “dual-purpose.”)

So How Is This Saddle?
Whether you’re evaluating a saddle you already have or trying out a new one, put it on a secure, level “hobbyhorse” or saddle stand and sit in it. Close your eyes, let your legs hang naturally, and wiggle around until you feel you’re in the “pocket”: the lowest point in the seat, where the saddle holds you the most naturally and comfortably.

With your eyes still closed, visualize yourself riding in show-jumping and lift your knees until your helper tells you that you have a 90-degree angle behind your knees. When you open your eyes and look down, the flap’s thigh roll (if any) should be in front of–not underneath–your knee and keeping your seat in the balance point should feel easy.

Now close your eyes again, imagine you’re about to go cross-country, and raise your knees a couple of inches more as you mentally shorten your stirrups another hole or two. When you look down, you want to see that the saddle tree lets your seat bones slide back a little to accommodate your shortened stirrup. If your knee is now poking out in front of the thigh-roll, the saddle will interfere with your lower-leg position over fences. If it isn’t, this is probably a saddle you can ride in for stadium and cross-country.

As a final, inexpensive check on what effect your current saddle is having on your jumping form, ask a friend of about your height and conformation who does your sport in a saddle different from yours to let you try it. For instance, if you’ve been riding in a heavily-padded “all-purpose” saddle, see if you have a riding buddy who uses a flatter, less padded close contact saddle. Arrange to ride in it for your next jumping lesson and see if you feel more secure.

Excerpted from “Saddle Design=Position” by Jim Wofford, in the October 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.