Saddlery - Why do we need alternatives?

As with so many facets of 21st century horsemanship, the saddlery we use is under close scrutiny. The modern rider is looking for gear that is both efficient and ethical. 

Efficiency basically means that the gear you use gets you the end result you were aiming for - and for the ethics to be good whatever is used should cause the least possible pain or discomfort.

Whatever discipline a rider is interested in, from trail riding to international dressage, the first aim will be the same - to produce a horse that is working under saddle in balance and relaxation. And for this to be possible there must be the least possible interference in the horse’s posture and freedom of movement. 

The saddlery we use forms the interface between horse and rider. So our saddle has a specific job of work to do; acting as an interface for the efficient transfer of rider weight to the horse’s back; with the bridle acting as our communications interface. Of course we are also able to communicate by altering our own posture and with our legs, and it is clearly important that the saddle should not impede this by being too bulky or intrusive.

But let’s take a detailed look at the bridle first - what it needs to do, and what should it not do.

The angle at which a horse holds it neck is critical to how well the back is supported. Should anything happen that causes the horse to work with a high head and hollow back, then fatigue, pain and loss of propulsion will be the results. 

So the bridle needs to allow us to communicate pace and direction without disrupting posture. And it is at this point that we run into a potentially serious problem should we use a bit. No matter how well designed a bit might be it still relies on discomfort, or at the very least irritation, to have an effect. Simply put, the horse is forced by mechanical pressure to submit - willingly or not. What is hoped is that the horse will learn that evasion is impossible and submit with good grace - or else the practice has been to use harder or heavier bits until it does. Of course there is no question that this can be done - far too many horses work efficiently with bits for them simply 'not to work'. But there is a question about just how well they work - or don't, and for how many horses they don't work, plus what the result is when they fail. 

Horses are not gifted with brains that are adept at critical reasoning. So just because something is logical for us does not mean that they will necessarily get it - no matter how simple the 'it' in question. In fact what is most likely is that a horse will take an emotional response - rather than a reasoned one. So you get those oh so typical 'tugs-of-war', in which the harder the rider pulls on the reins the more the horse fights for control of head and neck - so the harder the rider pulls. Once this scenario gets going the bridle has failed completely as a communication interface and instead has turned into an interface across which rider and horse fight each other - with the horse’s mouth as the battlefield. Of course the more often the mouth is treated in this way the more damage will be done and the less sensitive the mouth will be - until, at last, the scar tissue and deadened nerve endings result in that most horrible 'iron-mouth'. Quite apart from the damage done by constant pulling on the mouth those nerves that are 'listening' will simply stop doing so after a period of continued pressure - just as the nerves in the horse’s side do when a rider’s legs are continuously overactive; so the amount of communication happening actually decreases with repetition!

Now, instead of escalation of the conflict by use of harder or harsher bits let’s look at removing the source of the dispute. No bit - no battle. Without the feel or threat of pain the horse is able to relax and adopt a more natural and less tiring posture. What most riders expect to happen with this change from bit to bitless is that the horse will now refuse to stop or listen when asked for an alteration in pace - but here it is our logic that is faulty. We wrongly believe that the original cause of the problem is that our horse simply wants to go faster than we do - all the time - when the real battle is not about speed but about control of posture and comfort.

The result of this 'battle-of-the-mouth' is that a huge number of riders end up with sore arms and hands from fighting their horse through a ride - a running argument that spoils any pleasure the two may have got from the experience and effectively destroys any possibility of harmony or partnership.

What is quite surprising is just how quickly a confirmed 'puller' can change into a happier and relaxed horse. There is a lovely moment when using a bitless bridle for the first time - and one I never tire of seeing - when the horse realises that things are different. Paces become noticeably lighter, transitions smoother, rhythm and cadence sweeter and funkier. All those things that were always there are now allowed to come through naturally instead of being blocked by a 4 1/2" piece of metal! 

So - if your horse is perfectly behaved with a bit and the bridle functions properly as a communication interface, all is well. If not - try a bitless bridle! In fact whether your horse goes well in a bit or not - give him or her a bitless holiday, and feel the difference!

Of course it takes a little faith on the part of the rider to make the change from bit to bitless - it's easy to fall into the trap of believing that without a bit you'll have no control - particularly with horses that have some history of panic attacks when confronted by things such as large loud vehicles. Having put some time into studying this precise problem it seems the logic works like this. I'm a horse, I'm afraid of noisy lorries; when they get near me I feel scared and I tense up - my rider feels my tension and reins in, the bit in my mouth causes me pain, which is just what I was afraid of, and reduces my ability to think or listen to my rider, so I become even more tense and scared - which makes me want to run away. Now, take the pain away and the same horse will be more relaxed and able to listen - and less inclined to bolt. Of course there is no guarantee that simply changing from use of a bit to a bitless bridle will stop a horse giving way to panic, but there is good evidence to suggest that this is precisely what often happens in practice. Those riders that have had a horse bolt with them will know just how frightening it can be, particularly when out on the road. My first experience of this was years ago when out riding a Thoroughbred beside a fairly small country road. The silencer dropped from a passing car in a shower of sparks and screeching metal - and my mount put his head down and accelerated to top speed. I remember being amazed that no matter how hard I pulled on the reins, rather than slowing down he just got faster. Blind flight is what this is called in the terminology of horse behavior - in which the horse is so fearful of what it is escaping from that it will ignore other lesser dangers that might be in its path. In my case these dangers were other traffic and a large roundabout, across which he fled, narrowly missing passing vehicles, until his panic ran itself out in a large car park and he stopped. The important thing to note here is that the bit, instead of controlling the horse, merely added pain to the panic, making the situation worse. A calm voice and bitless bridle would have worked far better.

So, onto saddles. The job of the saddle is very simple - it must spread rider weight over the supported area of the horse’s back, but must not bear on the unsupported loins. It must provide a good safe seat for the rider, without causing back-ache or discomfort to the horse. The saddle should allow the horse to move fluently and without restriction, and must not concentrate heat or friction while doing so. 

And, before we go any further, let's get it straight - a saddle can only do so much. Horse and rider must be a balanced pair - where the horse is big enough, strong enough and fit enough to happily carry the rider’s weight - and where the rider is fit enough, lithe enough and supple enough to be able to harmonise with the movement of the horse. We have a situation across the developed world where an increasingly large percentage of the population is either overweight or obese. It is simply not reasonable to expect to be able to take part in a physically taxing, and potentially fatal, sport such as horse-riding without attaining a minimum level of fitness - what is more, the person that does so increases their risk of an accident or injury - plus increasing the likelihood of that accident or injury having more serious consequences. Simply put, when you are overweight and unfit your balance is poorer, your muscles less supple and able to flex in response to jarring, plus you fall more heavily and with less ability to control the outcome. But even leaving danger aside there remains the problem of weight distribution, most specifically stirrup weight. What has to be considered, like it or not, is that as gross weight carried increases, the degree to which efficient distribution of that weight is critical also increases. A bigger horse may be muscularly stronger but its skin is not, so the skin’s ability to withstand pressure and friction is no better than that of a smaller horse carrying far less weight. The historic response to this question of weight has been to increase the length of saddle - cavalry saddles being a good example.

Saddle fit also becomes increasingly important with increments to rider weight, and where a rigid or semi-rigid 'tree' is used it is absolutely essential to the wellbeing that the fit should be very good indeed. In the old days the way a good fit was achieved was by having the saddler visit to take measurements from horse and rider, resulting in a saddle specifically tailored to the pair. Yet even then if the horse changed shape by increase or loss of weight, or changed in muscular definition due to an altered work routine the saddler had to come out again, take new measurements, and then alter the saddle accordingly. And if all this sounds expensive it certainly was - and for those that still follow the practice still is!

But then in those days horse owning and riding was considered an elite activity for many people, a mark of status and disposable income; in fact to such a degree that in several European languages the word for horseman and gentleman are the same; such as the Spanish 'Caballero'. The last 20 years have seen a democratisation of horse ownership, with a greater number of people than ever before, and from far wider range of backgrounds and income levels, taking up equestrian sport in one form or another. 

So what about the owners that do not have access to such saddlers - for whatever reason? As with so many old trades, the number of saddlers able to carry out this type of work has decreased, so it has become not only prohibitively costly in many areas but also difficult to find - but then so too has the need for conventional tree'd saddles decreased. And perhaps that is just as well, for there is no question that poorly fitting tree'd saddles cause permanent damage to toplines as a result of muscular atrophy. Potentially the worst of all types are the heavy western, stock and 'vaquero' saddles. Carelessly used over a range of horses instead of custom fitted to just one, these brutish great things surely belong in museums rather than on the backs of treasured companions!

Take a look back through history and it becomes obvious that tree'd saddles were developed for war - to create a platform from which a rider could develop the necessary leverage to make use of weapons and to which he could attach all the essentials of his trade - bed roll, forage bag, kit bag, weapons and ammunition. Later on that same type of rigid platform was developed, and a horn added for the roping of cattle. But there are few people that now require that type of carrying capacity - and the growth in interest in treeless alternatives bears a certain testament to this change. 

Treeless saddles are certainly not a new idea, more a return to a far older method, and the most common 'generic' patterns in use can be traced back many hundreds - if not thousands - of years.

Coupled with new technology and 'space-age' materials, such as 'memory foam', treeless saddles are now hybrids of the old and the new. Of course they have to be carefully designed to spread rider weight efficiently - as any saddle must - so it would be foolish to suggest that any old treeless saddle is going to be good - but they do offer a significant difference in one very important respect. The tree'd saddle is basically a rudimentary chair tied on to the top of the horse, and, as the horse moves so this chair moves in reaction - but not necessarily in harmony. During exercise the horse’s back continually flexes, going through numerous postural changes, both large and small. The tree'd saddle lacks the flexibility to copy these changes - even the semi-flexible 'spring tree' saddle. In contrast, a good treeless saddle fits the horse more like a glove - and, because of its flexibility, can faithfully follow each change in the contour of the horse’s back. Typically this produces lighter paces with smoother transitions and greater elevation. 

Even so, sellers of treeless saddles that advertise them as 'fitting any horse' are not being strictly truthful. There will always be those combinations of horse and rider, as we mentioned earlier, or horses with physical injuries or deformities such that no saddle can possibly offer a cure. Where riders themselves have postural problems, or ride out of balance, there is equally no saddle that will produce a solution - far better to consult a physiotherapist. In fairness to the buyer, any seller of treeless saddles should take great care to ask the right questions about the rider and horse before making any recommendation. 

We now also have available to us an increasing number of high-tech saddle pads, designed to spread rider weight across the greater amount of the saddle 'footprint'. Choice of the right saddle pad to suit either tree'd or treeless saddles and the activity that will be asked of the riding partnership is critical.

The same variety in treeless saddle accessories is also now available, from girth and stirrup types to chest straps. On many treeless saddles there are no safety catches, the job of which is to open, allowing the stirrup leather to slide free, and preventing the rider being dragged in case of a fall. So it is essential to use some type of safety stirrup, such as the Fillis Peacock. (see illustration below)

Where western style oxbow and fender are used, the tapadero is a reasonable safety option, as it prevents the foot from entering too deeply and becoming trapped as a result.

Having watched alternative saddlery being used on a steadily increasing number of horses for the first time there is one thing that sticks in the memory and makes the process a very pleasant one. So often the owner will have complained that the horse is sluggish or unresponsive and grumpy, until the new gear is tried out. What follows is very often an epiphany for the owner - enter one grumpy and unwilling worker - exit one happier, more comfortable and more willing partner - a potion-less transformation from Mr Hyde to Dr Jekyll!

© AD Beck, WHEEP 2006.