By Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE
When I first started teaching my wife, Sabine, how to ride, I couldn’t understand why she kept complaining that the saddle hurt her there. I would get on the same saddle and have absolutely no problem. She, on the other hand, had difficulty keeping correct positioning with her legs back, back straight, and shoulders back. Then when we I started building saddles in Canada, Sabine was my guinea pig, but because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings, she never admitted that the saddles I was making (for female clients) weren’t really comfortable for her.
When a well-known judge and rider confided in me that she was literally “rubbed raw” and felt pulled apart, a light bulb went off in my head. I conferred with a gynecologist and began to investigate the differences in male and female anatomy, starting with pelvic structure, and then including hip articulation, muscles, and skeleton. I learned that the differences between men and women were extremely significant when considering saddle design. We then started using a plaster cast method, which served as incredible visual aids to make our full custom saddles.
Since then, we have refined our designs and are now known as the “Female Saddle Specialist,” a niche which becomes even more fitting when you consider that the demographics of our industry have shifted significantly over the past 50 years or so to become predominantly female.
With this shift in demographics, why haven’t more saddle manufacturers taken this into consideration when making saddles? Many still build saddles the way they have been made for decades, and some women still dismiss the idea of needing a saddle built specifically for their conformation. Many riders have simply learned to deal with the discomfort and ride well enough to make these saddles work, but it’s not ideal.
I have worked closely with a very qualified equestrian medical expert in our industry, James Warson, MD, who wrote the book, The Rider’s Pain Free Back. I have incorporated many of his findings into my own book.
So let’s consider the various anatomical differences and how they apply to saddle fit for women.
Width of the seat bones (birthing channel): This determines how wide the saddle seat needs to be; in many of the saddles made for men, a woman will actually find herself sitting on the seat seam, which is irritating to say the least.
Spinal column: Riders need to be able to use the four natural curves of the vertebral column as natural shock absorbers. If a female rider leans back or hunches forward because the saddle isn’t right for her, her spine will take the brunt of the impact and result in back pain issues, which could result in slipped discs.
Pelvic balance and pubic symphysis: The male pelvis can balance on its seat bones as on a bipod; the female pelvis needs to use her pubic symphysis as well as her seat bones, like a tripod. For women, this means there is another area of friction at the pommel area, which can result in pain. To compensate and avoid pain, the rider in pain might collapse at the hip, which then causes the leg to shoot forward, placing the rider in the chair seat position.
Hip joints: The male hip joints are articulated differently, which allows the legs to hang straight down, whereas women’s legs are naturally angled outwards. This results in the female rider feeling pulled apart if the twist, the area of the saddle tree that we feel between our upper inner thighs, is too wide.
Upper leg musculature: Because of the structure of the quads and hamstrings as indicated in the picture, the woman needs to have a narrower twist (as a rule).
Gluteus maximus (butt cheeks): The female’s glutes are much higher up than a man’s, which indicates the need for additional support in the seat at the cantle area to prevent her from collapsing to the back.
If all of these points are taken into consideration when fitting a saddle, a woman can use the properly fitted saddle to help her ride in proper position and balance. She can now concentrate on her ride rather than fighting her saddle for proper position.
For a man, riding in a saddle that is uncomfortable for him (especially at the pommel area because of too much padding at the seat) could result in restricted blood flow in the sensitive perineal area. This could lead to erectile dysfunction, impotence, or other physical problems.
These are the points of reference every rider should ensure are correct for his or her body, regardless if they are male or female:
- Width of the seat to support the seat bones
- Skirt attachment with flat seaming to avoid pressure at the back of the upper inner thigh
- Saddle twist appropriate for male or female to accommodate upper leg musculature
- Angle of the pommel to avoid hitting the pubic symphysis (waist seaming width)
- Seat foam (mattress) to support the gluteus muscles
- Flattest part of the saddle, or the supporting area, where the majority of weight is carried; needs special attention to avoid pressure on the crotch area
- Cantle angle to provide necessary support
- Saddle balance (many women prefer forward balance)
- Stirrup bar position to accommodate the upper leg length to lower leg length ratio (most women will require extended stirrup bars since their upper legs are longer than their lower legs); if this is not considered and fitted properly to the rider, the leg will naturally swing forward
In summary, the saddle should allow the rider to sit as closely to the horse as possible while allowing the positive and balanced interaction of the vertical spine of the rider and the horizontal spine of the horse. Riding shouldn’t hurt, and this goes for both the rider and the horse If the rider isn’t comfortable, this will translate down to the horse, and he will never perform to the best of his ability. So us riders owe it to ourselves and to our horses to ride in a saddle suited to our body. As the saying goes, “You are worth it!”
Jochen Schleese, author of Suffering in Silence: The Saddle Fit Link to Physcial and Psychological Trauma in Horses, is a Certified Master Saddler from Passier He operates a saddlery training facility in Ontario, Canada, and provides diagnostic saddle fit analysis and fitting services across North America, especially for women. SaddlesforWomen.com
Photos of male and female rider side by side with plaster casts showing points of contact:
Although these two riders are very similar in body shape on the outside, their plaster casts clearly show the differences in their pelvic points of reference. The male (right) has two points of contact on the saddle at the seat bones, which are closer together than those of the female (left). In addition, the female pelvis has a third point of contact at the front (her pubic symphysis).
Photos of female and male pelvic skeleton:
The female pelvis’ pubic symphysis is fairly flat and low and will hit the pommel area. The male pelvis’ public symphasis is relatively higher than the female one with steeper angles, which allow it to sit far away from the pommel area.
See images below for reference.
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