Is there a difference? Are there saddles that accommodate the physical differences between men and women? The answer is both yes and no, because of the wide spectrum of body types in both sexes. In my years of saddle fitting and speaking with other experts in the field, I have found that what we look like on the outside often means nothing when it comes to saddle fit.
Men and women have differently shaped pelvises. Men’s pelvises are narrower and more vertical, so their legs hang straighter. They tend to support themselves horizontally on the saddle on the triangle of the seat bones and pubis. I visualize their vertical shape around the saddle as rectangular, or two right angles as their legs connect into their pelvises. When it comes to saddle fit, men will often prefer a saddle with a medium seat and a medium waist. Women have a wider and shallower pelvic shape that necessitates more inside thigh muscle, pulling their legs more toward the center of the body. Although the horizontal support of the pubis and seat bones is similar to a man’s, women often use more inside thigh muscle, in addition to the pelvic triangle, for balance. This creates the desire for a broader seat and narrower waist. In women, I see a more triangular vertical support system with the apex at the front of the pelvis being supported on the sides by the inside thigh.
Although pelvic shapes differ between the sexes, the length and flexibility of muscles and connective tissues also dictate our comfort in saddles. So instead of steering you to your perfect saddle, I’ll give you nine concepts with which to evaluate your prospects and help you towards the best saddle fit for you.
Your balance is one of the keys to best saddle fit comfort for both you and your horse, and the only way to produce effective signals. To illustrate this, try balancing seated on an exercise ball. Once you are balanced with your legs in a comfortable spot, move one of your feet about 3” in any direction, or roll the ball slightly forwards or backwards under you. Now stay in the altered position a few minutes and feel how your body is subtly struggling to stay balanced, and how anything else you try to do is hindered by being out of balance. Without realizing it, we are often struggling with our balance in the saddle and are therefore unable to be comfortable or effective.
2. Seat size Seat
sizes range from about 15” to 19” for English saddles. This measurement is generally taken from the head nail on the pommel (sometimes a saddle company logo is affixed to this) to the center of the cantle. As a rule of thumb, you should have 2” to 4” between the front of your body and the fork at the pommel. Your seat should rest at the base of the cantle but not be pressed against the back of it. If your seat rests too much on the cantle, it will tilt your pelvis forward and hollow your back.
According to Karen Borne, Owner of Borné Saddlery, one of the most common mistakes riders make is selecting a seat size that’s too small in proportion to their bodies. Even the length of femur (thighbone) can necessitate a larger seat so that your knee stays comfortably on the leg flap. I don’t go for vanity seat sizing because seats fit and feel different for each of us depending on seat waist (sometimes referred to as twist), pommel slope, seat depth, width, and stirrup placement. When shopping for the right saddle fit, remember that hardly anyone will ever measure your saddle seat or check its size marking, so don’t get hung up on a number!
3. Waist (or twist)
I like to use the term “waist” because it is the part of the saddle built for the rider over the twist, the twist being built for the horse’s comfort. This narrow area of the saddle needs to comfortably support the forward part of your pelvis without interfering with your legs dropping into proper position. Fleshy thighs require space on the saddle so they are not pushed out or forward, creating discomfort or a “chair seat”. A narrower waist can allow this needed space, and the inside of the leg can help support the pubis. Women with slim thighs often prefer medium waisted saddles for best saddle fit, because there is broader support for the front of their pelvis and yet their legs hang into position.
4. Pommel slope Saddles have differing slopes from the base of the cantle up to the pommel. This will affect where the center or balance point is on the saddle. Make sure the slope does not push your balance point back too far, thus interfering with the forward portion of your pelvis. If a rise to the pommel encourages you to tilt your pelvis back, you will be out of balance. If the pommel gets in the way when you post the trot, it is not going to work for your build.
The balance point must be evaluated in relationship to the stirrup bars and knee or thigh blocks. If the center of the seat is too forward, you will feel that your legs are locked in by the knee rolls or stirrup placement. A balance point too far back will create a situation in which you have little to no contact with knee rolls, or the stirrups will bring your legs forward into a chair seat.
5. Leg rolls and blocks
Knee and thigh block designs on English saddles have expanded greatly in recent years. There are now many English saddles that have exterior (on the top side of the leg flap) knee and thigh blocks. One of the advantages to exterior blocks is that it reduces the bulk directly under the leg. This aids both expert riders, and riders who are more restricted in lateral hip joint mobility. In some cases, exterior blocks create instability for a more amateur rider because they don’t have the security of the roll or block that has a traditional overlying leg flap slightly cradling their lower leg.
The traditional placement of blocks and rolls is under the leg flap, mounted on, or built into the sweat flap (the flap closest to the horse). It is less restrictive to leg and forward hip movement and adds sometimes desired security under the leg.
Whether you are investigating saddles with exterior blocks or traditional rolls, be aware of the placement, angle and length of the blocks or rolls. If they are restricting your leg, they can create a pivot point and actually throw off your seat position or push you onto the cantle. If your leg is not being supported by the blocks or rolls, it will have a tendency to constantly “search” for it, resulting in instability. Again, decide on what feels best for you and try not to buy into the latest craze. Your body is unique, and you will find you are most comfortable and effective with the style that suits you.
6. Stirrup placement A growing number of English saddles are equipped with adjustable stirrup bars that allow you to move the stirrup forward or back. Return to the balance ball exercise and recall how moving the ball forward or backward from your balanced position created body tension. Try to be aware of your shoulder/hip/ heel alignment when you sit on a prospective saddle on your horse. Your ear, shoulder, hip and heel should line up vertically. A change in the stirrup bar setting, or a saddle with correct stirrup bar placement for your body, can make a large improvement.
7. Seat depth
The depth of a seat can give a rider security, or restrict her mobility. Dressage style English saddles generally have deeper seats, while close contact and all purpose saddles have more open seats. Within all these disciplines, expert riders often prefer more open seats because they have developed excellent control and therefore feel less restricted in such a seat. Amateur riders like the security of the deeper seat.
8. Seat width
You need to consider three aspects of the broad part of the seat width: the actual width, the slope from the center to the edges, and the length. Susan Fletcher- Baker, a Qualified Master Saddler who handmakes saddles, finds that women’s seat bones are fairly close to the center of their bodies and are easily supported. She emphasizes that the saddle also needs to bear the inside thigh muscles and the fleshier part of a woman’s seat. If the saddle falls off too quickly toward the sides, and all the rider’s weight is supported only by the seat bones, she will experience fatigue and pain. If the wide part of the seat extends too far forward, it can force the rider into a chair seat. Look for the seat you feel will comfortably support you but also allow you to sit correctly.
Manufacturers’ saddles generally don’t fit all builds of horse. Similarly, their seat styles may or may not work for you. Most saddle companies try to vary seat styles within their lines, so if you find a saddle that fits your horse but makes you feel uncomfortable, check to see if there is another model with a similar tree and better seat for you. Some manufacturers are now making saddles specifically designed for women. Because of the great variation among women’s body types, however, these may or may not feel right for you. If you don’t find the best saddle fit for you at one company, move on. There are many excellent quality manufacturers and one will have the right saddle for you and your equine partner.
Finding the right saddle fit can be a challenge. Try not to get caught up in the saddle de jour, and take the time to evaluate your options. Just as you must kiss a lot of frogs before you find Prince Charming, you must also try as many saddles as you can before making your decision. It will make all the difference to your riding.
Ellen Fitzgerald is a saddle fit specialist living on the Front Range in Colorado. Trained by both English and Western Master Saddlers, she owns and rides horses and helps clients in Colorado and the Northwest. Ellen is independent and does not represent or sell any saddles because, as she says, “people and horses all have unique bodies… like jeans, saddles will not fit any of us the same way”. Visit her website at www.SaddleHands.com