Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I'm working through a mass of information, inspiration, and thought. I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend come to stay at my farm to give some clinics in balanced riding, saddle fitting and ground work. To say the least, this encounter has provided food for thought on a number of fronts. I'd like to clarify something first: I've had horses for about twenty years now, all of them in Egypt. I took proper riding lessons from about the age of eight to twelve and all the riding that I've done since then has been without proper supervision other than 18 months of informal dressage lessons that I took with a friend about 13 years ago. I've been out of touch with virtually all the equestrian trends in North America for as long as I've owned horses. At the same time, my academic background in social psychology and interest in animal behaviour has been very useful in helping my horses to teach me about them. Perhaps other people might not have found so much revelation in this learning experience, but then other people aren't writing this blog.
One of the basic points that really knocked me over was the fact that horses were never made for people to ride them. That may seem truly elementary, but to a genetically horse-mad person like myself it was like a bolt of lightning. Our clinician, Zsuzsu Illes, was explaining the theory behind saddle construction to a group of us with a drawing on one of my horses. The back of the horse is like a suspension bridge, to quote Zsuzsu, created to carry the belly of the horse underneath the spine. The musculature of the back is there to provide locomotion to the horse, not to carry the sometimes considerable weight of a rider. The saddle is intended to spread the rider's weight across the back so as not to harm the horse.
Every so often one runs across an idea that knocks the years of experience for a loop. The thought that horses were not created to be ridden was one of those. Oh, I know that horses were domesticated over centuries and that riding as a discipline has developed over the centuries, but somewhere inside my soul was a horse-mad little girl who "just knew" that horses existed to be ridden. In fact, when examined seriously and without the madness, the concept that riding a horse is a somewhat unnatural act has a lot of evidence and induces wonder at the kindness of these large creatures who willingly place themselves at our beck and call. But I recall watching my last crop of youngsters starting out to carry riders. They'd been introduced to everything but a steady pressure on their backs and they were very calm for experiencing their first time under saddle. However, their steps were tentative and it was clear that one of the issues was one of balance, not so much their own alone, but that of the rider on their backs.
Recalling the horses' concerns for their ability to balance with a rider on their backs, and the design of saddles that rest on the muscles for the locomotion for the horse, the realisation of the importance of saddle fit hit me like a truck. Up to that point, the question of saddle fit had been something that I would skirt gingerly like an angry snake. In a country where virtually every saddle has been imported by someone who never had a chance to try it on a horse, what were the odds that all of my saddles would be shown to cripple my horses? Very scary thought. But Zsuzsu put my fears to rest to the extent that she could.
I have about 19 riding horses (and some youngsters still not under saddle) and about 10 saddles. Ideally, each horse and rider would have a saddle that is perfect for the combination of the two. But I have many people riding my horses so the best that I can do is try to have each horse have at least one saddle that fits him/her relatively well. After spending a couple of days trying saddles on horses, I can say that I have one saddle that doesn't fit anyone at all, and a number of horses who can use a variety of saddles with varying degrees of success. The trick to this lies in the gazillion pads that we already had on hand and the three new ones that I bought from Zsuzsu. Almost none of my saddles are perfect, but with the right combinations of pads, we reach a decent level of comfort. Considering that three of the saddles were expensive American custom fit endurance saddles (the saddlemaker fit the horses herself on a visit here years ago), one might hope for at least three horses with a perfect fit, but horses, just like us, change shape over time and now these saddles don't fit perfectly.
As we moved on to the riding clinics I found more saddle fit revelations. I was aware of pinching, rubbing, and so on as issues in saddle fit but I hadn't thought about the way that a saddle could balance or unbalance a rider. As the clinic photographer I had plenty of time to notice and think about the issues that Zsuzsu brought up. Like myself, the riders who came were people who had either bought new saddles in the hopes that they would fit existing horses or they were people who had found used saddles that more or less fit their horses. The fit could be fiddled with the right kinds of pads, but in many cases the effect on the rider of a saddle that wasn't really the right one for the horse or the rider was unfortunate. A jumping style saddle could affect the balance pulling the rider's knee forward until the heels were no longer under the hips, creating an imbalance. If the seat of the saddle was too small, or tipped the rider either forward or back, the same thing could happen.
I ride horses a lot. It's how I make my (and my horses') living. But I have never really thought as much about how I ride as I did during those two weeks with Zsuzsu. It was rather like surviving a mental tsunami. When she and I went out for a ride for fun, I started laughing about half an hour into the ride and told her she'd ruined riding for me because now I was thinking about all the things that I was doing wrong. I was only partly kidding. Nothing could ruin riding for me. It's my sanity, my joy, and I'm most alive when I'm in the saddle...to say nothing of the fact that only there do my arthritic knees not bother me. And it wasn't a bad thing to bring myself back to the consciousness that my horses were not created to carry me, although they do so very willingly, and that it is therefore my responsibility to make their work as pleasant and painless as possible.
copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani