As shoulder pads are replaced by dolman sleeves only to be replaced again by shoulder pads…and English Country style is replaced by minimalism is replaced by Cottage Chic…as bistro food gives way to nouvelle cuisine gives way to comfort food, what goes around comes around.

And so it is with dressage saddles.  As it reaches its superstructured, overstuffed and over-intellectualized limit, the Ubersaddle may have reached the end of its useful life.  

Passier’s Freemove Dynamic

What makes me think so?  The new, old-fashioned saddle from Passier — The Freemove Dynamic Dressage Saddle, the popularity of the Stubben endorsed by Catherine Haddad, and the louder and ever-louder “buzz” from people discovering or rediscovering the joys of riding in closer contact.

I think every rider wants to be the best rider he or she can be, and an Ubersaddle can make it — or appear to make it — easier.  A superstructured saddle puts a rider’s seat and legs exactly where they’re supposed to be in order to be effective.  Unfortunately, once they’re there, that’s exactly where they’re staying.  Which prevents riders from moving with their horses.  

The problems usually arise at the trot, when you see bobbing heads and rocking torsos and undulating lower backs, because the movement of the horse has to be absorbed somewhere in the riders’ body, and if the legs and seat are blocked, the movement will come out somewhere else.  At canter, an Ubersaddle with too small a sweet spot can make even a good rider bounce her buns up and down in the saddle like a beginner.

When riders feel they need to improve their positions, they’re blocked in that effort by the blocks and deep seats of their Ubersaddles — the very things that gave them the illusion of having a better seat than they actually had. That’s when the rubber hits the road, as they say.  How can you alter your position if you can’t move?  And how can you improve the biomechanics if the mechanics have no motion?

It’s not just lower level dressage riders who are suffering.  Recently, I saw an upper level competitor riding in a new saddle.  It was beautiful.  It was clearly custom.  It had long, exposed blocks that perfectly matched the angle of her thighs and extended to the bottoms of her kneecaps.  She had a perfect position at the halt, her diminutive derriere nestled in the deepest part of the saddle, with the high cantle rising elegantly behind her.  If she put her hand behind her back, she’d have the three fingers’ worth of clearance she is supposed to have.  Except that in the case of the Ubersaddle, this measurement doesn’t matter, because the rise of the cantle is so steep, it doesn’t correspond in any way to the room the rider has in the seat.

Legs which have a minimal angle at the knee may be long and elegant, but are less effective in absorbing the movement, because the knee can’t absorb much movement if the angle is too open (ask any jumper), and the hip joint can’t absorb much motion if the leg can’t swing back and forth a bit because it’s held back as far as it can be by the Uberblock of an Ubersaddle.

Not only does the restriction of the Ubersaddle cause the bobbing heads and rocking torsos and all the other unfortunate compensations for a limited range of motion in the lower part of the body it also prevents us from seeing the “invisible aids” we used to see, which were only possible in saddles that allowed a fuller range of motion on the part of the rider.  Ironic?  Yes, but biomechanically sound.

It’s not that I’m against knee blocks or deep seats or even a really wide gullet, if the saddle fits the horse.  I love riding in my Hennig, and it certainly qualifies as an Ubersaddle.  But I don’t employ those exposed blocks as thigh and knee rests.  I use them the way a rider in a ring uses the rail — they’re a guide to where my leg should be, and if my thigh or knee touches them, it’s a reminder to put my leg back where it belongs.  But I don’t have a long femur and I’m petite, so it’s easier for me to use the blocks as reminders not restrictors.

Even though I ride in a 16.5″ close contact saddle (unless it’s a Tad Coffin), my Hennig is an 18″.  It’s the only way I can get a “sweet spot” large enough in the deep-seated Hennig to allow me to move when my horse moves.  If I’m riding in a non-Ubersaddle, I’m in a 17″ or maybe a 17 1/2″.

That’s part of the problem with choosing an Ubersaddle and why riders end up locked in while riding.  If you normally ride in a 17″ or an 18″ close contact, you’ll need a larger seat size in an Ubersaddle, in order to give you the larger sweet spot you need.  And that 19″ or 20″ or larger Ubersaddle may sit too far back on your horse’s loin for comfort or safety.  So you compromise, and put yourself in a smaller saddle than you need.  And that’s when all the trouble begins.

There are other Ubsersaddle problems as well.  There’s nothing wrong with having a wide gullet, but depending on your horse’s conformation, a wide gullet can be too wide, just as a narrow gullet can be too narrow.  Some of the Ubersaddles have such wide gullets that the weight of the saddle rests directly on top of the horse’s ribs, and applies pressure to the connective tissue atop those ribs.  I’m sure this effect is counteracted by the large surface area and the cushiness of the overstuffed panels, but this is far from the perfect solution for saddle fitting.

The same is true of the much-vaunted gussetted panel and the claims that gussetted panels are best for the horse’s back because there is more weight distribution on the panels.  Well, that isn’t necessarily true either.  There are horses with curved backs that go better in ungussetted panels and there are even horses with flat backs but a lot of bounce in the back that prefer ungussetted, upswept panels.

The fact is that horses are built differently and move differently and probably have different likes and dislikes for the way things feel on them, just the way we do.  There are many different theories underlying saddle design and saddle fit, but the horse is always right.  It seems to me that there are more back problems than ever, though, since the advent of saddles that are supposed to solve that very problem.

Which is why it’s nice to see a new saddle with some of the old solutions.  The Passier Freemove boasts a flat seat and pencil knee rolls and it’s got a fairly thin, non-gussetted panel.   It also comes in three shades of brown, which as we know, is the new black.  Passier says the saddle was developed in cooperation with Antje Bandholz, whom Passier calls the famous French “equestrianism” trainer but whose website is in German.  There are a lot of references to Baucher on her home page along with Leichtigkeit (lightness), so that explains the “French” reference.

I’m wondering…do any of my readers remember that there were “saddles made for women” long before Schleese made the claim?  Twenty years ago, it was Albion’s claim to fame, when the saddles were still known as Mansion House.  What goes around comes around.

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