Riding in a BALANCE saddle

It is not uncommon for people with no history of an injury to their back, hips or leg joints to suffer pain or discomfort when riding.

Often this is because there are many things about the way ‘Dressage’ is commonly taught that actually work against the human’s natural biomechanics. This is completely unnecessary and in fact, when the human body is strained, it has a negative impact on the horse as well, so is far from ideal for everybody. 

At BALANCE we specialise in Rider Biomechanics as well as Horse Biomechanics, because for the ridden horse, both are equally important. As such there's a lot of information we would be happy to share with you to help your riding to be a much more comfortable experience if you wish. Just get in touch via the Contact Us Page.   

There are many things that can help a rider to improve their balance and coordination when riding. Check out further FAQs on the subject in the 'Riding in a BALANCE Saddle' section:

  • Why is Tempo so important when Horse Riding?
  • The secret to balancing in rising/posting trot
  • What difference does stirrup length make?
  • Why does BALANCE sometimes refer to 'Feldenkrais'?
  • Can you help with Rider Bio-mechanics & Dismounted training for riders?
  • How does saddle length affect the rider
  • What style of saddle will best help my riding?
  • What is 'Natural Riding'
  • Rider Fitness
  • Can a BALANCE saddle improve my riding?
  • Can I use BALANCE pads to improve my riding?

This is such vital information for all riders, yet so few horse-people (professionals and leisure riders alike) actually know about it!

The horse's body is bio-mechanically designed to move at a certain tempo within each pace. When a rider understands and respects this, riding becomes so much easier for both horse and rider.

Getting it wrong can have massive ramifications both:

  • Short-term - relative to training and behavioural issues, and
  • Long-term - relative to the horse's overall health and well-being

For a closer look at this incredibly important topic, check out our article 'The Importance of Tempo' either in our Downloads Centre or by clicking below.

A lot actually!

If the stirrup length is too long, the rider will tend to:

  • Struggle with their own balance
  • Become braced in their body
  • Experience diminished confidence
  • Experience stress/pain in the hip joints, especially if riding in a saddle that is wide enough to accommodate the shape of a horse's healthy back
  • Be inclined to hollow the back which affects the balance of both horse and rider, and may lead to pain/discomfort in the rider's back

If the stirrup length is too short, the rider may:

  • Struggle with their balance
  • Struggle to avoid adopting a 'chair position' in the saddle (with the legs out to far in front of their body), in which case they will struggle to take responsibility for their own body-weight. In this case, the rider will feel heavier for the horse to carry and it will be harder for the horse to lift his back up underneath the rider as he needs to do during natural movement
  • End up with too much of their weight concentrated in the back of the saddle which can cause problems for the horse
  • Experience stress/pain/discomfort in the knee and ankle joints

Read on for a bit more detail...

Many dressage instructors are keen to encourage riders to adopt a longer straighter leg position. However, in many cases, this actually works very much against the rider in terms of their balance and the bio-mechanics of the human body. This is especially the case when riding in saddles that accommodate the true width of a horse...

The structure of the human pelvis and hip joint make it difficult to have the thighs pushed apart (as when riding astride a wide horse) and also have them straighter and longer with the knees pushed back.  This postural combination tends to put a lot of stress on the hip joints themselves and can encourage the rider to become hollow in the lower back, which can both lead to soreness and stiffness in the rider, so riding on a saddle that accommodates a horse's true width often needs the rider to sit more as they would when bareback, with a good degree of bend in the hip and knee joints.

Basically, the available rotation and movement in the hip joint means that the wider the base that you are sitting astride, the higher your knees need to be so that your sitting is the equivalent of a squat, where you are still balanced below your pelvis and above your pelvis.  If you try to ride with a longer stirrup with the knees lower and the thighs more perpendicular to the ground, it will force the thighs apart in a way that influences the lower back (hollowing) and rolls you forward onto your pubic arch instead of staying in a neutral arrangement in the pelvis.   This will also make the saddle feel a lot wider. With enough bend in your knees, the rider's lower leg will also come into easier contact with the horse's sides, so there should be no struggle.

So, using a length of stirrup that allows sufficient bend to the hip, knee and ankle joints enables the rider to:

  • Take better responsibility for their own balance - have you noticed that you never see a surfer riding the waves whilst standing straight-legged on a surf-board? This is because any movement of the board underneath would throw the surfer off balance. In the same way, for a rider to maintain good balance whilst sitting on top of a moving animal, they need some bend to their hip, knee and ankle joints. This is especially important when riding more unpredictable horses or when riding over undulating/more challenging terrain etc. when there's an increased chance of dramatic movements from the horse, but it is still very important even when riding a very steady horse quietly in an arena with a reliable surface.
  • Rise/post to the trot in better balance, which in turn makes things much easier and more comfortable for the horse - there's more info about this in the 'Riding in BALANCE Saddles' section of the FAQ Page.
  • Improve their confidence in the saddle. Because in the vast majority of cases, riding with longer straighter legs negatively affects the rider's balance, riding with better angles in the leg joints often improves rider confidence as their balance often dramatically improves as a result.
  • Reassure the horse - an unbalanced rider stresses the horse physically, and often mentally as well, whereas when rider's take positive steps to improve their balance, there's usually a dramatically positive effect on the horse's way of going, his physical body and on his mental/emotional state.

A quote from BALANCE Co-Founder, Lesley Taylor Brett (who at only 5ft tall, backed and trained many horses including many very tall and/or very wide horses)

"... What I had to learn was that having a longer stirrup length than was appropriate for my body and the width of the horse I was on, made me unstable in my seat and less effective as a rider.   I know that many instructors are keen to encourage the look of a longer leg for flat-work and dressage training, but there is no benefit to the horse if it compromises the effectiveness, balance, co-ordination and comfort of the rider."

So, next time you are struggling with your balance in the saddle, or are experiencing pain or discomfort in your body during/after riding, just remember that there are many things about the way ‘Dressage’ is commonly taught that actually works against natural human biomechanics. Experimenting with a slightly shorter stirrup length may be of great help to both you and your horse because when the human body is strained, it has a negative impact on the horse as well.

Many riders struggle to maintain their balance in rising, or posting, trot, and often its actually because of a simple misunderstanding in the way they have been taught...

In order for the seat to be light (which is essential if the rider is to avoid banging down on the horse's back) and balanced in rising/posting trot, or when in a forward position for faster work outside and jumping, the riders body needs to be organised so that their head and pelvis are equal distances in front and behind their feet as shown in the diagram here.

Above are images showing how even when riding with longer stirrups it's important to keep the head and pelvis equally distant from the feet in order to maintain balance.

Exercise 1

Letting the head come forwards, and the pelvis go backwards, enables the rider to sit lightly in rising/posting trot
Keeping the body too upright will cause the rider to lose balance and land heavily on the horse

The best way to practice keeping the body balanced like this in rising/posting trot is dismounted, using a chair of a comfortable height, as shown above. By allowing the head and shoulders to come forwards and the pelvis to push back as you sit you will discover that it enables you to sit much more lightly on the chair (and the horse) and to maintain your balance. 

Exercise 2

Practice rising and lowering without allowing the knees to move away from the chair

The second exercise is to practice going up and down in the same way as in Exercise 1 (taking care not to squat too low for your current level of strength and fitness), but this time with your knees in contact with the front of the chair as shown here...

If the knees come away from the chair as you go 'up', or rise, you will find that your lower leg swings forwards as you rise when on the horse, whereas by taking care not to allow the knees to lose contact with the chair during the exercise, you will find that when doing the same thing on a horse, your lower leg will be much stiller and more stable.

The reason we use short girth straps as standard on most of our saddles is for a couple of reasons.

  • 1st.   In our experience, most horses show a preference for a long girth over a short girth when given the opportunity to try both.   I think this is often because in many cases the short dressage girths are so short that they have their buckles sitting over an area that is often sensitive to pressure,  behind and just above the horse’s elbow.   Depending on the design  of the girth, the buckles tend to widen the girth out, just at the point where the elbow is moving back into the area.   This can inhibit the horse and train it to shorten its stride.
  • 2nd  Using long girth billets and a short girth is not a stable an arrangement as short billets and a good, long girth. With very wide horses that need saddles that are very wide and flat, the issue of lateral stability for the rider can be common.  

It may help to experiment with the length of the girth you use, but in most cases, if the buckles sit in behind the bend of your knees, they don’t get in the way.   The standard buckle guards on a BALANCE saddle are quite thick so you could see if you can find some thinner ones which might make a difference.  

However the most important thing to check is that you are not trying to ride with your legs too straight/long. When riding particularly wide horses, it is essential that you keep your stirrup length short enough to keep a good degree of flex/bend in your knee, hip and ankle joints.   You must not be persuaded to ride with a straighter/longer leg position than is appropriate for the width of the saddle/horse and your own physique.   If your stirrup length is too long for you, your own bio-mechanics will be in conflict and it will feel difficult. For more information about this, you may wish to refer to the Question 'What difference does stirrup length make?' in the 'Riding in a BALANCE Saddle' section of the FAQ page.

Having said all of this, if you decide to change the straps on your BALANCE saddle, please let us know so that we can update our records.    As long as the saddler only swaps the leather straps and does not remove the panels of the saddle (there is no need to do this as the webbing is long enough for the saddler to hand stitch new straps to) it will not impact on the manufacturer’s warranty.

Yes! Many riders have habits such as (to name a few):

  • Habitually riding with more weight on one seat bone than the other
  • Bracing into the stirrups
  • A twisted or crooked posture
  • Driving with the seat
  • Being too strong with the reins
  • Trying to force the horse into a certain posture
  • Hollowing the back and tipping onto the pubic bone

Conventional saddle fitting often masks these issues because the saddle is fitted relatively tightly onto the horse's back. As such, it will often remain in place despite serious rider imbalances or habits (or even when a cow pulls against it as in the case of horses used for roping!) This may sound like a good thing, but what often happens is that the horse is left trying to cope with the problem, while the rider remains blissfully unaware of it.

You do not need to be an experienced rider to ride in a BALANCE saddle, in fact, there are riding schools that use nothing else, but if you have habitual patterns in your body that are working against the horse, it's far more likely to show up when using Functional Saddling than conventional saddling. For example, if you have a tendency to drive with the seat, or to throw your weight to one side when you ride, there's a good chance you will start to push a BALANCE forwards a bit, or to take it slightly to the side. This may seem a very annoying thing to happen, but when a rider is willing to use the saddle as an indicator of problems that they are causing for the horse, then it becomes a tremendous tool in improving your skills, awareness and sensitivity as a rider.

In the past, we have known riding instructors use the balance pads to change the balance of a saddle in order to help 'correct' riding posture. An example of this is using a pad under the back of the saddle in an attempt to counteract a rider's habit of adopting a 'chair position' (a chair position is where the rider's legs tend to be too far out in front of them, rather than underneath them as they should be).

HOWEVER, it is really important NOT to do this because it will always change the balance of the saddle for the horse. In the case described above where extra padding was put under the back of the saddle, the imbalance of the saddle will tend to tip the horse onto the forehand.

Check out more articles in the 'Riding in a BALANCE Saddle' section of our FAQ page for ideas on how to improve rider posture in a horse-friendly way instead. 

BALANCE Co-Founders Carol Brett and Lesley Taylor-Brett were both very successful horse trainers and riding teachers/coaches long before they got involved in the design and application of better methods of saddling.  

At a time when it was still considered unusual, they both had an interest in understanding the way human and equine bodies need to function, in order to stay healthy, mobile and safe. 

This interest and curiosity led them to explore The Alexander Technique, Centred Riding, Yoga and Pilates, all of which play a role in helping riders to develop or retain a body and movement awareness that can improve their riding skills. 

However, it was the meeting with Feldenkrais Teacher Vreni Booth, very soon after the BALANCE organisation was formed in 1993, that had one of the biggest impacts on their knowledge and teaching skills.

Although the work with saddles basically took over Carol and Lesley’s lives, their love of teaching never stopped and continued for Carol until her death in 2018 and continues for Lesley, with a select group of people, when time allows.  As Carol used to say… ”you cannot separate the influence of the saddle from the influence of the rider.  They are linked.”

One of the biggest reasons for saddles to be designed and fitted in ways that damage horses, is that too many riders lack the skills and levels of fitness needed to ride with an independent seat! 

When this happens, the rider tends to start looking to the saddle to cover up their lack of stability, balance, co-ordination etc.   Too many saddle makers, sellers and fitters fall into the trap of trying to accommodate the demands of  crooked, stiff, over-weight, under-fit riders because they need them to hand over their money.  Unfortunately, many of the ways that they try to make the saddle work for riders like this, take away from the comfort and freedom of the horses they ride!

For example:

  • Deep seats to support a weak rider who has little control over their own balance and stability.
  • Recessed stirrup bars to avoid the rider feeling any raised area under their legs
  • Point Straps to lock the saddle into the soft tissue behind the shoulder blades to prevent the rider from driving it up the horse’s neck.
  • Deliberate uneven flocking, to make the crooked rider feel level but then trap the horse into a lopsided way of using its body
  • Narrow Twist saddles to create an artificially narrow feel for the rider that bares no resemblance to the actual shape/width of their horse
  • Tree widths chosen by saddle fitters that are considerably narrower than the horse’s actual body shape, to create an artificially narrow feel for the rider, but creating excessive pressures, discomfort and restriction for the horse.

The line that BALANCE has taken, is to maintain the comfort and health of the horse as its priority and encourage riders to commit to developing the awareness and skills they need to ride in saddles that support and protect their horses.    This is why BALANCE saddles tend to look simple in their design with flatter seats, no point straps and are in widths that reflect the shapes found in healthy, well-muscled horses.

Refusing to provide horse-damaging saddle features and fitting methods, in order to make a sale, means that BALANCE Saddles and Saddling will never be accepted or chosen by every rider, but when riders decide to put their horse’s needs first, they need encouragement and support.

To this end, we would encourage anyone who rides, to commit to developing and maintaining a good level of fitness, body-awareness, balance and co-ordination in whatever ways they can.  

The Feldenkrais Method is definitely a wonderful way for riders to do this and provides the tools needed for continuous self-evaluation and learning, during every riding session.  Including:

  • Improving rider self-awareness
  • Helping rider's to let go of old patterns within the body and rediscover balance, alignment and softness
  • Helping riders to move with the horse instead of against him
  • Helping riders to feel at ease in the saddle and no longer struggling to maintain a riding good position
  • Reducing rider pain and/or stiffness

It was particularly helpful for Carol and Lesley to work with Vreni Booth, because she had no previous experience of working with horses or riders at that time. It meant that her teaching and guidance was in no way influenced by pre-conceived ideas of how people should ride or how horses should move. 

If you are interested in finding out more about the Feldenkrais Method, you can view the UK Feldenkrais Guild Website here, and Feldenkrais.com here.

Some of the BALANCE registered Team Members have also spent time training with Vreni Booth and incorporate what they have learned from her in their teaching (and where appropriate/necessary, during Saddle Consultations). Vreni still runs clinics for riders in the Preston area from time to time, usually organised by BrSC Abigail Rowland.

Some of the BALANCE registered Team Members do run clinics or offer individual training relative to Rider Bio-mechanics and offer Dismounted Training for Riders.

There are none of these clinics running from BALANCE HQ at the moment due to other projects we're involved with. This may change later in the year, but in the meantime it's well worth contacting any BALANCE registered Team Members in your area if you are interested in this in case they can help you. You are also very welcome to Contact the Office for an update if you wish.

You may also wish to read, "Why does BALANCE sometimes refer to Feldenkrais?' also in the 'Riding in a BALANCE Saddle' section of our FAQ page.

Saddle length is extremely important, from the horse's point of view, but also for the rider. If the saddle is too long, the rider can feel a bit 'lost' in it. For most riders, at least under certain circumstances, it is important to have some degree of support or reference points from a saddle.

If the saddle is too short for the rider:

  • Their weight will tend to be concentrated too much over the back of the saddle, instead of being spread evenly, as it should be, along the length of the panels. This can cause discomfort or even pain to the horse, and may trigger reflex points which cause his back to hollow and hind legs to disengage.
  • It will inhibit the correct use of the rider's pelvis/hip joints.

It is not unusual for a rider, who has ridden in a 17.5" saddle and found it comfortable to think that she will always need this length of saddle, regardless off the saddle make, style or width of the saddle. However, these are relevant and important factors that do make a difference.

One example of this is that because the BALANCE trees differ from traditional saddle trees in order to accommodate the width and shape of a healthy equine back when moving in a bio-mechanically correct way, they ‘feel’ smaller to the rider than they measure

We determine the seat size and tree length and shape by:

  • Observing what the horse and rider are currently using for a saddle.
  • Assessing whether the horse is in good physical health and muscle development, in which case a maintenance saddling approach is OK, or whether the horse us underdeveloped, muscle wasted and needs a Remedial Saddling Approach.
  • Looking at the shape of the rider, the way they ride and knowing what they want to do with the horse.
  • Looking at the size and shape of the horse and noticing how well they are trained because this can make a difference to the length of saddle/tree that it can comfortably wear.
  • Observing the horse and its rider in action in their current saddle and then in BALANCE saddle/s.
  • Taking into account the style of saddle that suits the rider best.

This is all done either by having a BALANCE registered Team Member come to see you and your horse, or via a Distant Consultation method followed by a Saddle Sampling arrangement where available.

There's more information about seat lengths in the 'BALANCE Saddle 'Fitting'' section of the FAQ page.

You may also wish to check out 'What is the secret to rising/posting to the trot in balance?' in the 'Riding in BALANCE Saddles' section for information about the correct use of the rider's pelvis/hip joints as mentioned above.

Please refer to 'What Style of BALANCE Saddle do I need?' in the 'BALANCE Saddle Fitting' section of the FAQ Page.

In actual fact, "...There never has been, and never will be, any such things as 'Natural Riding'. The very term is an oxymoron..."

To find out why, check out this article (below, or in the Downloads Centre) written by Lesley Taylor-Brett about the need for ridden horses to be 'Super-Natural'...

Our saddles have been used for many years with very good results by people doing long distance trail riding for pleasure and endurance competition, including rides like the Golden Horseshoe Ride here in the UK and the Tevis Cup in the USA.  However, the owners of the horses involved had a good understanding of the importance of training and riding their horses in a way that encourages a certain level of collection and engagement during training and even during long rides.

This picture shows one of our clients doing the Tevis Cup in the USA in her BALANCE saddle; she finished well and with the horse getting a high condition rating.

However, there are definitely some aspects of the way many horses are ridden and trained in long distance riding that conflict with the basic principles of why we do what we do with saddles, so we'd recommend you click on the document below if you are interested in using Functional Saddling for this sort of activity.

Some people like to combine arena work, with trail riding on a long rein because they are under the impression that trail riding in this way is somehow 'kinder' and will require less effort from the horse physically and mentally than the arena work, where they are focused on good bio-mechanically correct movement. However, it is really important to understand that any time a horse is moving, he/she is designed to have a degree of engagement (where the hind legs coming further under the horse's body to off-load weight from the forehand).  Sadly, a lot of people associate engagement with stress of the horse or being demanding/forceful, yet without engagement during movement, the horse's body comes under excessive and unnatural strain (even without a rider - exaggerated further with a rider).

When a horse is ridden on a long rein, he/she receives no help from the rider to maintain an engaged posture so his/her body starts to follow the line of least resistance. This means that the rider's weight forces the horse down and forwards onto the forehand which is not designed to take that sort of weight (the hind quarters can strengthen to safely carry additional weight without damage to the structures). 

A lot of people have the impression that riding on a long rein offers relief to a horse and that it is necessary/beneficial in terms of the horse's mental and emotional well-being.  That belief has most likely come about because when a horse is ridden in a conventionally fitted saddle, the saddle actually gets in the way of natural engagement of the hind-quarters, so when a rider insists on engagement in a conventionally fitted saddle, it stresses the horse and therefore there would be some relief in a long rein in those circumstances. 

However, what horse's really need is equipment that allows them to move as nature intended and to be ridden in a constructive and supportive way. There is no reason a horse should feel restricted or that the 'fun' is being taken out of the ridden work by maintaining engagement.  Rather engagement allows the horse to carry a rider much more comfortably and with minimised stress to the body so enjoyment can increase! 

We encourage riders to tend to the horse's engagement just as much when out on the trails as in the arena for the sake of the comfort of the horse and preservation of the horse's biomechanical structures.  It takes time to help the horse to adjust their posture once it has become distorted and then more time still for the horse to become strong again and established in their more natural, biomechanically correct posture.  After that, even more time is needed to enable them to build up stamina and strength in order to maintain good posture whilst carrying the additional weight of a rider for longer periods of time, yet this is a good foundation well-worth establishing. 

During the process (just as all other times) it's very important to pay attention to any signs that the horse is beginning to struggle and then tend to the problem (such getting off and leading the horse if he is getting tired, slowing the tempo if it has become too fast for the horse's balance, tending to straightness if the horse has become crooked etc.). Horses have evolved to be incredibly good at masking discomfort and strain and it is this ability that has helped keep them alive in the wild, so it's important to be sensitive and alert to subtle signs of stress in the horse at all times, and especially when riding.