The role of the seat
Text: Christie Wolhuter
Exclude these first
The first factors to rule out are unsoundness and saddle fit issues. Unsound horses may shorten up their stride in various ways, and this can lead to your saddle slipping. For example, one shoulder dropping more than the other will cause the saddle to move to one side more than the other, and over time during your ride, it may start to sit in that direction. Once your vet or therapist has checked out your horse, you can start to look further into other possible causes.
Next, you need to check that your saddle is fitting your horse correctly. A saddle that fits your horse well should not slip much at all. However, it is worth noting that on very wide horses, even with well-fitting saddles, we may see more saddle slip because their lack of wither allows for the saddle to move more from side to side.
So what are the most common causes of saddle slip? Below I break down some of the most common causes and give quick tips on how to work on it.
When horses move, their ribcage swings from side to side. As the hind load-bearing foot takes up the load and pushes back, the ribcage will swing to the other side. The saddle sits on the horse’s ribcage (which is mobile) and the withers are part of the spine (which is relatively fixed). This means the saddle moves with the horse as part of normal movement.
There may be instances where your horse’s ribcage may swing more to one side than the other. This can be due to unevenness in the thrust of the hind legs and unequal muscle development in the pelvis. This is not necessarily unsoundness but is most likely due to a phenomenon known as ‘natural crookedness’. A horse’s natural crookedness means they have a side that they prefer to bend to, and they bend more easily in this direction. Now, this natural crookedness is a very normal thing and is nothing to be concerned about. However, there are things you can do to ‘straighten’ your horse out and make the ribcage swing and the bend more symmetrical. Straightness training and good lateral work in dressage schooling can be powerful tools to help even out muscle development, which in turn can help make your horse more symmetrical. Symmetrical horses are less likely to experience saddle slip!
Managing ribcage swing if uneven or excessive
Now, to throw a spanner into the works, a rider can also have a sort of natural crookedness or side preference. This is not a great predictor of injury for the rider, but it can make it more difficult for our horses to carry us evenly. This usually manifests as one side of our backs and hips being slightly shorter and not quite as strong as the other. Now how does this affect our horses? One of my favourite analogies is to imagine carrying a heavy child on your shoulders. Say that child leans heavily over to the right; to prevent both of you falling over, you will have to step out to the right to catch the weight of the child. The same can be viewed in the saddle. Constant leaning to one side can make our horses battle to hold themselves, and us, upright. Is your horse cutting the corner on the right rein? Maybe you are leaning heavily over to the right, unbalancing both of you. In my practice, I usually find there are two types of rider lean in terms of the seat. Firstly, the rider heavily weights one seat bone more than the other or one stirrup more than the other, and secondly, the rider shifts the torso and shoulders over to one side more than the other. Some riders do both, and any lean at all can lead to saddle slip.
Firstly, let’s have a look at seat bones. It is important to note that some higher-level dressage movements require the weighting of one seat bone more than the other, but for this article, we will be referring to basic schooling and its effect on saddle slip.
How do we know if we are weighting our seat bones unevenly? Firstly, halt your horse and relax your body position. Do you notice that you have more weight or pressure in one seat bone? This test is more about feel than anything else. If so, try and lengthen the side of your back and drop the seat bone that feels less pressure into the saddle. It may feel strange at first, but keep practising it. This same exercise can be done at the walk, and at sitting trot can be useful too. You can also have a trainer or friend look and see if your pelvis is level from behind.
Another way to unbalance your horse is to push down on one stirrup more than the other. Your stirrups may be the same length, but it is very possible you are leaning on one more than the other one. This is often a very subtle habit that we are unaware of.
How do we find out if we are leaning on one stirrup excessively? Again, it comes down to feel and possibly feedback from someone on the ground. In term of feel, we want the balls of the feet to have similar pressure on them when in the stirrups. If you feel a lot of weight on the ball of one foot, it is likely you are leaning on it heavily.
Trunk and shoulder lean
What do we do about trunk and shoulder lean? Again, some gaits require more lean from the trunk when riding, but we want that lean to be minor, not extreme. The easiest way to see your level of lean is to look at yourself in a dressage mirror or have someone film you from the ground. What feels straight to you may not look so straight in the video!
Take home message
Fine-tuning your seat has genuine benefits and is worth the effort. Your horse will feel more balanced for it, and it should result in a lot less saddle slip.