Riders are more stable without saddle flaps, researchers find

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Different saddle flap configurations. Top: A conventional saddle with two flaps showing the outer flap (left) and outer flap raised to show the underlying sweat flap and girth tabs (right). Middle: A single-flap saddle showing the outer surface of the flap (left) and with the flap raised (right). Bottom: A flapless saddle without a pad (left) and with a pad (right). Images: Clayton et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196960
Different saddle flap configurations. Top: A conventional saddle with two flaps showing the outer flap (left) and outer flap raised to show the underlying sweat flap and girth tabs (right). Middle: A single-flap saddle showing the outer surface of the flap (left) and with the flap raised (right). Bottom: A flapless saddle without a pad (left) and with a pad (right). Images: Clayton et al. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196960

Flaps have been integral to saddle design for generations, but do they aid rider stability?

The main purpose of a saddle is to improve the rider’s safety, security, and comfort, while distributing the forces exerted by the rider and saddle over a large area of the horse’s back without focal pressure points.

A conventional saddle has two flaps: a sweat flap next to the horse’s ribcage upon which the girth straps are located, and a second flap attached outside the sweat flap, with the stirrup leathers on its outer surface.

A single flap saddle has girth straps that emerge from its underside and the stirrup leathers lie on the outside.

Advantages ascribed to a single flap saddle include a reduction in saddle weight and closer contact between the rider’s leg and the horse’s ribcage.

The flapless saddle is an innovative concept that goes a stage further, placing the rider’s legs even closer to the sides of the horse, separated only by a soft, cushioned saddle pad in the thigh region.

The girth straps and stirrup leathers drape around the saddle pad that is anchored securely to the panels of the saddle and extends over the upper part of the horse’s ribcage on each side.

Hilary Clayton and her colleagues set out to investigate the effects on rider stability of a flapless saddle.

Five horses, all in fulltime dressage training, were ridden by their regular rider in their usual saddle and then in a flapless saddle.

A pressure mat between the saddle and the horse’s back was used to determine the position of the center of pressure.

In all cases, information was gathered as the horses were ridden at a collected and extended walk, trot and canter in a straight line to determine any differences between the conventional and flapless saddles.

Speed and stride length of each gait did not differ between saddles, the research team reported in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

Compared with the conventional saddle, the flapless saddle resulted in significant reductions in the range of sideways motion of the rider’s center of pressure in all gaits, and less forward and backward motion during the collected trot, extended trot and extended canter.

This improved stability was thought to result from the absence of saddle flaps allowing the rider’s thighs to lie closer together, which facilitated the action of the lumbopelvic-hip musculature in stabilizing and controlling translations and rotations of the pelvis and trunk.

The closer contact between rider and horse may also have augmented the transfer of information by touch, they said.

“In conclusion,” they said, “the use of a flapless saddle that allowed closer contact of the rider’s legs with the sides of the horse’s ribcage significantly improved rider stability, particularly in the mediolaterial [sideways] direction.”

The rider was also better able to control movements of the centre of pressure in the anteroposterior (forward and backward) direction, most notably in the trot, in which large longitudinal braking and propulsive forces are applied, they noted.

“The results suggest that further investigations of horse conformation, rider morphology, and their interaction with different types of equipment are warranted.”

Discussing the study, the researchers said: “The coupling between horse and rider via the saddle affects not only the movements of the rider’s centre of pressure but also the movements of the entire horse-rider system.”

They said the flapless saddle, which offers closer contact between the rider’s legs and the horse, and the associated reduction in range of movement of the rider’s centre of pressure, indicates a more tightly controlled system.

This could be a result of changes in rider kinematics resulting in favourable muscular and biomechanical adaptations, or it could be associated with better information as a result of closer contact of the rider’s legs with the horse, they said.

The study team comprised Clayton, from Michigan State University: Alexandra Hampson, from Happy Athlete Sport Therapy in Yellowknife, Canada; Peter Fraser, from Pete Fraser Consulting in Oakland, California; Arlene White, from the Animal Rehab Institute in Loxahatchee, Florida; and Agneta Egenvall, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden.

Clayton HM, Hampson A, Fraser P, White A, Egenvall A (2018) Comparison of rider stability in a flapless saddle versus a conventional saddle. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0196960. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196960

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can he read here.

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