I've been thinking about saddles lately. It's been a long time since they've entered my mind in a significant way. Prior to the start of my equestrian career, I thought of saddles as not much more than overpriced slabs of leather garnished with buckles and straps of ill-defined function. Riding changes your perception of such things.
In the old days, I divided saddles into two classes: heavy and light. The heavy saddles looked like they meant business. The light saddles looked like a scam. I shelled out plenty of money on light saddles, but I didn't see how they could possibly work. However, when it came to picking them up and lugging them here and there, the light saddles beat the heavy ones hands down. Since looking at saddles and carrying them around was about all I did with them, that's as far as my thinking needed to go.
Due to my system of saddle classification, dressage saddles got lumped in with other light saddles. Thus, when one of my girls asked me fetch an English saddle ("English" was their word for "light") I would often come back with a dressage saddle. And vice versa. They are the same I explained to them as patiently as possible.
Since coming over to this side of the fence, I have found it in my interest to make more careful distinctions and use proper terminology. The fact of the matter is I've become rather fond of the dressage saddle. Unlike the English saddle, it has outcropping ridges that speak directly to your thighs: "Stay where you are, thighs," the dressage saddle insists. And since the rest of the leg is connected to the thighs, this arrangement keeps the entire limb where it's supposed to be without a lot of extra thought and effort. I like that.
Then, along comes the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity once again: "Well, technically," they harrumph, "a dressage saddle is an English saddle.
So… I was right in the first place? I was more accurate when I didn't know anything than I am now that I know something?
A Better World
These days, I very much appreciate what saddles do for me in terms of performance and staying mounted. As an equestrian, I know that a world with saddles is better than a world without them. I don't understand bareback and I fear it.
As much as I appreciate saddles and all they have done for humanity's collective behind (waging war for instance, would have been a lot more awkward without saddles), I can't help but note that all saddles – both heavy and light – are designed to conform to a horse's back and not necessarily to the human form. Yes, we have that peculiar bi-pedal divide which serves to separate our legs, but this is more in the spirit of a triangle with a severe upper angle than the upside down "U" that is necessary to truly conform to a horse's anatomy. The difference between a triangle and an upside down "U" is why we get sore when we ride. That and the fact that we don't stretch as often as we should.
Again, I'm not complaining. I understand that first and foremost, the saddle must be secure on the horse for us to be secure on the saddle. Obviously, a triangle shaped saddle would spell disaster no matter how you apply it to the horse.
I'm reminded of my old cowboy and Indian figures I played with as a youngster. The riders had the upside down "U". I recall how their dismounted gait was a constant target of ridicule and source of amusement. They either had to go with the little two-legged hop (no bend in those hard plastic knees) or with a kind of sideways amble in which they progressed by repeatedly pivoting on one leg and swinging the other. It's difficult to take someone seriously when they walk like that.
Of course, in the long run, they were better off being shaped like that. They fit on the horses perfectly. You could shake them pretty hard and still not disengage the combo. What an awesome genetic advantage they had over the other ground-bound figures. After my first few riding lessons, I became envious of them.