WOW Saddles – Wow or Woah?

Firstly, apologies for the quiet blog this week, the piece I wrote on Thursday seems to have disappeared into the ether… I will retrieve it. But in the meantime, here’s today’s post.

Last weekend I enjoyed a very informative day at a Horses Inside Out seminar. So much to take in, I felt like I’d just had a full day of A-level exams! Anyway, I have lots of new knowledge to impart to my clients, and some subjects to discuss on here too. Where to start?

How about with the warm up act, a lecture from the WOW saddle man.

Have you heard of WOW saddles? In fear of you getting bogged down in their blurb, here’s a link to their website , but I’ll surmise it for you here. WOW saddles are based on the flair system of flocking saddles with pockets of air instead of traditional wool, and each style of saddle has a number of different options, such as tree shape, stirrup bar position, knee roll position, which enables horse and rider individuality to be taken into account. Possibly an easier method of creating bespoke saddles than the traditional way? Imagine it to be like going into IKEA and building your own wardrobe from the different options available to you.

This seems like a pretty good approach to saddle fitting. But it is unfortunately outside the budget of the majority of horse owners, and doesn’t lead to a second hand market.

Next, let’s discuss the flair system. By using air to flock a saddle you can make small adjustments easily, and adjust the saddle while it is on the horse and the rider is mounted. Sounds great. I’m led to wonder, however; how often do the air bags need “pumping up” and do they have a limited life expectancy? Do owners “top up” the air themselves? And what is the effect of putting in too much air? Or indeed, riding when they’re flat?

I’m no saddler, but as far as I understand, flocking with traditional wool puts a solid (albeit with tiny air pockets) into the panels of the saddle until the saddle is balanced and fits the horse. Over time, the flocking settles down, compresses, and moulds to the horse’s shape. You’ve seen the dips in your favourite sofa from where you always snuggle up. Saddlers add flocking if necessary when they check the saddle fit, and if there’s any dense bits of flocking, or if the flocking is old and ineffective (take a feel of those ancient stubben saddles on the top rack in the tack room) they can remove all the flocking and replace it with new. I digress. I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, that wool flocking settles around the shape of the horse to a certain extent. Which enables saddles to be close contact and for riders to really feel their horse’s movement.

Air is a gas, and if you squash a gas, the particles migrate to other areas, which causes an increase in density of the particles, which increases pressure. Here’s a little animation for you.

So when a rider applies pressure to the air flocked saddle, when they sit on it, they’re increasing the pressure in the panels. And if they aren’t sat in a balanced manner, they’ll increase pressure in different areas of the panel, potentially causing sore spots on the horse. Equally, the pressure in the panels is just as likely to send energy up through the rider’s seat, causing back pain, and creating an unstable seat for them to balance on. I’m trying, but failing, to find the research online I heard about yesterday, which says that air flocked saddles are of no real benefit compared to wool flocked saddles, and can even have worse pressure points. If you know the paper I’m talking about, please send it over!

The concept of flocking saddles with air I’m yet to be convinced by. From what I’ve heard, it’s like marmite. Some horses love the freedom it gives over their backs, some hate the unstableness of the saddle. Some riders love sitting on an air bed, others hate the reduction in feel. I’d suggest doing your own research because the jury is still out on this.

Moving on to the main subject of the lecture I heard. Fitting saddles. The lecture began with a quick overview of how the horse’s shoulders develop with work, and he gave us a couple of visual checks to do to see which areas of your horse are more developed than others … more on this another day when I’ve got some photos to accompany my words.

WOW saddles design or fit the saddle to the horse, in terms of the physical body of the saddle, anyway, and when the rider sits on the saddle is adjusted asymmetrically. The company claims that by adjusting the saddle asymmetrically the horse will become straighter. I sat on one of the saddles on a wooden horse and had it “fitted” to me. As with the majority of riders, I sit slightly to the right, which means that my left seat bone is slightly closer to the midline of the horse. The lecturer told us that this means my right leg hangs long and loose, whilst my left leg draws up to hold me on because I feel like I’m going to slide right all the time. This causes my left shoulder to drop and go behind my body. In terms of the way the horse goes, the right hind is stronger as it’s having to compensate for me sitting off centre, which leads to a stronger left shoulder, and a better bend on the right rein and better quality trot because the stronger hind leg is on the inside. The left canter has more power because the right hind (the strongest) is the propulsion leg, but the horse is more likely to fall in during left canter because he gives you right bend more easily.

Now with all these lefts and rights it’s really confusing. But I’ve sat down and thought about it all, and the chain reaction makes sense if you sit to the right. Obviously it all happens in reverse if you sit to the left. I was disappointed that before sitting on the saddle my posture wasn’t assessed at all as then he’d know that my right shoulder is tighter and carried higher than my left as a result of an old injury and muscle tension rather than a consequence of my sitting to the right on the saddle.

This is where there is a point of contention. WOW saddles focus on sitting the rider asymmetrically in order to help the horse go straight. But what came first? The chicken or the egg? Do horses make riders crooked or do riders make horses crooked? It can definitely be a vicious cycle, and I’m always telling my clients that if they’re giving their horse chiropractic treatment then they should also have some too. In my opinion, WOW saddles are only treating the symptom and not the cause. I think WOW saddlers also assume that the horse is straight at birth and it is our asymmetric riding which causes any problems. Domestication does favour doing things from the left hand side, but surely good training ensures the horse is comfortable being approached, led, tacked up and mounted from both sides?

Of course, you need to break the vicious cycle of horse and rider crookedness. To me, this can be done by working the horse from the ground more, ensuring you’re working them evenly, educating the rider’s eye, feel and understanding of biomechanics, Pilates (equine and human), and using regular physio treatments to help make horse and rider as symmetrical as possible. Yes, no one (human or equine) is born perfectly symmetrical. One hand/leg is always dominant, and bone length can differ. But you can become ambidextrous. Those lefties years ago had to adapt and write with their right hand for fear of being burnt at the stake for being a witch/the devil. Now we know it’s not a sin to be left handed, but equally we also know that by using both sides of our body to the same extent we build even muscle tone and are less likely to over stress and injure one area.

So surely before making adaptations to our riding lives we should look at solving the underlying problem, and not the symptom?

You hear of horses coming back from injury who need to have their saddles temporarily altered, perhaps with a shimmy on one side to compensate for muscle atrophy because of the injury. And the rider will work on various strengthening exercises to build up this area, and the saddler will then be able to remove the shimmy once the muscle has developed. The use of the shimmy, or asymmetric flocking will reduce any saddle slide and hopefully stop pressure points developing elsewhere. For example, if the saddle slides left, then there is the potential for soreness to develop on the right side of the thoracic spine. Which creates another problem. So saddlers do fit saddles asymmetrically to a horse in order to not cause further problems, but they’re fitting the saddle asymmetrically so that it is a level surface for the rider, and is less likely to slip to one side. A bit like if you have one foot bigger than the other. You buy a pair of shoes to fit the bigger foot and fill the other shoe so that the smaller foot is comfortable. Then you’re more likely to walk evenly and without causing an injury.

So where have we got to? I’m as confused about the whole concept as anyone else. But to me the concept of fitting the saddle to the rider’s asymmetry reinforces the idea that it is ok to ride crooked and to not look after your own body. Yes you need to fit the saddle to the horse, whether that’s asymmetric because they have an underdeveloped trapezius, or not. But it doesn’t make sense to me to put a rider on an uneven saddle; just like it’s uncomfortable walking in shoes with heels of different heights, and causes soreness in one leg. Furthermore I’m yet to be convinced by using air to flock saddles as research and rider feedback is so divided. Perhaps the WOW method has a place in rehab work, but I don’t think it is the long term answer. Or at least, if it is, maybe we shouldn’t be riding that horse?

I have to give it to the WOW saddle man, he gives a persuasive lecture, but I would urge riders to think about the underlying reasons for a lack of straightness in themselves and their horse and look at working on overcoming this through physiotherapy and exercise as surely it’s better all round to be as close to straight as possible.

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