The saddle should benefit the horse as well as the rider, just like a good business transaction between two people.
The saddle’s purpose is to spread the weight of the rider over more of the horse’s back and to help shock absorption for horse and rider. Although stirrups are great for shock absorption for horse and rider, they can be dangerous if the rider gets hung up in them. With saddles in general, it is not good to use them as a substitute for good horsemanship. Bareback riding helps riders with a better seat so saddles are better utilized.
The saddle is normally thought of as more of a benefit to the human than the horse, but weight distribution and shock absorption are at least two ways a rider can serve a horse better. Stirrups were not used during the time of Alexander the Great, but they have been a great addition to the saddle so the rider can add more shock absorption to the equation.
It can be dangerous to have our feet all the way in the stirrups, because there is more of a chance of getting hung up and dragged if we fall off. But if the ball of our foot rests on the stirrup with our heels down, we have engaged some of our finest built-in shock absorbers. Our toe joints followed by our ankle joints, knees and hips help smooth the ride for the horse and rider team.
With our seat off the saddle, we can engage our hands, elbows and shoulders on the horse’s neck. This helps horses realize we humans can move like them while we are on their backs and therefore lead them better by serving them better.
Our s-shaped back can also be a great shock absorber when we allow it to flex and move. I call this the belly dancing part of it. It is great how our answer to better stability on the horse’s back is so directly related to our willingness to do what it takes to serve our horse better.
Race jockeys are probably one of the best pictures of a rider serving a horse, really using their stirrups and bodies exceptionally well. When racers first started riding that way, they were made fun of, until they began to consistently win more races than the others. Now all racers ride that way.
There are debates as to what saddle is better when referring to the two basic types: English and western. When that happens, I say to ride bareback for a while and choose the saddle from a practical standpoint.
Good riders are neither English or western; they ride the horse, not the saddle. English saddles are lighter to handle, and can be softer and freely moving. Western saddles are set up to carry more gear and pull with the saddle horn.
I use heavy roping saddles for training to get horses used to two cinches, and dragging and pulling things. I feel if a horse can take those saddles, they can surely take the lighter ones.
We need to think of a saddle as equipment that can multiply our horsemanship skills, and not be a substitute for them. Bareback riding helps us do this, as well as getting us to understand moving like a horse (or being a horse), just as the Messiah did for us when God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ.
Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville, Mo.