Many people like a deep seat saddle with thigh blocks because it gives a sense of security and stability. Some say it puts you in the correct position. Others say it puts you in the wrong position. As usual there is a correct way and an incorrect way of sitting in any saddle.
But there are some characteristics about a deep saddle that most riders do not know about, and thus the saddle can become an impediment to your horse’s movement, and a hindrance to your position.
I am not ranting against deep seat saddles. I ride in one and I like the feeling it gives me. As I have become older, I have many body challenges and this type of saddle helps me to feel stable. But I do recognize some limitations and I feel constrained sometimes when I do not sit properly in it. I also understand that people may not be able to afford to change saddles, and we must make the most out of what we have. Or people who ride multiple horses sometimes don’t have a choice.
Note the tips here refer to any type of dressage saddle, however they are particularly important in the deep type.
When I see riders adjust their position in a deep saddle, I almost always see a move I call the “push back”. This is when the rider puts pressure in the stirrups, leans slightly forward and shoves their seat back, pressing their bum as far back as possible, up and against the cantle. The rider may not even be aware of doing this. A rider does this because they either consciously or unconsciously feel discomfort in the front of their crotch. The pommel in a deep saddle has a very steep slope and can be extremely uncomfortable or painful if you do not know how to sit.
The rider also does this when they have chosen a saddle with large thigh blocks but keep their stirrups too short, which presses their knee into the block, and they just don’t have enough room for their leg. There are differences between thigh rolls/blocks and knee rolls which causes confusion. Some dressage saddles and most jumping saddles have a knee roll and I think there is a lot of confusion about the difference.
The ‘push back’ tilts the pelvis forward so that the crotch is in the deeper part of the saddle and the seat bones are pointing back against the cantle. This position immediately puts pressure on your horse’s lumbar spine, causing the horses pelvis to also tilt forward and blocking the hind legs from reaching under. (Figure 1)
This position becomes normalized in the rider’s brain so it feels right but it causes a loss of impulsion. Often the conclusion is that the horse is not in front of the leg, resisting going forward or the like, when the horse is just reacting correctly to the rider’s body position. A lot of kicking and whipping then commences and the horse is forced to go forward by incorrectly increasing the pushing power of the hind end. This over time creates abnormal gait kinematics and can lead to problems.
The proper way to sit in this type of saddle is to place your pelvis as far forward as possible and control the height of your crotch against the pommel so that the position matches the slope of the pommel and there is space. Your crotch should not crush against the saddle but it’s the rider’s tensegrity and musculature that prevent the “crotch crush” from happening. (Figure 2)
Your seat bones should be upright and positioned in the deepest part of the seat. The point of your hips (which is the ASIS of the pelvic ilium) should be quite forward. There should be little pressure from your bum on the cantle.
The thigh block should be positioned up the thigh, about halfway between your hip and your knee. Your knee should be below the block. If you have large thigh blocks that are not adjustable, and your knee is pushing into them, this will also push your pelvis back and put you in a blocking position. If you cannot adjust or remove the block, you must lengthen your stirrups to open the hip joint and bring your pelvis forward and level.
The most important thing in any type of saddle is that you do not crush any part of your seat into the saddle. In your neutral riding position, there should always be space between your bones and the saddle. This allows you use your seat effectively. It gives room to give slight pressure with one seat bone or the other, and to slightly tilt your pelvis in any direction. This cushion of space also allows you to use your very upper thigh effectively, which is where the seat aids should come from.
If you try to make all these adjustments and you still cannot get to the optimum neutral position, then you may want to consider a new saddle. Many riders have saddles that are just too small or inappropriate for them, so to be comfortable they will contort their position. You may be comfortable, but your position makes your horse uncomfortable, so you both end up in an unnatural strained position. In the worst case your horse becomes lame over time due to the way he must move so that you can be comfortable. The horse’s comfort and freedom of movement is the top priority. Work with what you have, but always remember that you will need to improve yourself to help your horse.
FIGURE 1 PUSH BACK – INCORRECT
FIGURE 2 CORRECT DEEP SADDLE POSITION