After you’ve found a saddle that fits your horse (not always an easy task), you also need one that puts you in proper balance. That’s not always a “given” because the rider’s conformation also needs to match the way a saddle is built. If the saddle doesn’t put you in the “sweet spot” you’ll spend a lot of time fighting your tack and feeling slightly off balance. Certainly, it will adversely affect the way you ride.
Perhaps the most common problem is when a saddle puts the rider in a chair seat — so named because the rider looks like she is sitting on her bum with her legs slightly in front of her and her thigh too parallel to the ground. In a properly balanced saddle, the rider is positioned over her seat bones and her leg is underneath her in line with her ear, shoulder, hip and heels — if her horse were to be suddenly taken away, she would land on her feet, not her butt. If your trainer keeps telling you to bring your legs back underneath you, you are in a chair seat.
There are times when being in a slight chair seat isn’t such a bad idea. Many cross-country saddles put you in a chair seat and it’s helpful to be able to put your feet on the “dashboard” when you jump a drop fence. But for flatting, dressage and for fences on flat terrain, being in a chair seat puts you behind the motion so that you are always playing a bit of catch up.
The major reason why a rider ends up in a chair seat is that the stirrup bars are positioned too far forward on the saddle in relation to the length of the rider’s femur. It’s particularly a problem if your femurs are long (I know this from first hand experience). Some saddles have extended stirrup bars and some have the bars placed farther back. After you have looked at different saddles and felt your balance point, you’ll start to recognize the ones that work best for you. In my case (freakishly long femurs) I prefer saddles that are built with an extra forward flap as there is enough flap in front of the bar to accommodate my leg.
My experience also has told me that saddles with very deep seats tend to be more prone to putting you in a chair seat probably because to accommodate the length of your femur the stirrup leathers should hang vertically and approximately 6″ or 7″ forward of the deepest part of the seat — and in very deep saddles, that position is generally further forward than in saddles with shallower seats.
It took me many years and many saddles to figure out that it was the stirrup bar placement that made such a difference to my position. I’d always realized that some saddles just made it easier to stay in balance but figuring out why means that there’s no guess work involved.
What if you have a saddle with bars that are too far forward?
It’s very expensive to have the bars repositioned on a saddle. But, if you own a saddle with the bars too far forward there’s a trick you can try that might help. Take the rubber rings used on a martingale or even some thick hair bands and put them on the stirrup bar in front of your leathers. This will move your stirrup position very slightly back. It won’t make a huge difference but it may help.
Leg Length and Your Position: Great article from Schleese about the correlation between the length from your hip to your knee and the position of the stirrup bars.