Barefoot is well known for their “soft” saddles with a very solid look and feel, and a pleasant seat for the rider. But, the most important thing that the Barefootsaddles have, or actually do not have, is the classical, stiff interior.
A Barefootsaddle is a so called “treeless” (.de: Baumlos, .nl: boomloos) saddle.
Why a treeless saddle?
picture taken from Biomechanical Riding & Dressage – A Rider’s Atlas
The traditional saddles:
Let me first explain what the traditional (english/dressage or american/western) saddles look like, from the inside.
Traditional saddles have underneath all the leather and the padding a hard interior, sometimes wood, sometimes glass fibre, to “fix” the seat. These kind of saddles, when strapped on well around a horse, are rather stable.
Example of the inside of a dressage saddle, picture originally from naturallyhorsetrim.com
Example of the inside of a western saddle, picture originally from Frecklers Saddlery , – follow the link and you can see the traditional process of making these saddles with a wooden frame.
The disadvantage of traditional saddles:
Unfortunately many of these “oldfashioned” saddles do not fit very well on a horseback. Every horseback is different, every horse moves different so every horse needs a different shaped saddle. Also, a horse grows until he is around 7 years old. A saddle that fits well when the horse is 3 years young could not fit at all anymore if you would put the same saddle on the same horse when it would be 8 years. On top of that a horse can grow and lose muscles very fast, depending on their environments (steep hills vs. flat land) and the food they have/can find.
A hand-made saddle, and maintenance to fill or empty the padding, easily goes up in price towards 5000 Euro and more.
The traditional saddles: often causing horseback problems
So many people stick with an “allround” saddle which best fits the horse. And where it does not fit the horses back at first sight, they put pads and cushions underneath.
This helps a bit, but is still not preventing a bad fitting saddle pressing in the horses’ back because the saddle is badly balanced. Or the heavy horserider on top not having the perfect balance. Or a painful combination of both.
Picture borrowed from saddlefitter.blogspot.com
The traditional saddles: it does not fit well when…
When a rider takes the saddle from a horses’ back after an hour of riding, he can see a few markings if a saddle fits well. That is, if the horse did not tell the rider before by bucking the rider off ofcourse :)
A horse that works, sweats quite a lot, also under the saddle. Therefor you can see some hairs twisted in a pattern where the saddle has friction with the body. The saddle “rotates” over this point and therefor the hairs are standing in a different direction than the rest.
One degree worse is that these spots are dry, this means that also pressure is put on these places. It has become so warm that the hairs dried again.
Picture borrowed from the saddlefitter.blogspot.com
temperature map from a horses’ back, the darker the colder the skin is, the warmer the lighter. Picture taken from infraoog.nl
One degree worse is barely visible at a first glance, you will only be able to spot this by using your hand: When you hold 2 fingers steady on both sides of the horses’ spine, and then let them slide from shoulders towards the tail, and your horse bends down, stamps a hoof, swishes his tail, throws his head up or kicks you, then you know something bad has happened.
This damage will be seen the next year, when the horse will get the same coat it had when this happened. It will have white hairs on the places that were damaged.
white hairs on a horses’ back due to saddle pressure or wounds caused by pressure. Picture borrowed from http://www.1001tips.be/
Or, if you are ignorant and keep on riding with a bad fitting saddle, these pressure points will become open wounds, which take months to heal.
picture borrowed from wildheartranch.org
It doesn’t always show this radical. As horses grow their muscles very fast, it might also happen that the muscles do not grow where the saddle squeezes their back. You will notice this while riding and the horse pushes it’s back down, walks with the nose high. There are some examples in the beginning of the video I linked in at the bottom of this post.
My horse told me…
My old saddle
The saddle I had was a special lightweight endurance saddle I had bought in the Netherlands, in Vorstenbosch at Arthurs Westernstore when she was 4 years old. It did fit well at that time, a young and rather untrained horse with a wide, straight back. One of the nice things it has is that the belts towards the girth are V-shaped so the girth does not obstuct her elbows while moving. She has got a tremendous trot which is felt at the shoulders all the way up, next to her neck, so her shoulders need the place. Also it was very light for it’s size, rather comfortable and it had big wide pads at the bottom, which means a lot of flat, wide contact points for her flat back.
The changing environment
All of that is now more than 8 years ago, and quite a lot has changed in the meanwhile.
Not only my horse moved from a closed box without much excercise per day towards freedom: an open field with a shelter, a so called “open stable”, shared with other horses in a small herd, so she can move, roll, play and walk as she likes.
Also she got to know the hills here, which have nice long steep roads, great to race over, and even more great to pull a kart over them :)
She had her foal Muratah 1,5 years ago, in June 2008, which means “no riding” for quite a while.
Also I “grew” away from riding with a saddle. It did not give me the feeling I had when riding bareback, which is so much closer “down to earth”. Yes, it might be slippery but you get to know the movements from the horse, in every gait. You get to feel the tension in the muscles when a horse is up “for some play”.
And, if you succeed and have built up your steady, balanced seat, you will be rewarded by your horse with a pleasurable movement, in every gait. The person you see here is Stacey Westfall, a truly amazing westernrider, with just a horse, nothing more. Do note though that the horse walks “flat” and not collected: see the picture from Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling below for a nicely collected horse.
If you do not sit well, the horse moves his nose up, which sits really uncomfortable. From the above video, what do you think the rider dose after he sits down, and what does the horse? All of a sudden the rider is not smiling anymore and very concentrated to not fall off :)
If you do sit well without disturbing the horse, the horse can start to balance himself underneath you as well and be able to collect. This means neck high, but nose down and the noseline almost vertical. Also the hind legs from the horse are much more underneath its body, so it can carry its weight and balance itself. The person on the above picture is Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling with one of his spanish stallions, caught in a very nice moment of collection.
So why not without a saddle at all?
Quite a few reasons why I wanted, needed a saddle though.
It is comfortable for rider and horse:
Although riding bareback feels great, it gets uncomfortable after an hour. As I mostly make trails which take up to 6 hours in the weekends, I definately need something to balance my weight over a bigger surface of horseback, to make it more comfortable .
It is practical:
You can mount a horse easier with a saddle. When the saddle has got rings, you can also attach saddlebags with food and drinks for an even longer ride.
It is safer:
When having an additional horse on a lead, it is safer to sit on a saddle on the leading horse. Ever thought what happens with you if the horse you lead decides to put his 250kg into a grinding halt?
My choice: The Barefoot saddle
Having read quite a lot of positive news about them on paardnatuurlijk.nl , knowing quite a few people which had this saddle, and wanting something relatively cheap, I ended up with the Cheyenne.
Here is the saddle, view from top/side. You can see it is made of different layers of leather, with pads underneath.
It is a short, compact saddle (this is size 1) with a not that deep bit for the rider.
You can also see that the saddle top is straight, the rider is not forced to slide backwards, something I see often with english saddles.
Here is the great thing about the treeless saddle: it can be bent. If I wanted, I could stand on it like this and it would not break the frame. It is all flexible.
The front of the saddle consists of quite a few layers.
The middle bit is high, as the elevated bit of spine from the horse has to fit in here, without pressure.
With a steady zipper the middle bit can be opened. In it there is a hard inlay, which will be replaced by a soft inlay, when they become available.
With the top flap on the right side, this is the bottom part of the saddle. It is relatively thin so you sit close to the horseback, enabling the feel of the movements undearneath. With a traditional saddle you will not feel this. The hard frame will even move in opposite direction, which is a very unnatural feeling.
The bottom is pure wool, very cuddly and very comfortable, shock resistant and reducing friction.
Underneath the saddle I have got an additional pad. Maybe I will need it, maybe not.
The top bit at the neck of the horse (bottom of the picture) is split, this will leave all freedom to the shoulders again. The black pads are from soft but steady foam…
for where the bottom is again made of wool.
Nice extra: the Ride On Pad
Also, because I can’t just let go of the bareback riding, I now have got a riding pad as well:
The bottom of the pad, made from high tech rubbery plastic which really “glues” to a horseback, but soft enough to leave the skin in peace. On the belts which go to the girth (not on picture) also some pads to protect the skin from the girth.
The top of the pad. Clearly visible is the way it is built up, in different layers. This is done in such a way that the girth, when strapped on, does not pull one “stripe” over the horses’ back.
The pressure is well diverted over these different padlayers. The cover is made of water-resistant microfibre which is not slippery at all, just like nubuck.
Even if it is “just a ride-on-pad”, you still see that the shape is well fitted for a horseback. It contains a grip at the front to balance your seat in trot or canter.
Note: This grip is not meant to regain your balance after you had decided to slip off, it might slide the pad sideways as well. For this same reason there are also no stirrups on this ride-on-pad. You will have to be able to ride before you decide to trot away with this pad.
Hopefully Barefoot will bring out the Atlanta saddle with the V-shaped belt soon, just like the old saddle I had. It leaves a lot more room for shoulder movement and provides quite a lot of options with all the rings. It is actually the treeless version of my old saddle.
When the weather allows it (iceskating on horseback sucks big time), I will be happily testing this saddle, and poke in the meanwhile Barefoot that they get me this Atlanta with special girthing-V-set :) More soon therefor!
The promised video: Nevzorov Haute Ecole
If you want to see what real freedom means for the horse, when together with a human, watch this video and judge for yourself.
Note: there are some disturbing images in the beginning …
All rights on the pictures is reserved by Nevzorov Haute Ecole, Lidia Nevzorova
In the end, there is nothing natural about sitting on the back of a horse. The human is a predator, the horse a prey animal. Isn’t beautiful it all goes together, peaceful?