Total Contact Saddle and ‘pressure’ produced
“They may not be able to talk but when they ‘speak’ we should
be sensitive enough to listen” (Anon)
Total Contact Saddle and ‘pressure’ produced
Of all the questions we get asked on a regular basis by far the most popular is, “Does your saddle produce pressure on the horse’s back ?” The very simple answer to that questions is, “Yes”. Of course it produces pressure. Everything that has mass creates pressure (pressure is simply mass x the force of gravity / area applied over). The real question should be re-framed to, “Does it produce excess pressure and in such a place as to cause problems for the horse ?”. The answer here is, “No”. Now, most people wouldn’t be satisfied with that very simple answer and they probably wouldn’t be satisfied with knowing that in some 12 years of promoting this saddle system not one client has come back to say that it’s caused adverse pressure nor that it’s been seen by a range of ‘back people’ and they’ve all been happy with it – some even use it on their own horses and encourage others to do so as well. So let’s see if we can cut through the simplistic answers and look deeper into things. Get a cup of tea about now ‘cos there’s some reading to be done ….
The Total Contact Saddle (TCS) is intended to be part of a system of riding. This system includes the saddle but also the method of riding and the tack used under saddle. The saddle was designed to fit as closely to the horse as possible so as to nullify the effect of depths of material between horse and rider in a traditional saddle that effectively prevents effective communication between both. It allows this more effective communication (often clients say, “It’s like riding bareback”) with the added advantage/security of stirrups. The saddle sits on top of a saddle pad – we prefer the Gel-Eze range but others are available and the needs of the horse must be the guide here. This layering effect provides compressive material that takes up pressure naturally created – in research poly pads have been shown to have this characteristic especially along with pads made from reindeer hide - and in so doing spreads the downward force (mass x gravity) of the rider to dissipate pressure. The saddle itself also has an area of compressive material built into its underside to help do this. The saddle has been tested by a technician of the Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) with their Pliance System and it was not found to have pressure peaks (red areas) when using a very bony horse in walk, trot and canter. I am not able to publish these results as the test was part of a wider piece of research and as such was not officially sanctioned by the SMS who are very protective about making saddle comparisons. Having said that even the Pliance System does not actually measure the pressure on the spineous processes of the back as the pressure mat has a gap that runs down the middle of it and sits over these areas so it’s only doing half a job anyway ! have a look at the client comments on the Facebook page and on this website for real life uses as well as the Annual Client Survey Results to see how well regarded the saddle is. We don’t edit these comments and they come from clients who use the saddle in a wide variety of activities.
The whole question of ‘too much pressure’ is a mute one in research terms. There has not been any credible research on any saddle or pressure testing system that is able to reliably quantify just what is ‘too much pressure’. The way a person rides is more likely to be a better indicator of whether an individual produces ‘too much pressure’ and the body mass of a rider is also not an effective indicator – the accepted 20% of horse’s mass was a guesstimate introduced by the US Cavalry in the early 20th century and recent studies have shown as much as 29% of horse’s body mass does not produce a change in gait characteristic which could be a sign of ‘too much’. The TCS invites the rider to ride in a ‘light’ fashion using their body weight and balance to effectively control the horse’s movement not the application of heavy rein and leg aids. This method has been described by a client as ‘like having power steering for my horse’ and others also suggest that control becomes lighter and more effective. Partly this is due to the horse actually being able to feel what it is you want and in return you get to feel the horse to allow lighter control. The position takes you over the center of gravity of the horse in rising trot and canter and jumping which in turn means that it can carry you easier all of which helps with the ”pressure’ question and allows the horse to use its back and shoulders as it should. In a traditional treed saddle the shape/area of the tree takes up the pressure but in the TCS this is done by the shape/area of the saddle and the rider’s bottom and upper thigh and so a greater area for force dissipation and a lowering of pressure. With the addition of the stirrup attachments being set lower than a treed saddle to prevent ‘white hair’ and lesions from stirrup bar pressure it means that we are doing all we can to prevent pressure and spread it more. It must also be accepted that the horse creates its own pressure from muscular effort and activity internally. In a fit horse this can be considerable and in a treed saddle this internal pressure generation is met by the firmness of the tree. In the TCS it is met with the softness of the saddle and the rider’s anatomy as well as the rider’s movement.
In a treed saddle the saddle sits above the spineous process of the thoracic vertebrae – you don’t actually sit on the ‘spine’ anyway but on these processes. The tree sits either side of these processes on the longisimus dorsi muscle which is found either side of the bony processes and it’s this that takes the pressure. A treed saddle may actually impinge movement of the wither – the trapezius muscle – by effectively trapping it (notice in some horses the atrophy suffered just below the high point of the wither as this muscle is ‘wasted away’ and not developed – and the back muscles (you try moving your arm with someone grabbing tight of your bicep and see how easy that is). In the TCS the pressure is take up by the trapezius – it actually allows shoulder movement, more degrees of motion and muscular development as well as a lowering of muscle temperature across the back (research and client feedback has shown this) -, the longisimus dorsi and the spineous processes as well as aspects of the latisimus dorsi (the large muscle of the horses flank). This spread of pressure is helped with the compressive nature of the material under the saddle, the rider style and the saddle itself. The fact that the rider moves off the back actually helps muscular efficiency in that muscles that are occluded under a treed saddle may prevent effective movement of nutrients to the muscle and removal of toxins. Recent research has shown that occluded muscles respond in this way and it’s not too much of a leap to suggest that if this was not the case then the opposite may be true. We’d need to establish this empirically of course though before making it a ‘claim’ but it does seem reasonable to suggest it.
Not much in life comes with a guarantee of success. However, all we can do is to relay client feedback, what research we’ve carried out and read around on the topic and say that it wouldn’t be the success it is if others found this to be a load of ‘flim flam’. My own horse has only ever used the TCS and he has slight arthritis in his T14/15 vertebrae (previous condition). In a recent visit by an equine osteopath he was pronounced fit and healthy in all his joints and no issues with his back. Of course he’s taken care of and has free access to different herbs/plants that help inflammation but even so he’s fit and healthy and, above all, as happy as any horse can be. If you want to try the TCS system then think about how many times a traditional saddler will have to come out and re-flock a saddle (effectively make it fit by adding more stuffing to it !), or refit it or how many times they’re taken back as not being suitable or causing ‘problems’ (behavioural are often associated with physical) and how much to blame they can be for incidences of hind limb lameness when ridden in a crooked fashion – a big problem that recent research is only now identifying the extent of. Think about it is all we ask ….
Thanks for reading