Of science, pressure, use and the Total Contact Saddle
If I had £1 for every person over the last 12 years or so that's either asked me for, 'scientific proof' of the efficacy of the Total Contact Saddle (TCS), or, how it doesn't cause pressure on the horse's back, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this blog in West Kent but from the white sands of a beach in the Seychelles. But I DO understand the questions, I really do and it just must seem so counter-intuitive to many !
The saddle, for most horse riders, is the connection between them and their horse. For many, many years we've all been brought up to think of it as a cushioning thing that protects the horse from the weight of the rider and the forces created during riding (rider body mass multiplied by the force of gravity and the acceleration of the body mass onto the back). The tree of the saddle is intended to spread that force over the back. However, what if that cushioning, and the tree was actually the cause of some injury and discomfort to the horse ? How would the rider feel about that ? What action would they take to help prevent it ? Modern English style saddles, and others, are numerous in both slight design features and materials made from but in essence, yes I did say 'in essence', they are simply a 'chair' that the rider sits in and have been since the Middle Ages and before. In many cases they are a 'barrier' to the communication between the horse and the rider - the rider sits above the horse in most cases and so is not connected to it. Of course this is a simplification - some would say a 'gross' simplification - and that there are those who will either be turning this off, and looking to see what their friends are having for dinner on Facebook, or shouting at the computer (or similar) at how wonderful their saddle is. That would be shame. Just think about the design for a few minutes though: the padding, the knee and thigh rolls, the fact that it often needs adjusting by a saddle fitter to make it fit the horse, the trend for high cantles and 'deep' seats are all designed to place the rider into a certain position, that for many is an un-natural one that can excerbate back and pelvis problems, and the height above the horse often means that the rider can't feel the horse and are sometimes unstable. (see additional comments at the end of this blog re pain free riding)
The TCS places the rider in as close a contact with the movement of the horse as is possible to get without being completely bareback but it offers the security of having stirrups. It is this closeness, and the fact that the rider sits part way on the horse, that some ask the questions I started this blog off with. The TCS places the rider in 'total contact' with the horse - bum, thighs, lower leg - and the rider can feel the horse breathe, it's back muscles contract and relax, it's full range of movement and the rider can then move WITH the horse using their centre of gravity to effect gait changes and directions. Oh, and the horse can feel all that the rider does and feels and breathes as well ! Horse and rider become as one unit with the rider being placed close to the center of gravity of the horse - not far behind it as many other saddles do - to make it easier for the horse to carry the rider in all gaits and jumping activities. It also means that the rider can feel when the horse is about to 'spook' or become agitated as it will tense first and the sensitive rider can now effect actions to calm this rising tide of tenseness and an unintended action before it happens - or at least to be prepared for it. The design means the saddle 'wraps' around the horse and so fits all year through and all horses.
Any forces created by the rider are dissipated over a wide surface area (rider's bum, thighs, legs as well as the whole surface area of the saddle), and not just a treed area that is in contact with the horse, and the horse's back muscles that cover the upper back take up that force. In the case of horses with a prominent spine or wither then the 'secret' to the TCS is in the padding solutions chosen to suit the needs of that horse. For some this may be the Total Contact Saddle pad or a sheepskin nummnah, a poly pad of a given thickness, a Western pad or even a reindeer skin pad, which I am currently trialing on my own horse as studies suggest that it is the most compressive available and we may well start supplying them as a result. In some 12 years of providing this saddle the reports from clients are overwhelmingly positive (96% client satisfaction in a recent survey) and consistent problems with 'pressure' would have shown up well before now and, to be honest, I wouldn't be using the saddle on my own horse or even providing it, as a result.
The question of 'scientific studies' is an interesting one and, whilst I said at the top of the page, I do understand the question I do baulk a little at it. You see there are two main types of scientific study - quantitative (a study that results in numbers and statistical significance) and qualitative (opinions/views, case studies, focus groups etc) where real life comments are made by the participants. Often the first type of study flows from the second type as a 'scientist' will use observational techniques to help design a different type of study. One is no more, or less, important, than the other and both have their place in the wide world of science ! We've done two pieces of quantitative work - a pressure mat (Pliance) test which I wasn't able to publish due to restrictions placed on me by the Society of Master Saddlers who's equipment I borrowed for a mounting study I was doing (see ISES, 2014 Conference). The pressure mat wasn't actually designed to identify pressure across the spine itself anyway and to get any meaningful data it would need a huge cohort of participants - breed, horse types, rider styles etc - and so I've been reluctant to do this. However, I do have a HUGE bank of qualitative data in client reactions and comments. This doesn't always satisfy those who want 'numbers' though but then would a study of six horses providing a result of p=0.001 be any more meanignful ? I doubt it !! Would those same people ask a 'traditional' supplier of saddles for their study data ? I doubt it. Would they even have done any study ? I doubt that too. Even though 'traditional' saddles cause pressure sores, lameness, all sorts of back problems, are mostly ill fitting and folk are aware of these imperfections in both design and use. Okay, stop shouting at the computer now - even though I have a point ! I have had one study published (ISES, 2014) on the heat generated in the horse's back (GPS v's TCS) and it was found to be significantly lower using a TCS which has implications for possible cell death in a GPS (it occurs at >40 deg C) and thus possible muscular development. Another quantitative study on gait characteristics is coming to a close in the next few months and I'm in early discussions for a ground breaking study into the incidence of back/pelvis pain with a TCS v's a traditional saddle as we keep getting comments that the TCS helps ease this type of pain (around 70% of all riders report lower back pain).
On the 2nd April 2018 I asked an open question on my Facebook business page to get clients to give me their real life experiences of using the TCS. It had some 40 response to which there were a number of replies from others as well. It is qualitative data and as good as a focus group activity where open questions are also used and responses documented. Below are the main responses (with photos if they added value to the response) which are un-edited by me or others and so may contain spelling or language errors. The TCS clients give their candid views on the efficacy and use of the TCS. Some of the responses have been omitted as they may well be as simple as "thank you" etc and so don't add huge value to the original question. All of this information is available on my Facebook page for the 2nd April (Total Contact Equine Solutions) and all I've done is to abbreviate the client names concerned to initials. Some relate to comments from a 'back person' and some are actually from 'back people'. I really hope this helps to show that the Total Contact Saddle does NOT cause back problems for the horse, that it CAN be used on a wide range of horses for a wide range of uses and activities. You don't have to read all of the comments below - maybe choose some at random if you want or you can get a cuppa and have a scroll through them. Thank you for reading this blog article.
AH: "I'm relatively new to the Total Contact saddle so haven't clocked up so many miles with it to be honest but i can tell you that in our early Days,It has been a revelation.Even with very careful management,My good doer of an Appaloosa Changes shape from season to season.Towards the end of last Summer it became apparent to me that he was not moving so freely when wearing his ever so expensive and custom made Western saddle. (Most likely because he had gained a few kgs) Despite it being fully adjustable and with the help of several experts we just couldn't get the right shape on it to make my boy comfortable.I switched to a standard bareback pad for a while so that i could continue to work him to keep in weight in check.He was happier but my riding felt numb and not Always secure! I Think this was probably due to the generic shape and thickness of the pad. A friend recommended the TC saddle and after some more research into it i decided to give one a whirl. Well,I can truly say that my horse is moving freer than ever Before,Particularly in his shoulders.I am experiencing a new level of very subtle and super sensitive riding,Feeling every gentle movement underneath me,Yet i feel re-assured by the fact i have stirrups and i'm Confident in riding out on the trail and tackling EXCA obstacles as well as schooling in the paddock.Our horse chiro and physio visit our yard several times a year for checkups and she recently stated that my horse was 'soft in his back and fluid in movement with good flexibility throughout'. I am no expert here but i Believe that when it comes to any Equipment that we choose to use on our horses we should first educate ourselves about it and then listen to our horses,Feel and Watch what they are telling us.My boy has been Health checked and is perfectly fine in his TC saddle(We use a dense Reindeer hide underneath it) and i know that he is also more relaxed.I too am very happy that i am able to feel so Close and connected to him.Thank you for creating the Total Contact Saddle.We are big fans! Anna and Chicane.Sweden".
RG: "I have been looking at these saddles for over 10 years, and after a tremendous amount of research over that time, I still never found a single negative review on any forum - including the infamous horse and hound - from anyone who had actually used one.
I finally was able to buy one 2 years ago to start my youngster in, so she would never have to suffer an illfitting saddle as she continued to grow and fitten, like most youngsters do. I tried it out a couple of times on friends horses, very different sizes and shapes, neither of whom I had ridden before, and felt immensely secure despite broncing and bolting - and the ponies certainly didn't show any sign of discomfort, if anything they were much happier than normal! My first rides on my youngster were totally uneventuful, not least because I could feel the slightest increase in tensions and reassure her before it built up into anything. We have built up to 2 hour+ rides in steep woods, and neither of us have ever felt unbalanced or insecure - quite the opposite because of the amazing feel. Unlike normal saddles she has never had any patches of sweat or dry areas within sweat that would indicate pressure - and there is not even an outline of the saddle. The weight simply doesn't go through the saddle in the way you imagine - it goes through you legs, your seat. I am pretty sure that neither of my ponies will eve have a "traditional" saddle because the TCS is just too good - why would I risk a poorly fitting saddle, with all the associated problems longterm, when I already have the perfect solution?" Now all I have to do is save up to buy another for my other pony!!"
DM: "I think what all the nay-sayers forget (or never knew) is that scientific study starts with observation, and case studies are the formal presentation of observation that is then the beginning of further more rigorous investigations. But it has to start with the observations in the first place".
JM: "Me and mouse love our total contact saddle! Mouse is 5. We jump once a week usually and we do schooling, pole work and hacking regularly. I recently had my back lady down to see Mouse after having this saddle for quite a few months now, I was skeptical at first but my back lady couldn’t have been happier with Mouses back. She said everything was perfect! I’ve seen an improvement in the way Mouse moves and works, she refuses less jumps now. She’s got more confidence and is more willing. Her movement has improved a lot and overall she’s coming on lovely. All thanks to my TCS". (A video went with this comment and this can be seen on the original post thread on the FB page).
CC: "I have had my tcs for over a year , my best friend also has a tcs she has a cob , I have a little arab x Welsh , I'm 70+years old I feel so safe in my tcs and my pony is happy , as a good horse owner I have her back checked every 6 months by a qualified person recommended by my vet , her back is good no problems .With ordinary treed saddles when a horse changes shape the saddle doesn't, the tcs does , trouble with some people is they don't like change so I say to these people get a life".
YA: "I have spent a fortune on several traditional saddles in the past but still my horse was not comfortable despite reassurances from different master saddlers that the saddle fitted well. My horse had tightness behind the saddle area despite trying everything. He was examined and treated by a physio every 3/4 months so I had a firm idea of what was going on with his back.
THEN, I got him a TCS! Since I've been riding him in the TCS the tightness went away! I've been using this saddle now for around 4 years and have not looked back. We hack, compete at Trec, jump, do hunter trials and funrides. I always feel secure and he always seems very comfortable. My riding has improved too, my balance and core strength have improved a lot. I still get him seen by his physio and he's in very good shape according to her. Interestingly, I had his very expensive fairfax dressage saddle checked and refitted for him so I could do some dressage and he went like a drain, he really did not like it at all. I now do dressage in my TCS, I should have stuck with it at the start lol but we learn by our experiences, at least, some of us do.........."
SM: "OMG I love the TCS. I’m a chiropractor - human and animal. I refer to saddles as ‘expensive junk’. The TCS is the exception!! I recommend it to all my clients. It has taken our flat backed pony from very asymmetrical to much straighter. It has given my children the most amazing seat. People are afraid that it won’t feel secure yet I, who am no brave rider, am happy to hack in it and deal with spooks/spins. As a bonus you get a warm bottom in the winter. What’s not to love 😊. I wish everyone would use one and then my job would be so much easier! X"
SG: "I wanted something to use for my still growing / changing youngster (whom I backed last year aged 4) and the TCS was recommended by a friend. The fact I can also use it on my other pony is a big plus too. My youngster is coming on fantastically, the TCS is the most comfortable thing I’ve ridden in, and both ponies have had 2 clean physio checks since we started using this saddle".
DC: "I ride one of Ros’s horses & have been a convert since she introduced me to it! I’ll add some pics below!"
LWN: "I love my TCS it works hard for me, I ride my 23 yo TB x high withered mare in it and sometimes she has a very small passenger (see photo) and the saddle fits him and me! I also backed my Appy mare who changes shapes dramatically in it and when I ride my friends cob I always take my TCS and ride him in it".
LWN: "My Appy mare Mrs Doubtfire being a big girl for the first time wearing my TCS and a bit for the first time (She is now ridden bitless) I backed her in a TCS".
YA: "More action in our TCS"
KP: "Traditional saddles have never really sat right with me. I've just struggled with understanding how they could possibly be comfortable or best for the horse. I always preferred to ride bareback, noticing how more relaxed and free the horses movement was. Also the improved communication between horse and rider. After reading up on TCS it seemed to make a lot of sense and I took the plunge. I'm finally free of that nagging doubt about whether a saddle fits or not. And I use my saddle on different horses, of varying shapes no problem. A horse new to me last year would never stand to be mounted, she'd spin and evade at speed. A few weeks of TCS and I can stand her next to the block, let go, walk around her and mount without even touching the reins. If that's not a positive, in your face message straight from the horses mouth... I don't know what is!!"
KN: "I started using these saddles 4 years ago for my little 12.3 coloured pony, he has a short barrel shaped back and "normal saddles" ahem torture devices were giving him a sore back. We had had numerous "experts" in the field come saddle fit him with their saddles, and each one made him worse. He is a pony and will only take a 15 inch saddle but is ridden by adults so they need more inches to squeeze their bum into! In desperation I bought a cheap synthetic bareback pad online. This gave him bruises where the girth needed to go and the synthetic girth straps broke quickly, but we were getting closer... Riding him on a pad with stirrups attached was definitely getting closer and he was riding better with me perched on his back. "Somebody should invent a saddle with basically just a belt and girth and stirrups" I thought to myself and googled just that. Eventually I found Stuart's website and was so happy!! Somebody had already invented it. Since then all six ponies I have owned have used total contact saddles, from the 15.3 section D to the 39inches Shetland.
Recently I was fortunate enough to open my very own small scale riding school - Standish Equestrian Centre, (www.standishequestriancentre.co.uk) a trekking centre that specialises in utilising the bareback hooves, paddock paradise rotation systems, and the Total Contact Saddle.
The council approved vet approved the use of Total Contact saddles on all our animals.
I can honestly say in the last four years I have seen only improvements in the movement, confirmation and soundness of my horses. They carry themselves nicely, do not overreach. They do not flinch or move away when I approach with the saddle. Nor do they feel the need to roll incessantly after riding to rub their backs.
It's four years of experience and six horses later, I can honestly say this saddle has been a Godsend.
We do everything in it, jumping lessons, hacking, endurance rides, beach rides, leadrein lessons etc.
God bless the saddle gnomes xx"
ACC: "Here’s my Myrrka, she’ll be 26 this June and still thunders up the bridleway like a rocket propelled tank. Saddles of all kinds were tried and rejected as they slipped, rolled and got in the way of her shoulders. The Total Contact Saddle is the best thing I have ever bought for her-from the first try she stepped out with a lightness I had never achieved with her before.
Her back is regularly checked and is apparently better than horses a third of her age, this golden oldie will continue to storm up hill and down dale for a good few years yet thanks in no small part to this wonderful saddle".
FE: "We have been using the TCS for just over a year. She dropped condition at the end of the winter, (she sulks without the green stuff) and her (very expensive) treeless saddle wasn't fitting well any more. She told us very clearly that she wasn't comfortable so we thought we would try a TCS. This has been a huge success. She moves more freely through the shoulder and has actually started to use her back, which is a huge improvement. She is seen twice a year by an equine physio who knows her and the breed well and she is very happy with her back.
"I hit the enter button too soon! I would like to add that Chiquita is a sharp mare with "impressive sideways movement" aka a heck of a spook! I have sat these comfortably in the TCS and I feel really secure in it."
LB: "I have a welsh x that will drop his shoulder and have u on the floor if he doesn't like the saddle... I have had him for 12 years and his had about 16 saddles about 7 of them have been brand spanking new (just in case u think I'm getting cheep eBay ones) and all have been professionally fitted, I still have the ongoing quest for the right saddle as I don't feel I'm balanced enough to take him Xc or hunting in his TC but I have to say it's a god send for me to be able to ride weather he has a saddle or not. He moves wonderfully in it, I've had it for about 4 years now and not come off once!!! (Touch wood) I also use it on my ish and he goes perfectly well in it to! 😊 he has regular Physio appointment and had no complaints yet. I don't have a video of me riding in it but here's a pic of said Welsh".
JD: "I first bought the tcs for a short backed barrel cob, we have been on lots of fast pleasure rides and do pop a few jumps this was well over a year ago no problems at all with his back, I had a mare who had thrown me a couple of times ,she put me off riding her again tbh, 6 weeks ago I restarted her we are now hacking out in the tcs and she is doing really well no bronks no dropping her shoulder no running forward and stopping dead ,we went to the beach last Friday ! My friend has started to use one (as we have 3 tcs here in total ) on her Fresian mare and they love it too. No back problems here just happy comfortable horses".
LL: "I will be putting an order in as soon as funds allow. My mare hasn't been backed yet. I think this is possibly the only answer as she is a very wide girl. Her back looks very comfy but I think the security of stirrups may help".
SC: "My daughter and more importantly her horse love the TCS , she really feels a connection with him when she uses it . Surely its personal choice and an understanding of your horse which saddle you use rather than a reliance on research and data ? I don't understand why people need to be so hostile , if you don't like the saddle don't use it , there are plenty of people who love it and the choice it gives them".
GR: "Hi I am no expert but been around horses all my life never ever say never and certainly never no everything the things I've seen made me cry my crazy spotty mare was rode bitless because the expert thinks bits are cruel well nothing is more cruel than chain under the jaw causing her tongue to be damage and her whole body out of line so never be horrible to people are only trying to make it a better world for our gorgeous ponies and horses of the world thought of the day be kind its not hard".
VS: "I have had my mare in our TCS for 18 months now. We mostly do happy hacking and the occasional jump while we're out and about. She has regular massage and has had no issues from using the TCS at all. She feels much freer through her shoulder and back than in a traditional saddle and I find it far more comfortable - normal saddles give me bruises in uncomfortable places! We love ours completely".
JLF: "I bought it for an Arabian Mare with Park horse trot movement and very wide shoulders that come way back when she reaches forward. I had tried at least ten saddles on her including a Boz, and a specialized, three wintecs, a regular western and a barefoot treeless. In each case it seemed she was colicking (pawing, nipping at her sides). when I rode bareback she was fine, I had the vet out anyway, and he couldn't find anything. I love riding bareback but felt I needed stirrups because oh her trot!!!! she adores the saddle, moves like a dream, and once I caught my balance, I can ride either with my feet more forward or with them right under me. I rode a 35 mile endurance ride in it, and though I got more exercise than I think I would have in a traditional saddle the vets, when asked to check and double check her soreness, found none. Now I am also using it on my super round pony, that at 16 isn't fully trained because I only wanted to ride so much bareback and every saddle I have ever put on him is either too big and gets on his loins, or it just turns, he had no withers at all...We had a lovely two hour hack walk trot and canter and he didn't even try to buck me off, which is saying something because that's another reason no one wants to ride him!!! I really dont want to ride in anything else, although I am still seeking a saddle with a cantle in case I want to ride a 100 mile mountainous ride, but I might just have to get in shape, because the horse comes first!!"
EW: " Iv used the TCS for about 2 years now, and my boy loves it. I do to, but the fact that he loves it is what’s important. We school and play around and he feels fab in it.
He sees a chiropractor every 3 months and there’s rarely any adjustments required to his back. Over winter we haven’t done all that much, and his back is no different to how it is when I rode most days throughout the summer! If he loves it, and is comfortable that’s all that matters".
KR: "Sorry I lol when I read this status. I was party to a comment thread where a certain group of people who had 40 years of been trained by a certain organisation bleated about studies etc. Obvs if they are using 40 year old training they have no interest in recent developments and "studies" as they know best".
RJ: " I've been riding in the TCS for 4-5 years now, have rehabbed a problem pony and started a youngster. Both are regularly checked by a physio who is happy there are no problems, in fact the rehab pony had an awful back prior to me re-starting him, particularly tight behind the wither where a treed saddled had been pinching him, which has only improved since using the TCS. Both ponies regularly hack and do horseback archery. In addition I do Trec with Monkey, which includes some longer rides on the POR section, and also some fun rides and jumping. The saddle has improved my riding, core strength and balance - and actually I feel more secure even with big spooks or bucks as you 'go with' the horse. As a vet (albeit in small animal practice) I have sworn to 'ensure the welfare of animals committed to my care' which of course includes my own and thus influences my choices for them. Having only had problems with treed saddles in the past, a bad experience with a TB in reputable brand treeless saddle, I can only report good things with the TCS. The fact that it allows for any shape/size means that it fits regardless of the horses' changing body shapes through the seasons and with their increasing fitness. I haven't found this with any other saddle (and I went through a fair few with my old horse!). Anyway, we are very happy with ours here thank you and have a plentiful supply of photos of us 'doing stuff' should you wish to use them".
HP: "I bought a TCS for my little Spanish horse on account of him being little and me being tall. No saddle was going to fit us both. I loved it from the beginning. Then one day I put it on ZBD (pictured) with some trepidation on account of him being bigand boingy.
Well, he is still big and boingy but easier to ride in the TCS. I've long given up trying to get my six foot frame to look pretty but still dreamt of being effective without hampering the horse. ZBD goes better in the TCS than any saddle I've put on him. His choice".
GW: "After seeing the damage treed saddles can do to backs I'll never ride in a saddle again. I started to ride in a bareback roller when nothing would fit my cob so I can't wait untill I can upgrade to a TCS in near future. I don't enjoy riding in saddles anymore I think they are restrictive & cause me hip pain".
AP: "I'd previously been using a popular branded synthetic cob saddle with changeable gullets for my pony who has drastic weight changes throughout the seasons. I'd had it regularly checked and it was Ok, so I was told. I changed to a total contact after borrowing one and finding it really comfortable and secure to ride in. I then had a cranio sacrel practitioner treat my pony and her opinion, already having treated horses and ponies already using the TCS, was that they have a positive effect on back heath. She also pointed out to me muscle wastage on one side of my pony which followed the shape of the underside of the cob saddle's cantle, most probably caused by the shoulder forcing the saddle backwards. I was mortified that my 'properly fitted' saddle had been causing my pony discomfort which had clearly affected his way of going. I'm happy to say that the muscle has now built back up and i would never go back to a treed saddle. Yes, I get people telling me I'd ride better in a 'proper' saddle and I can't do affiliated or indeed some unaffiliated local competitions but my pony's comfort is far more important to me than appearance or rosettes".
DC: "Stuart ....you can't fix stupid ..... Xxxxx"
HS: " I would definitely vouch for this saddle. Help fix a 16.1 ISH with a terribly sore back. He is the opposite to many on this post as he is mainly TB with a high long wither and a slight roach. I could write reams about how it has helped me and him. But here are some pictures for starters!"
Two messages have been received form clients regarding their experiences of pain free riding and these may be of interest here as they relate to the horse and the rider:
"LJ" sent in a message and is on my Facebook page (25 May 2018) - "Today I rode my horse out for the first time in your TCS - all I can say is wow! I don't really know where to start but the second I placed my foot in the stirrup we both felt the difference. As I sat down my horse remained relaxed in his back and showed no tension. My boy has always had an aversion to the saddle so feeling him so relaxed was heart lifting. I was instantly amazed by how comfortable I was and felt secure. The most incredible difference was how my horse felt - relaxed, even, straight and forward! He was responsive to my seat and carried himself in a wonderful natural outline with no request from me. My contact remained light and I barely needed any. My usual nagging leg was absent and I hardly needed to use it. His normal lurch into trot was smooth and fluid and we sat a most comfortable trot - something that has been difficult in a GP. My pelvis was free and I had no lower back pain. My horse was also free in his shoulder and back and powered from behind - the difference was phenomenal. Today I rode a different horse. Thank you so much for this revolutionary design, it is genius".
"Thank you for my Total Contact saddle , I absolutely love it , I suffer with arthritis in my hip and my hip joints and with a English saddle I would be riding in pain as it would push my hips forward and leave me in pain but the saddle lets me relax in my seat and I'm pain free thank you xx" Came in from "SH" 25 May 2018
Studies suggest that the incidence of back/pelvis pain in riders in all types of conventional saddles (Western and English) may be as high as 70% but maybe it doesn't have to be that way ....