Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Horse Piece and The Rider Piece: A Commentary on Coaches Sandy Howard, Mary Wanless and Charlotte Dujardin

I have been a student all my life. For many years I took "riding lessons", and I presumed that there was a single standard of competency. Instructors were good or bad, pedestrian or genius. These rankings seemed to me to be absolute, and to apply equally to horse and rider. It is only recently - magnified by experiences with two top clinicians this year - that I feel able to begin to describe the vast difference between a coach who can profoundly help the rider, and a coach who can profoundly help the horse. These are not always the same person.

Now and then, you'll find both talents in one package, and so it was with the coach (and friend and mentor) who opened the doors for me. Here's the story.


Alexsandra "Sandy" Howard, USEF rider on several squads in the 1970s and 1980s. Grand Prix competitor on self-made horses.  Judge, USDF Dressage Committee member and extraordinary coach, teacher, and friend with endless curiosity. 1940-2013.

I came to the study of serious dressage late in life. In 2006 when I was offered an FEI horse to lease, I was 45 years old with a solid background riding jumping horses (primarily eventers and jumpers). I thought I had “done dressage” but in hindsight, all I had learned was to wiggle the reins to get a pretty neck while riding the horse flat and on the forehand.  I really had no idea there was any other way to ride than to kick with the feet and pull with the hands.

Because I am a saddle fitter, I get to all the local barns and see all sorts of trainers. Years ago, one trainer in particular caught my attention because all the horses and riders in her barn made progress (unlike many programs, where horse, rider, or both achieve a certain level and stay there into perpetuity). I’m keenly aware that progress is not for every rider (and is stressful and counter-productive for some), but I’m a goal-oriented progress junkie who needs measurable results to be satisfied. Know what you need.

I was fortunate when I found Sandy Howard and the more so when she took me on as a student in 2003 for a few lessons on a borrowed horse. A few years later I proudly and timidly showed up at Sandy’s American Sport Horse in Watsonville, CA. I unloaded Carol Babington’s Iditarod (“Ditto”), a 14-year-old confirmed FEI dressage horse wearing the jumping saddle I still favored. Sandy accepted us (though said archly, "surely you, of all people, could find a dressage saddle?"). Thus began a journey down a path I still follow.

Sandy (who sadly died last year) was a pioneer in rider biomechanics. She was an open-minded advocate for change who found and embraced new ideas, and remained fiercely loyal to the ones that actually worked (both Mary Wanless and my ReactorPanel saddles came onto her radar and stayed there).

Through Sandy, I began to learn and finally to understand how the rider’s body must function: first to follow and later to influence the moving horse. As Sandy taught me to ride Ditto, there were major lightbulb moments as I retrained my jumper rider's strong but immobile leg and swaying body to have the exact opposite pattern: an active thigh with stable core. I had absolutely no idea how to hold the horse with my seat, or how profoundly the thigh can influence the horse's balance and collection.  Through Sandy's patient and careful tutelage, I began to ride with my center, not my ends. Hands and feet became secondary to the main aid system, which is essentially between my belly button and my knees (and uses every single muscle in that region, sometimes nearly to the point of failure). This transformation is NOT an easy proposition – and sometimes, more than 10 years later, is still challenging.

Here are some of the more memorable “aha” moments I took from Sandy as I began to learn to ride a upper level movements (forgive the liberal interpretation after all this time):

On posting a huge trot: Don’t try to limit the amount you rise. Instead, post higher. Take the lead, set the rhythm, and control the trot with your hip. It will be easier to post if you post big.

On sitting (the same) huge trot: When a trot has a great deal of vertical dynamic, it is easy to focus on the up beat and forget to ride the down. The horse drops out from underneath you if you're not riding the down beat just as you ride the up, and if this happens, you'll bounce (for anyone interested, here's a link to a piece Sandy wrote about sitting the trot which explains this much more accessibly: http:

On collecting the canter: If you think that a collected canter is  slower, you're wrong. The feet actually hit the ground quicker because they don't travel as far. To get the stride to shorten, use the seat quicker. (Let me say: this is totally counter intuitive. And it totally works).

On improving the canter: The canter has three distinct beats, and most people push on the first beat. To get more jump in the canter, push on the second beat (I push my pubic bone against the rise of the saddle - you may find a different pattern with your body or your horse).

On collection, in general: It takes an active thigh to influence the horse. This might sound incredibly crude, but I have found that when my horse is trotting too fast, if I lift my thighs in a quick rhythm, the horse will slow down much more reliably than if I pull on the reins. If I lift my thighs AND bounce my lower belly, the step will be short with suspension. It is really interesting to try these things!

On extending the trot: This seemed counterintuitive to me when Sandy taught me to use my seat in a slower rhythm while riding a medium or extended trot. As she explained, if you don't ask for suspension, there won't be any.

On steering an FEI horse: Turn with the knees, not the reins. This works - try it.

At times, Sandy and Ditto seemed to be having their own conversation. She would tell me to do something incomprehensible to me, then cluck loudly. Ditto would understand, and do as she asked. I would get the credit. This didn’t happen all that often…more commonly, Sandy would ask, I would be perplexed, and Ditto would share my confusion. Eventually though, things came together. I began to ride shoulder-in, then half-pass in trot and eventually, in canter. We added flying changes, then multiple changes, and finally tempi changes! The collected canter became easy, and we learned pirouettes. One fine day, we even made it down the centerline at Prix St. Georges (this was the day I learned that Ditto had show ring phobia, but that is another story for another day).

Sandy taught me to be inside my body and to be a much better and more effective rider. Through me, my horse learned to carry himself in balance and collection. Sandy was equally gifted at getting the best out of the horse and the rider simultaneously. I don’t think at the time I fully appreciated her for this incredible skill set.


Mary Wanless, author, teacher and clinician of her own style of teaching, called "Ride With Your Mind" (RWYM). While thousands have benefited from her teaching over decades, she has recently been given new prominence by her star student, Heather Blitz.

I heard about Mary Wanless many years ago through reading her book “For the Good of the Horse”. I honestly think I was drawn to it because it was one of the only books written in the 1990s that referenced ReactorPanel saddles. I was intrigued with her commonsensical and basic approach, but that’s as far as it went at the time.

After I met Sandy in the early 2000’s, I learned that Mary came to Sandy’s farm to clinic every year or so. The clinic consisted of two sections: individual riding sessions as any clinician offers, and a teacher-training section to get inside Mary’s work. The first year that I was involved, Sandy asked me to lead a session on how the saddle might influence rider seat and position. I was thrilled to be invited to participate and excited about meeting and working with Mary, which has now become a favorite habit.

Mary Wanless doesn’t just teach her information (which is vast and marvelous, and almost always transformational). She also teaches how to learn. I attended her most recent teacher training in February 2014, and got my money’s worth during the first hour of the first day, when Mary said, “if you tell many people the same thing, you will get many results. If you want to get the same results from many people, you must say many things”. Mary explains that each person translates information differently, and comes up with their own metaphor for their own success. She makes a point of connecting with each student until she learns their own definition of how it feels to make a breakthrough, and then feeds back their signal to encourage better riding. She may tell a student, "Be meringue", or "Squeeze the cheese", or "find the carousel pole". Each causes a specific and favorable reaction in one - and only one - student. This, alone, is remarkable.

Mary is very much against rote instruction which is interpreted differently by different people. Such instruction does not give riders the specific information they need to achieve improvement. For instance, those who are taught to “stretch up” or to “grow tall” almost always exhibit the opposite of a functional rider's desirable traits. You'll often see a lack of core strength and a hollow lower back with a high center of gravity. These are terms that must be used to be understood.

My own Mary epiphany happened perhaps a decade ago, as Mary encouraged me to reduce the distance from my armpits to my hipbones and to ride chest down. I passed the mirror expecting to see that I was slumped over in the saddle like some rank beginner. I was shocked to find that I was perfectly stacked over my neutral pelvis. Though I saw the reflection of my elegant and functional torso, I felt like the Little Teapot: short and stout! This became my metaphor for a correct upper body – one I returned to time and again as I was learning to access the strength and effectiveness of a strong and stable core. "Teapot", I would mutter to myself. "Teapot".

Mary is expert at finding a rider’s weaknesses and asymmetries, and then providing extremely specific instruction that enables the rider to use isometric strength to increase their effectiveness in the saddle. Watching Mary work with a new horse and rider combination is to watch a massive transformation take place. As the rider improves, the horse transforms as well though in the Mary-world, there is absolutely no instruction directed toward the horse. Mary never says “put him on the bit” or “bend him” or “lengthen the stride” but all these things happen as the rider improves, no matter the level of the rider.

A few years ago, Mary asked an upper level rider to imagine that the horse had a grappling hook in each hip, attached by rope to a hook in the rider's hip. As the rider trotted, Mary asked her to pull on the grappling hooks with every stride. Within 20 seconds, the trot had improved loft, suspension and reach. I saw the rider the next day and commented on what an amazing transformation had occurred through what appeared to be visualization. "Oh no," she said. "That wasn't imaginary - you would not believe how sore I am today".

Mary Wanless is a true genius in the “rider piece”. Any rider who comes before her will benefit in terms of greater effectiveness, improved position, better connection with the horse, and a more solid seat.


Charlotte Dujardin, Gold Medalist at the 2012 Olympics, and current world record holder of the top scores ever recorded at Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special, and Grand Prix Freestyle.

You don’t need me to tell you that Charlotte is a whiz kid. A bonafide freak of nature who is an unbelievably talented and natural rider. She has a sense of harmony with horses that is heart-wrenching (in all the good ways!) to behold. When she was a teenager, she watched a video about piaffe and passage, and in very short order, taught both to her National Show Pony. And that was just the beginning...

I was fortunate enough to observe Charlotte teaching and riding over a two-day seminar at Los Angeles Equestrian Center a few weeks ago. The horses and riders presented were all of the highest quality (many were successful international competitors), and Charlotte demonstrated that her skill at observation is absolutely on par with her riding ability.

There were some fascinating components to Charlotte’s approach. Her work is less about a pyramid of training and more about what might come easily to a horse in his present state. She had a four-year-old attempt (and succeed at!) flying changes, after encouraging the rider to trot “as fast as you can” around the arena until the youngster began to lengthen his stride. This requires a level of intuition about the horse and knowledge of what is possible for this horse to achieve safely and sanely that is not available to most of us, who must follow tried and true formulas instead.

In every situation, Charlotte suggested exercises that improved the horse to positive and immediate effect. Her approach is the opposite of drilling a movement or concept. Whenever a horse was sticky, didn’t seem to understand, or began to anticipate, Charlotte had a new exercise or technique to get the best from the horse. The work was incredibly varied with very little time spent on any single movement, and each working session ended with a stretchy swinging trot.

As Charlotte’s suggestions improved the horses, it was clear that she expected riders to show up with a full tool kit, and to have enough experience to know how to use their aid system to get these results. She gave very few practical suggestions for getting the work done, but instead, requested a do-over when the work was less than perfect. It was clear that this worked for some but not all of the riders. Charlotte’s rider comments were along these lines: “stop pulling on the reins”, “sit more over to the other side”, “get straighter”, or the devasting, “that was terrible! Do it again”. These comments are only useful to a rider who has the body awareness to understand the issue, the control to correct it, and the mindfulness to stay corrected. More than one rider had moments of being absolutely unable to follow Charlotte's commands, and her cheerful insistence that there was "nothing to it - just pull the reins to slow down, and use the feet to go forward" were completely undermined by her riding, which includes one of the strongest and most active thighs I have ever seen, coupled with a dynamic seat and pelvis that lead every step of her dance with the horse. She is so good that she has no idea how she is getting it done. But don't for a minute think that this phenom is riding with her hands and her feet!

It has become increasingly clear to me that to reach the greatest potential, both horse and rider need expert coaching that is patient, humane, and progressive. It is also clear that some coaches have the key to the rider piece, and others can provide the horse piece. As we set goals for ourselves and our horses, perhaps we should contemplate using more than one coach to achieve our dreams.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving: A Reflection

I've been in the business world a long time. A really long time - more than 30 years. From the early days, we were taught certain concepts and buzz words. The bosses were always talking about  "mission statement", "gross profit", "continuous improvement", "annual growth", and "customer satisfaction". I don't remember being invited to be thoughtful about our business, our business environment, or about the way we conducted ourselves as corporate citizens. In fact, back when I was climbing the corporate ladder, we regularly re-allocated profits before submitting month-end numbers to our HQ back east. It seemed at the time to be the most logical series of actions: ones that might shield us in the future. I know now that we were simply cooking the books.

That was long ago and far away. I've come full circle in so many ways: back to the Bay Area. Back to the horses. I'm now in my 50's, and I must admit: I have a love affair with middle age. Buzz words don't mean much to me anymore. I am thrilled with substance, health and honesty. I'm dazzled by nature, nurture, and a fuzzy muzzle. I'll take a wagging tail over a certificate of achievement any time. Now that I'm running my own business, I set my own standards of ethical behavior, and if you know me, you know I set them high. It's a bar I love to jump - again and again.

Around here we don't expect customer satisfaction...we're not satisfied ourselves until we achieve delight. We're not interested so much in creating sales, as we are in preventing harm. We measure ourselves in terms of our success with horses, less so with people. For instance, even in the privacy of our offices you won't hear us say, "We sold Karen a saddle", but instead, "Karen just called to say she's keeping her saddle because Whimsy stopped spooking!" We're clear about why we are here and who we serve.

As I pause today in gratitude, I reflect on the very best part: coming to work with like-minded people, whether they are my friends, mentors, customers, co-workers or colleagues. In fact, most of them blur these lines and distinctions. All are innovative thinkers, passionate believers in the welfare of horses. Each of us touch each other in profound ways, and I am profoundly thankful for my worldwide equine community.

With wishes for the best of the season to all,

Also thankful to have come down the centerline for the first time six weeks ago
on my young Dutch mare "Bijou"!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Progress Report: GG and Cora

I returned to Cora's barn a week later to check on the progress of the lumbar swelling and to find out how GG's RP saddle trial was going. I arrived before the vet, so was able to check Cora's back and get a full report from GG. After a week of riding in the ReactorPanel saddle, the swelling on the loin was considerably reduced but still present. GG reported that Cora had exhibited saddling anxiety and wouldn't stand still under her old saddle, but with the RP, she was calm for saddling and mounting; it was a night and day difference. The best part? GG said that she could feel how happy and relaxed Cora was during their rides on the rugged trails around the ranch. 

Dr. Isbell arrived with her portable ultrasound equipment, which is state-of-the-art and very high resolution. She was able to see that the damage appears to be a fracture at the anterior tip of L1, the first lumbar vertebra. She conjectured that the crunchy area was the result of fibrous tissue in the area which was the body's attempt to heal and stabilize the area. Because this is an area of the back that is quite mobile, full healing is unlikely. However, it is quite likely that Cora will remain usable for her current job: a trail horse. She is in very little pain at present, and seems to have good mobility and soundness. As a follow-up, an x-ray will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. 


This shot shows the swelling on Cora's spine after it was shaved for the ultrasound. It was described by the vet this way:  

"Soft tissue lump on right side of L1 that is mildly to moderately sensitive and about 2-3 cm in diameter."
T   This photo shows a "basic" gullet on Cora; you may be able to see the raised area, which crosses her spine diagonally from left to right. While this gullet is adequate for the width of her spine and spinous processes under normal conditions, she will need a wider gullet to be sure to clear the injured area. Why? When turning, the inner edge of the panel will move closer to the spine and we want to avoid putting pressure on the swollen area at all times.

With a ReactorPanel, it takes just a few seconds to adjust the rear of the panels and to set them farther apart. This widened gullet ought to be sufficient to clear the damaged area, but GG will need to test-ride the saddle to be sure. If this is not enough clearance, the next step will be to add a thick wool felt pad, and then to cut a large and symmetrical oval in the center/rear of the pad to be absolutely certain that there is no pressure at all on the injury.

GG has switched to the ReactorPanel Endurance model to see if the external thigh block may be enough of an incentive to switch her from Western to English. Meanwhile, she's continuing to ride Cora and to monitor her back while waiting for the confirmation of the diagnosis via xray. If there are any unusual twists to this story or profound new information, I will update this blog then. Otherwise - until next time!


Friday, June 22, 2012

Case Study: Saddle fit related swelling on the spine at the thoracic-lumbar junction

GG and Cora
Saddle-related swelling on the spine

After spending nearly fifteen years exploring the horse’s back, it’s unusual to see pathology that I’ve never seen before. Last Saturday, that’s exactly what happened. Here's the entire far.

A little more than a week ago, I received a call from a local rider, GG. She recently acquired a Tennessee Walker mare, Cora. The mare came with a raised area on her back but it didn’t seem painful, nor did it concern the veterinarian who conducted the pre-purchase examination.Next, GG spent quite a bit of money on a really good western saddle with the intention of keeping Cora as comfortable as possible. Thinking all was well, GG was quite distressed when she finished a trail ride and removed her supposedly well-fitting saddle to find a contusion on Cora’s spine, right on top of the existing lump. She evaluated the area and concluded that the screws in her flex-tree saddle had pressed directly onto the spine, creating the damage. She asked me to come determine why this saddle didn’t fit, and what Cora might need instead. 

Initial Examination 
I arrived at the barn to meet Cora, a petite mare with a visible swelling at the thoracic-lumbar junction. This is the spot on the loin of the horse where the thoracic vertebrae end and the lumbar vertebrae begin. Pressing on the bump gave the sense of something popping, as though there were nitrogen bubbles in the tissue. The feeling is similar to the crunch of compromised cartilage that can be felt in many aging human knee joints. The mare was not particularly sensitive to palpation of and immediately around the swelling, but did have a mild painful reaction in the Latissiumus Dorsi, or the long back muscles, on the left side of her body. I have never seen a presentation like this before, and had no idea if the problem was primarily muscular or primarily skeletal. Because she did not seem to be in significant pain, we proceeded with the fitting.

Cora’s Saddle Fit Problems
When we examined Cora’s saddle, we found that the tree angles were a poor fit for her shoulders; the tree was too long for her short back, and it was too flat from front to back, resulting in bridging. We were able to find a substitute saddle owned by one of GG’s friends which addressed all of these issues: the tree angles were correct and so there was room for the shoulder; the tree had more rock and so followed the curves of Cora’s back, and the saddle was shorter and so did not extend back past the last true rib.

A Good Pressure Test: Not the whole answer!
We saddled Cora with the test saddle and our Port Lewis Impression Pad to conduct a pressure test of the borrowed saddle. GG rode for the 20 minutes required for a test and I had the opportunity to watch Cora move. She seemed to be a rather tense member of the Walker family, keeping her head fairly high and neck and back tense while she was ridden. She was extremely forward, sometimes even frantic it seemed, scrambling a bit as she rounded corners of the small arena. GG is a balanced and confident rider. The pressure test showed a very even distribution of weight under the saddle with no obvious pressure points.

After unsaddling Cora, I checked the swelling on her back and found that the “crunchy” area, formerly quite small and fixed, was now quite diffuse. The nitrogen bubble effect could now be felt while palpating an area 2” in any direction around the swollen area. It appeared that the pressure of the saddle pad directly on the swelling had caused this effect and we contemplated cutting a large hole in the saddle pad so that were would no longer be pressure directly on the spine. However, before we could do this…

The ReactorPanel Difference
…we decided to try a ReactorPanel saddle on Cora. Though GG has only ridden western in the past, she was curious about our saddles and how they work. Right away GG was intrigued by my ability to create a wide gullet in the rear of the saddle so that I could avoid putting pressure near the damaged area. She got on for a test ride, and after feeling Cora stretch her neck out, relax her back and go extremely quietly and calmly, GG had to give me a hug on my way out of the barn. The transformation was amazing!

Current Status
At present, we do not have a diagnosis for Cora’s back problem. Because it’s so unusual,  I’ve requested to remain involved during the process of exploration with local veterinarians. I also reached out to my friend and brilliant diagnostician, Dr. Kerry Ridgway DVM who provided excellent advice (if anyone reading this would like to know more about the back-and-forth discussions, please email me).

GG has been riding in the ReactorPanel VSD Summit, and is very pleased to report that the swelling on Cora’s back has gone down quite a bit and is, in fact, the best it’s been since she got the horse. She has written me several very touching emails detailing their progress together. While she knows that she has more research and work to do, she clearly expressed her happiness and gratitude for being able to improve her horse’s quality of life through better saddle fit.

Next Steps
I will be attending the meeting with local vet Dr. Diane Isbell for an ultrasound examination tomorrow afternoon, and will keep monitoring GG and her progress with her RP saddle trial. I’ll update this blog with the results of both events!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

CONTACT INFORMATION: Jennifer Stoffer and Novel-Pliance USA

It would be greatly remiss of me to go on without acknowledging Jennifer Stoffer and Novel-Pliance and their efforts to assist us in our research and discovery. Here is contact information for themL

Jennifer Stoffer, DVM
Gaston, OR

novel electronics inc
Maria Pasquale, MS
964 Grand Avenue
Saint Paul, MN  55105
651-221-0505 (voice)

Pressure Testing at Dr. Hilary Clayton's Lab at Michigan State University


Visiting MSU was an amazing experience start to finish. It began as we drove toward the MacPhail Equine Research Facility early on the morning of April 5. The building’s fa├žade and distinctive green roof were instantly familiar from  the group’s online presence and annual reports. I was traveling with RP’s Lisa Jordan, and before we’d even entered the building, we caught each other’s eye and grinned with delight. Some years ago the two of us took Dr. Hilary Clayton’s Equine Biomechanics class (offered through Equinology at the time) and our respect for Dr. Clayton’s intellect, commitment to the principles of research and stunning body of work was embedded in both of us during that course.

We had arranged this trip in order to evaluate the Novel-Pliance sensor mat. This pad has the best reputation as a research tool – and the highest price tag – of any sensor pad on the market and we were eager to see if the result matched the build-up. We arranged to have one upper level  horse and rider, and two school horses present for the testing. All horses had their own saddles. During the course of the day we tested each horse’s saddle and then fit one or two ReactorPanel saddles to these same horses (and under the same riders). We hoped to learn as much as possible about the performance of RP relative to conventional saddles, and at the same time, to learn the capabilities of the pressure testing system so that we could see if the high cost is justified in our application. To help us in our testing, we had shipped a large box of saddles, panels, our special sorbothane rubber discs and a variety of fitting tools in advance.

The following report is being made to the best of my memory, and with the understanding that I am not a scientist nor an engineer and have only a rudimentary knowledge of how the pressure sensing systems actually work. In addition, we were not permitted to video tape (my preferred method of accurately recording a testing session) and – I admit – the sequence of events were often so fascinating that I neglected to take notes.  I apologize in advance for any factual errors that I am about to commit (I’m sure there will be some). Because we were not allowed to record these sessions, I don’t have pressure sensing maps to show you; I will do my best to obtain these images and permission to put them up here in the near future.

We began the morning with an overview of the system’s software capability. This session had been set up for us by the Novel-Pliance US staff who showed the utmost professionalism in response to our requests for information, and were the only one (of the four pad companies I contacted) to take our request for a demo seriously. Our experience was greatly enhanced by their presence, especially since Maria Pasquale, an engineer with a biomechanics degree and 8 years of experience at Novel, was on hand to operate the software. Unlike our last experience in which we were left wondering about some of the features of the system, in this case we were given an extremely thorough overview.
The system allows certain data fields to be entered to identify or name each record. These fields are predetermined and are not changeable. However, the next level down in the software permits quite a bit of data entry to thoroughly describe an individual testing session.

When it comes to recording data for evaluation, there are different methodologies. One is to record a certain time frame – say 15 seconds. MSU generally records a certain number of strides. In this fashion, they hope to capture the entire range of the stride in a way that permits comparison. For instance, if one was to do a time trial without counting strides, it is possible that the trial would begin just after – and end just before – the peak force moment of the stride. The longer the test, the less this would have a meaningful effect on results but since pressure tests seem to typically be conducted in short bursts, this could be a factor which impacts the end result.

The Novell-Pliance software appears to be much more sophisticated (to be fair, it might be that Maria is so well versed in operating the software that it simply seemed so).  And the superior data-crunching skills of Dr. Clayton and her assistant, LeeAnn Kaiser, added layers of meaning to the results.


  • The Novel pad scans at the rate of 60-80 times per second as compared to the Team-Satteltest pad at 8-15 times per second.  We don’t know how meaningful this is.
  • The Satteltest pad measures pressure; the Novel pad measures pressure and also measures force. For instance, we learned that a horse with more suspension may generate higher peak forces; this does not necessarily correlate to worse fit. In face, a saddle that permits the horse to move more freely may in fact “cause” (or enable) higher forces.
  • Both pads have 256 sensors, but the Team Satteltest pad has a significantly larger surface area. While this means the T-S pad will work under saddles with a greater weight-bearing surface, it also probably means that the distance between the sensors is greater. The Novel pad does come in a Western version which is longer in both dimensions; we did not see this pad.
  • The Novel pad is smooth; the embedded electronics are almost invisible to sight and feel. The Team-Satteltest pad has sensors which give a texture to the pad. Not sure if this is positive or not but it is a difference.
  • The Novel Pad is “sliced” front and rear so that the pad parts at the wither and again at the loin. The Satteltest pad is a single unit (though contoured for the wither). The immediate benefit to the sliced version is that shear forces of the saddle downward on the pad do not create an artificial registration of pressure on the spine (we saw this in our tests in Oregon two weeks ago). However, the ability to measure pressure on the spinal processes or spine might be very useful. Difference noted. Benefit unknown.
  • The Novel Pad can be calibrated to different scales. The generally accepted scale seems to be 60 kPA (kilo pascals - an accepted measure of force per unit area, one pascal is one newton per square meter). How the Satteltest pad is calibrated – and its scale of measurement – is so far unknown.
  • Calibrating the pad is essential for accurate results. The Novel pad has a calibration frame (at an additional cost and additional procedure). The Satteltest pad’s calibration protocol is so far unknown.
  • Unlike the Team Satteltest system that we saw last week, the Novel-Pliance system does not have a streaming mode (meaning you cannot watch the computer screen to see the pressure testing results as the rider goes around). It is possible to approximate this by recording a session without saving the result which is less convenient but perfectly functional.
  • The Team-Satteltest system includes built-in video: this is a great tool for correlating pressure to results and learning if a high pressure point occurred while the horse stumbled or the rider lost balance. The video for the Novel system is an option that adds thousands of dollars to the cost.
  • Both systems have a graphical representation of the rider’s center of pressure (this is not the center of balance, and is certainly not the center of gravity – we were mistaken earlier).

In (preliminary) conclusion - we believe that the Novel-Pliance system is fantastic in a scientific/research environment. We're not sure yet that it is the best choice for our application, which is to give clear information about saddle fit to people who do not, perhaps, understand physiology, anatomy, biomechanics or saddle construction but who are responsible for making decisions about their horses' welfare. But it is certainly an item of desire for our own use.

A direct comparison of sensor pads is a logical next step, so that we can learn what, if any, impact there is on accuracy when evaluating the different scan rates, sensor density, video on board, and software in a side-by-side comparison. Daring to dream, I’m imagining another testing day – perhaps back at MSU – where we gather together as many different testing systems as possible.

The horses and saddles we tested at MSU, and the results. Hopefully with pressure scans.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Nitty-Gritty: Our First Pressure Tests


Before we get into the detail of the images, it’s important to note that the scientific community does not yet agree on how much pressure under the saddle is too much. Perhaps there will never be an absolute standard due to the number of variables. For instance, what might be tolerable pressure on a horse with even muscling and pliant tissue might be excruciating on a horse with existing damage. I am hoping that we’ll find a scale of acceptability eventually . Using the computer’s results, I feel that we could possibly immediately group saddles into three categories: “quite good”, “quite bad”, and “need to correlate to other factors as the test alone is inconclusive”. This is my own opinion and it is one that I might revise after next week’s session in Michigan with the experts: Hilary Clayton and her laboratory technicians who have been using pressure testing in sophisticated studies for several years. So – please read on with the understanding that this is a process of building knowledge and understanding; we are not yet at the point that we’re able to share absolute conclusions.


To remind you, we conducted tests of several horses wearing conventional saddles, and then wearing ReactorPanel saddles. In each case the ReactorPanel saddle was fitted hastily, and in each case the performance of the ReactorPanel  saddle was superior based on the pressure test, and also on horse and/or rider improvement in performance. While these are extremely exciting results, this research is preliminary. The testing sample was too small to be statistically valid, and none of the horses tested were wearing professionally fit or custom conventional saddles. I hope that RP will perform as well in Michigan this week!

Below, you’ll see images of the saddles we tested last week. These images are screen shots provided by Jennifer Stoffer, DVM (you’ll find her contact information at the bottom of this post). The interpretation of the day’s work is my own or based on notes I took at the time. One of the drawbacks of this technology is that some interpretation of the results is needed: the scans do not always speak for themselves.

Here they are:
Conventional saddle: bridging, skimpy weight distribution
ReactorPanel Encore with large weight bearing surface

Above, you’re looking at two images. Each shows the left and right sides of the saddle – hopefully with a gullet channel between them. The system averages pressures among the 256 sensors and then displays different pressures in different colors. We were not told what calculations are used to provide the pressure map, nor what the gradiations in color really mean.  If we become seriously interested in this technology, these are questions we will ask the manufacturer.

You are looking at scans on a Welsh Cob who is competitive at first and second levels. The saddle on the left is the horse’s usual saddle, an older Passier that was not fit for the horse. The scan on the right shows the ReactorPanel Encore dressage saddle. Both scans are aggregates showing the averages over a trot scan of approximately 15 seconds.

This horse’s conformational highlights are:
·         Short-coupled
·         Curved topline
·         Prominent shoulders (bulging scaplulae)
·         Prominent rib cage
·         Depressed trapezius and longimussus dorsi muscles (appear damaged or even slightly atrophied)
·         Minor reaction to palpation but no areas of extreme sensitivity

The pressure test on the left revealed:

·         Weight-bearing surface is smaller than optimal
·         The saddle bridges
·         The highest pressure is at the left rear, near the spine
·         The saddle bumps into the spine at times (not apparent in this aggregate image)
·         Rider’s weight is consistently off to the left as shown by the X which marks the rider’s center of gravity
·         Front-to-back balance is 57% in front, 43% in the back

RP Encore:
·         Much broader and more even weight bearing surface
·         Does not cross spine
·         65% of weight in front
·         Highest pressure: L rear, but outside, not inside
·         Much steadier laterally (not apparent on the aggregate image)


The second horse presented was a 7-year-old Hannoverian mare ridden by a professional. The horse is lovely but frustrating: she resisted left flexion and would fall out of canter without warning. In this case, the pressure tests of the horse’s conventional saddle and the RP were not significantly different but in the ReactorPanel Elegance and AvantGarde dressage saddles, the mare willingly flexed to the left and sustained the canter (the owner/rider is now in the middle of a two-week evaluation of the RP AvantGarde). This points out the need to refine the testing process; in the ideal world, the computer would clearly show that one saddle was superior to the other. Here are the scans:

Conventional Saddle: heavy on the left side
ReactorPanel Elegance: Laterally balanced

In evaluating these two scans, here are the pertinent points:

  • The saddle on the left is the horse’s own Passier Grand Gilbert that was not fitted for her
  • The saddle on the right is the ReactorPanel Elegance
  • Neither saddle has a saddle pad (other than the sensor pad)
In the conventional Passier:

  • much more weight is carried to the left than the right as shown by the larger image on the left and also the rider’s “X” (showing center of gravity) that is significantly left. This is the cause of the horse’s difficulty in flexing left.
  • More of the weight is carried forward; the pressure is not even front-to-back

 In the ReactorPanel:

  • Weight is distributed over a larger area
  • Rider’s weight is more centered
  • Although the saddle appears to cross the spine, this is an artifact of the panel movement pulling on the sensor pad. In fact, the gullet channel was wide and stable.

We tested two more horses in Oregon but time prohibits posting the results at this point. I will be sure to get those images into this blog before much more time passes, but now I must sign off and pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s trip to Michigan and Dr. Clayton’s lab. I promise to take good notes and to report –as fully as I may ethically – after these sessions. As a bonus: our dear friend and advisor Dr. Kerry Ridgway is so interested in these developments that he will be meeting us in Michigan to observe our testing day. Stay tuned!