I’m excited to share with you what I’ve learned recently about male vs. female saddle fit and how it might affect instructing adaptive and therapeutic horseback riding lessons! Last week I tried to attend the CHA’s virtual annual conference – I say tried because I had the kids and really only got two sessions in, lol – but I was really was fascinated by one particular session about “gender appropriate saddles” and how male and female anatomical differences relate to saddle fit, given by Jochen Schleese of Saddle Fit 4 Life. So I have done some more reading about it and want to share with you what I’ve learned! Enjoy!
Males and females are obviously built differently, especially in the pelvis, around which riding balanced and comfortably centers. It is important to have what Jochen Schleese calls “a gender appropriate saddle” so that the rider can comfortably maintain correct posture and therefore follow the horse’s movement. If they don’t, they will fight their saddle and make compensations to avoid pain, which could cause the rider additional physical issues as well as cause pain to the back of the horse, who cannot carry his load properly if the load is not well balanced.
Historically astride saddles (with one leg on each side) have been made for males by males, because mostly males rode due to the military, while females rode in side saddles. Only recently did horseback riding become a more female dominated activity. And only really recently have there been specific studies on how the differences in anatomy affect saddle fit to the person and impact how saddle makers are crafting their saddles. Many saddles are still made in the style for men, so our female riders may unknowingly be riding in a saddle not completely fit comfortably to them.
The Differences Between the Male and Female Anatomy for Saddle Fit
Here is a wonderful illustration that describes the main differences and terminology to know for this post:
(Kudos to Naomi Tavian for creating and sharing this on Facebook! (click the image to view it larger). For additional helpful illustrations, see Saddlery Solutions’ article #1 and article#2 here.)
In general, the following are the main differences between male and female anatomy and its relation to riding and the saddle. Note there is also variation between each person, and riders with physical disabilities may have additional structural differences, but this is a good starting place.
The Seat Bones
The male seat bones are closer together, so he can more comfortably fit into the padded part of most saddle seats. His seat bones are located more in the middle of the pelvis, which helps him rock backward onto his tailbone and seat pockets (and makes it harder for him to rock forward). His seat bones angle more parallel to each other, so they can roll forward and backward in the saddle easily.
The female seat bones are wider apart supposedly for birthing, so in a male or narrow saddle seat her seat bones often end up on the seam instead of the seat itself. Wider seat bones also causes her seat to sink lower into the saddle, so if the seat is too narrow or peaked it may rub on her pubic symphysis (the joint between the public bones, aka the crotch). Her seat bones are located more toward the back of the pelvis, so her pelvis “wants” to balance toward the front, and it is harder to lower her tailbone (also due to her tailbone being higher and more arched than a male’s). Her seat bones angle is less parallel than the male’s, but rather more open toward the front and closer toward the back, so they resist rolling freely, especially toward the back.
The main implication is that females need a saddle with a wider seat, so their seat bones are not on the seams, and with a flatter seat and twist that doesn’t rub on the pubic area. The instructor should understand that it may be harder for the female to rock back on her seat bones and flatten her lower back, to roll on her seat bones to follow the horse’s movement, and that she may prefer a more forward seat of balance while the male may prefer a more balanced or western seat. Lastly, for males slouching tends to originate in the pelvis because they can roll it back easier, while for females slouching tends to originate in the upper body and shoulders.
To offer a nice balance to all this talk about balancing on the two seat bones, here is a reminder from Sally Swift’s “Centered Riding” (affiliate link) about the ultimate goal of weight distribution extending throughout the whole seat and legs, not just the two seat points:
“Sit in the middle of your seat bones and pretend that both your legs have been cut off just above your knees… Notice that this image immediately causes your thighs to soften and drop… To remain stable you must keep as much contact as possible… you let the outer top of your femurs (thigh bones) rotate forward… The inside fronts of your stubby legs will fall over the stirrup bars…and down the sides of your saddle in front of the stirrup leathers. This will make the top three or four inches of your thighs fill the saddle over the stirrup bars, close to, and on either side of, the pommel. Once this rotation of the femurs in achieved, without altering the level or angle of the pelvis, you will find you have the well-known three-point seat – seat bones and crotch – without the discomfort of a sore or squashed crotch against the pommel… As you acquire this seat, another important thing happens. Until now, when you sat on the middle of your seat bones, most of your body weight was on them and the buttocks. As you develop the concept of stubby legs and learn to place them in the correct forward position…you will become conscious of the fact that within your body you have redistributed your weight. It is no longer only no your seat bones and buttocks. Quite a lot of the weight is now dripping down over the stirrup bars – and your pelvis remains level. Now you have progressed from two little spots of weight on your horse’s back to offering him, instead, a wide band of weight, emanating from buttocks, seat bones, and thighs. This distribution is vastly preferable to the horse.”
In the male the pelvis’s pubic symphysis (remember, the joint between the public bones, aka the crotch) sits higher and tips upward when in correct posture (the spine is perpendicular to the ground), and does not contact the saddle so he can balance just on his two seat bones.
In the female, the pubic symphysis sits lower when in correct posture, so it is closer to the front of the saddle, and may cause her to balance on her two seat bones and the pubic symphysis like a tripod (when in a male saddle).
The main implications are that the pommel of a male saddle can cause rubbing and pain to the female, causing her to avoid it by sitting in a chair position. Therefore the female saddle’s pommel should not hit her pubic symphysis, either by coming far back or by being quite peaked.
The Hip Socket
The male hip socket is shaped so that the legs hang down naturally from the hips. Therefore he can achieve proper hip to heel alignment easily, and he can easily rest his inner thigh flat against the saddle, keep his knee close to the flap without pinching, and point his toes forward.
The female hip socket is located more forward and shaped so that the legs angle out from the hips but back in at the knee, so that her legs naturally carry more weight in the upper thigh and turn the knee and toes out, making it harder to achieve proper hip to heel alignment. Therefore, if the saddle’s twist is too wide, she will feel pulled apart. If the saddle is too wide between the upper thighs, her leg is pushed forward and magnifies the knee and toe turning out. And if you force her leg back, it moves the pelvis forward causing discomfort and back pain.
The main implications are that females need a saddle with a narrow twist and that is not so wide between the upper thighs it causes her knees and toes to angle out. Female saddles allow her to have more upper leg on the horse and for the toes to point forward.
The Upper Leg
The male’s upper leg is flatter between the thighs with more muscles toward the back, so again, it is easier for him to place his inner thigh flat against the horse.
The female’s upper leg is rounder with more muscles on the inside of the thigh. Therefore, there is less room between the upper thighs, and the muscles angle inward toward the knees (almost like the top half of an hourglass).
The main implication, again, is that the saddle’s twist needs to be narrow. Also, the saddle skirt needs to attach with flat seams, and all the hardware under it should be smooth, so that there is no pressure on the inner thigh.
This reminds me of a funny remedy from from Susanne Von Dietze’s “Balance In Movement” (affiliate link), which I highly recommend as it goes very in depth about all the body’s anatomy and its part in riding, although with little mention of gender differences. She writes about positioning the thigh, “It is not easy to rotate the thigh to the inside and put it flatly against the saddle. It often helps to grip the rear muscle mass with your hand and pull it backwards. Then the bone comes closer to the saddle without interfering with the muscles between. This is often particularly helpful for people with short, round thighs.” This image of grabbing your thigh and pulling it back makes me laugh! But I guess it works for some people 🙂
The Upper Leg and Lower Leg Lengths
The male’s upper leg and lower leg lengths tend to be equal to each other. Saddles tend to be made with the stirrup bars in a place so that this type of leg can hang under itself correctly with the right hip to heel alignment.
The female’s upper leg tends to be longer than the lower leg, so that with male saddles the stirrup bar location with cause the female leg to be too far forward.
The implication is that females may need the stirrup bar to be extended to the stirrup leather can hang from further back to allow the leg to hang correctly. If your female rider cannot get her legs back, consider the placement of the stirrup bars/leathers!
The Butt Muscles
The male’s glutes are lower than the female’s. Therefore if his saddle has too much seat padding, it may restrict blood flow to sensitive areas.
The female’s glutes are higher up than the male’s. This perhaps is related to how her tailbone sits higher and is more arched. Therefore she needs additional support for the cantle angle or seat padding to prevent her buttocks from collapsing back or scooting back to find support.
Implications on Saddle Fit
The following is my summary of how to apply to above information to saddle fit:
- Understand that there are characteristics of saddles that will generally be more comfortable for males vs. females (whether or not the saddle was specifically made for a certain gender).
- If a male rides in a female-type saddle, or if a female rides in a male-type saddle, they may experience discomfort and pain (especially in the crotch area), be unable to find or maintain correct posture, be unable to follow the horse’s motion, and therefore make compensations that cause back pain in themselves or their horses.
- Males tend to need a saddle that is wider through the twist and narrower in the seat, with less seat support needed.
- Females tend to need a saddle that is narrower through the twist and wider in the seat, with more seat support needed, and the stirrup bars further back.
- Note that not everyone is the same! There is some crossover, such as a female with a narrow pelvis. Also, this is only about adults, I’m sure there are differences in children that this topic does not cover.
- Reconsider your approach to how you teach riders of the opposite gender. If you are describing what your own body would do on the horse, the rider of the opposite gender might have a hard time doing the exact same thing, especially if they are not in a gender appropriate saddle. For example, the techniques a male may use to follow the horse’s motion or sit the trot may be different than a female because of the anatomy of their lower back and pelvis.
- If your horses are having back pain, reconsider how your saddles fit your riders, since one contribution to the problem could be that the saddle fit prohibits your rider from carrying themselves properly on the horse and is causing the horse back pain.
Here is a list of things to pay attention to when fitting the saddle to the rider:
- the width of the twist & the size of the seat in relation to the pelvis, hip socket, and thighs
- the placement of the seat seams in relation to the seat bones
- the location of the pommel in relation to the pubic symphysis/crotch
- the flatness/pointiness of the middle of the saddle seat in relation to the crotch
- the shape of the saddle flap in relation to the thigh angle
- the location of the stirrup bar in relation to how the leg hangs down (may need to be extended for females)
- the support in the cantle (female may need more cushion/support)
- saddle balance – females may prefer forward seat
Implications on Applying This to Riders With Disabilities
Besides the above considerations, here are some additional issues I can think of that may come up with your riders with disabilities regarding gender appropriate saddle fit:
- Riders with physical disabilities may have additional structural differences that deviate from these generalized gender differences, that will need other considerations and adaptations.
- Riders with cognitive disabilities may not be able to tell you if, when or where it hurts! So take notice of their body language and behaviors, the horse’s behaviors, and other clues to discover if a saddle isn’t fitting them right. For example, if they scoot around a lot in the saddle it may be uncomfortable.
- Riders with decreased nerve sensitivity, no feeling below their waist, or compromised skin integrity may not actually be able to feel if something hurts or rubs, so pay extra close attention to how their body is moving in the saddle and ask them or their caregiver to check for any new sores after lessons, which could indicate poor saddle fit.
- Riders with increased sensitivity or sensory issues may be easily irritated by poor saddle fit or even little things like the saddle seams against their seat bones or the bulk under the saddle skirt against their thigh, which may cause certain behaviors like shifting in the saddle a lot, standing up in the stirrups a lot, slouching, lifting their knees out…any number of things. So when your rider has difficulty keeping correct position or sitting still or behavior issues, consider saddle fit as one possible cause.
- Some riders may be uncomfortable bringing up discomfort “down there” or telling you if it hurts. So be intentional about finding respectful ways to discuss how their saddle feels to them, and again pay close attention to visual clues that the saddle may be a poor fit.
I thought the concept was fascinating. Can you think of anything to add? Do you have any good articles about how children’s anatomy is different from adults applied to saddle fit? Leave a note in the comments!
- Deb Bennett, Ph.D. “Who’s Built Best to Ride?”
- By Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE. “Saddle Fit Differences Between Men and Women” & “Saddle fit and the female saddle” & “Male Saddle. Female Saddle. What’s the difference?”
- Peter Horobin Saddlery. “Male vs Female Pelvis” Journal/Blog.
- Kristen Vliestra of Saddlery Solutions. “Male and Female Saddles?”
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!