Saddle Fit for the Child Rider
Why Do the Girls Outnumber the Boys?
By Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CSE
When we think about children and riding, we usually picture little girls and their ponies. Popular equestrian magazines with the target market of younger riders are usually focused on girls – it’s really rare to see photos in these magazines featuring boys. Later in this article I’ll discuss some of the possible reasons why boys do not usually get involved with horses from a young age, but first I want to address the importance of getting the right saddle from the get-go.
In a sport where men and women compete equally against each other, at the young and amateur rider levels the girls greatly outnumber the boys. Photo: Shutterstock/Pirita
Most young riders are girls, and unless they have the wonderful luxury of well-off parents who can buy them their own pony, they start riding at a riding school – hopefully an accredited one. Unfortunately, most of these riding schools are extremely limited in their funding and will use donated horses and ponies with probably donated saddles and tack. From the experience of our own daughters taking riding lessons at summer camp and then at a local riding school, we know these saddles usually fit “more or less” (usually less) and must be used on several horses. It is not unusual to see saddles with two or more pads. Inevitably, our girls would come home after riding lessons and complain that their “tushes” hurt.
In general, children will not demonstrate the ramifications of having ridden in gender-inappropriate and badly-fitted saddles until they’re older. Many children ride in saddles that are simply uncomfortable because, a) they don’t know any better, b) their trainer tells them to “suck it up,” and c) they just want to ride and really don’t care.
Conscientious parents would never let their children wear shoes that don’t fit. Some of the potential issues arising from podiatric problems include leg length and balance, scoliosis, back pain, and pelvic misalignment, and are difficult to correct in adulthood, which is why it is important that shoes fit properly during the formative years.
Similarly, accommodating and making do with incorrect riding positions can also cause developmental structural issues and possible chronic health issues that may not manifest themselves until after puberty.
Of course, not every child will be able to have their own saddle; smaller-sized pony saddles are rarely available on the market and are generally not cheap. But the ideal situation for these children, and for adult riders who are limited to riding school horses, would be to have a saddle that fits the rider and is generically fitted to the horse with the shortest back and widest shoulders, then shimmed as appropriate when used on other horses to make it at least semi-fit. It is a given that if the rider is uncomfortable in the saddle their discomfort will translate down to the horse – no matter how well the saddle may fit the horse – and impede optimum balance and freedom of movement.
Many children ride in uncomfortable saddles because they just want to ride, or they don’t know any better. Hip pain, for example, can result when the twist of the saddle is too wide for the young rider. Photo: Michelle J. Powell/Schleese Saddlery
Now, let’s return to a possible theory on why more boys don’t ride. Besides not being a macho enough sport for North American boys (football, baseball, hockey, basketball, and soccer being the sports of choice), there may also be genuine anatomical issues preventing this.
I have conferred with my friend Dr. James Warson (author of The Rider’s Pain-Free Back and one of the only certified equestrian medical professionals in the industry). This is what he told me, and what I included in a chapter in my book:
“A young man’s testicles lay between his pelvis and the saddle. There are three muscular components in the testicles, one in the wall of the scrotum, one in the vas deferens (connecting the testes with the urethra), and the cremaster (responsible for ‘tightening of the balls’ or pulling the testicles back up into the body cavity in a protective measure). This last muscle doesn’t function fully before puberty, which means that a young boy actually feels his testicles being ‘squished’ when riding because they cannot be retracted.”
This becomes a real issue during trot or canter, which may explain why young boys prefer to do their riding in a walk or posting trot. This is, of course, embarrassing to discuss with both your riding instructor and your mother, which is probably why boys would rather pursue other sports.
The McClellan Saddle, for men whose careers would be spent on horseback, was designed by George B. McClellan, a career Army officer in the US Army, and adopted by the army in 1859. The saddle remained in continuous use until the US Army’s last horse cavalry and horse artillery was dismounted in World War Two. After that, the saddle continued to be used with US Army ceremonial mounted units. Photo (left): Wikimedia Commons/Ft. Kearny Nebraska State Park, USA. Photo (right): Christoph Rieser (used with permission)
If the pressure from the saddle is too great on the sensitive area between the testicles and the anus (the perineum), it can actually hinder blood flow through the artery that leads into the penis. This could eventually cause erectile issues all the way to complete impotence if the blood flow stops totally. The recognition of this potential problem actually led to the development of the McClellan saddle for the military back in the 1850s, reducing the risk of impotence for men whose careers depended on life in the saddle. This is one of those lost nuggets of wisdom, which absolutely should be reintegrated into saddle design and could possibly influence the unbalanced female/male riding statistic.
Related: Saddle Fit and the Heavier Rider
Main photo courtesy of Schleese Saddlery