Development and Design of the Horse Racing Saddle
Saddles have long been used in horse riding to provide comfort and stability to the rider and the horse. Early saddles were little more than thick padding strapped over the horse’s back to provide the rider with added comfort. Horse racing saddles have certainly come a long way from these humble beginnings.
It was only after the invention of the stirrup that saddle designs were able to change somewhat radically. Over time different horse sports arose in which different requirements were placed on the saddle. Before long it was discovered that a rider with short stirrups who stood up over his horse could provide the horse's legs and shoulders with more freedom of movement, enabling it to move faster. Weight was also found to slow down a horse.
Flat Racing Saddles became lighter and placed the jockey as high up as possible. Before long, racing saddles, resembling the average ‘exercise’ saddle used in flat race training today, emerged. These saddles have longer sides (flaps) and a stronger, more steadily built saddletree (wooden frame) as the horse spends many hours under such a saddle and its comfort is paramount. The saddles are also long and have a flat pommel (front) and cantle (back) to ensure that nothing hampers the movement of the jockey.
The desire to create a lighter saddle for increased speed continued. In time certain saddle manufacturers, such as ‘Bates Saddles’, started using lightweight synthetic materials. Thus they were not only able to make their saddles lighter, but more colorful. Today the vast majority of horse racing saddles are synthetic. The average training saddle may have a half tree or full tree. The half tree, while being lighter, is loosing popularity as it creates unwanted pressure on the horse’s spine.
Full tree saddles are heavier but better for the horse's back in the long run. This is especially important in the sport of horse racing where the jockey places all his weight in his stirrups. Since the stirrups are attached to the saddletree, the tree helps to dissipate the weight evenly instead of allowing it to accumulate in one specific point on the horse’s spine which can lead to a number of different health problems.
Race saddles are lighter, smaller and not as strong. They weigh less (between 11 ounces and four pounds) and so give the horse an added advantage in the race, but their structure does not adequately protect the horse's back to enable long-term usage. In fact, just the friction of an untrained jockey bouncing on the horses back in such a saddle could result in tissue damage to the horse’s spine! These saddles are so small that the girth strap used for securing them is only fastened to a single billet or tab. Hence, a second girth or ‘surcingle’ must be placed over the saddle to provide extra safety and security.
Horse racing saddles cannot be used for every day riding as they provide the rider with little or no security. In fact, they place the jockey in such an insecure position that almost all activities involved in preparing for the race – such as mounting and getting into the starting gate – are performed by qualified assistants and not the jockey himself. The remarkably short stirrups used by the jockey place him in a very vulnerable position. Should one stirrup fail him, he will undoubtedly fall from his speeding horse as he is too far from the horse's back to simply sit down and continue riding. The absence of support and continual motion of the horse also requires that a jockey be in peak physical condition in order to maintain this position for the length of the race. So the next time you see a thoroughbred thundering down the racetrack spare a thought for that vital piece of equipment that keeps the jockey on his back.