The Search for Knee Room

Do you find that your upper leg, your femur, never seems to have space in the "average" saddle?  That you're not tall, or especially long legged, but you struggle to keep your knee on the saddle, whether it's a show saddle, a jump saddle, or somewhere in between?  It's so often a tick box on the list of anyone looking for a new saddle, and posts on various FB groups an other social media so often cite this as the rider's biggest challenge with saddle fitting.

In the States many saddle fitters have spent a long time arguing that generally people are in too-small saddles. 18" and even 19" are not uncommon seat sizes, unlike in the UK.  This is often an attempt to deal with knee room.  

We have short-backed horses becoming more and more common - in the native world breeders try and put bigger and bigger fronts on their stock, and yet the issue with shoulders not looking impressive is so often down to saddles running up the neck.  And shock horror, the shorter the back the harder it is to fit a saddle that doesn't run forwards!

We have female riders complaining that saddles are made for men and can't accommodate them correctly.  There is more than one company out there saying that women should ride in women specific saddles.  On this topic, working with a company that has imprinted maybe 5000 pelvises of both sexes, there is more in common than there is that's different, especially when it comes to seat shape requirements.  

It is true that women have one aspect that does tend to differ from men, and that's relative thigh length. Our thighs tend to be longer, our calves shorter, and our feet smaller. This means we feel like we're often lacking leg room, and we need to drop our thighs more than someone with shorter femurs in order to get our heels back underneath our hips, so we're often in a chair seat of some kind.

ABOVE: Emma Cutting of Beaumoor Sentire (a fantastic training and rehab yard near Pontefract) in an 18" saddle fitted for her "extremely long" femur, yet still she was lacking knee space as you can see. Emma is actually only 5'5, and her lower leg is proportionately longer than her thigh, so what's going on?

Do we always have to go for a bigger seat? If we do, are there drawbacks? What if we ride a short backed horse? How do we find that extra room for a long thigh, whether it's a jump, dressage, GP or other style of saddle?

We can see that going for what is probably two seat sizes larger than a rider's hip measurement and height might indicate isn't always going to work, even to give knee room.  The rider can end up swimming in the larger seat size, they might sit further back, might even be MORE likely to be sitting on the cantle that with a too-small seat.  With the stirrup bar located towards the front of the saddle, a chair seat is a real risk.  

It should also be noted that, if fitting to the pelvic shape of the rider in order to gain stability, the larger the seat size the narrower the base of support.  Clearly not a solution in most cases.

What are the causes of the knee running forwards?

1.  If your horse has a wide ribcage, and especially if you have narrow hips (and no, you often can't judge hip width/articulation from the outside or even from your own knowledge of your body) then your knees are going to run forwards more than if you're on a narrow horse.

2.  Stirrup bars located too far forwards.

3.  Seat size, shape, and saddle construction.

 Above:  The wonderful Billy, with one of the widest backs around.  

I think we can all imagine sitting on such a wide surface - our knees HAVE to go forwards in most cases as our hips just aren't built wide enough to be able to wrap around that shape, no matter how fabulous the horse!  Hip articulation has three different aspects as shown in the image below (image from  Unless we've had our hips exrayed or otherwise medically examined it's unlikely we really know what shape we are.  An off horse assessment before saddle fitting can give us a really good idea of what's going on, helping us even on very wide horses, though there are some combos where any fitter would struggle to get a rider aligned.

The second issue is stirrup bar placement.  The stirrup bar placement must suit the rider for the type of riding they wish to do.  The idea is that the ball of the foot, in the stirrup with the stirrup leather vertical, placing the foot back under the hip for flatwork, and just a little forwards of that point for jumping.  If the stirrup bar is too far forwards the foot may or may not pull it back, depending on the rider, saddle and horse, but in most cases the foot will sit under the stirrup bar, and with the knee coming forwards it's more likely to come off the front of the flaps.

It should be noted that stirrup bars can be too far back.  There is one particular rider focused coach who introduced a saddle range with their preferred bar location and it was much too far back for many riders, causing the knee AND the pelvis to drop too far.

Third is seat size, shape and saddle construction.  Seat size was mentioned earlier on in this post, and a too-large seat size, whether you're fitting to hip measurement (traditional saddle fitting) or pelvic size and shape (biomechanical approach), having the rider in too large a seat gives us many reasons for the hip angle to close and the knee and foot to run forwards.

Too wide a twist is often cited as a cause.  Now for people with a narrow pelvis or hips, this may well be true.  For me, with a wide pelvis, it was the large seat sizes I was always put in, the twist being too narrow for me, and me tipping my pelvis back to avoid pain from the twist, with my knee then struggling to stay down as the hip angle would need to increase! So it's not only a too wide twist but a too narrow one that can cause the hip angle to close, as can too wide a seat in a few cases.

Last is saddle construction.  I fit wide horses as a speciality, with traditionally made English saddles from AH.  They're brilliant saddles, beautifully made, and fitted for stability.  They sit the rider down and around the horse, and have the panel sewn into the sweat flap as you can see below on the left.  This works really well for most riders with an average stirrup length and for some will work well even with long stirrups, but some people will find the bulk it causes under the inner thigh to contribute to a more forward knee.

 On the right is an AH Supercob (brown) and a Thorowgood Cob (black).  Which do you think it the bulkiest under the thigh?

In fact the ErgoX2 saddle, with independent "round" panels, flocked to be fairly deep, give the most space for the inner thigh, and the least pressure on the hips.  The Thorowgood is the bulkiest, often the case with adjustable headplate construction.  All that extra "stuff" under the thigh really does push the knee forwards.

At this stage I should point out that anything that makes the knee run forwards is also likely to make the whole leg rotate outwards from the hip, the very opposite of what we want for effective equitation.

A monoflap may be useful in some cases to let the knee drop but for some riders, on some horses, it would be a disaster.  Every rider is an individual and must have their saddle fitted to their own particular shape, and how they sit on that particular horse.  It IS complex in some cases to find a solution but here are two examples, the black and white from, and the colour comparison shows Emma Cutting, shown above in the first photo, in both a 17.5 Stride Free jump saddle, and her test ride in a 16" ErgoX2 saddle...FOUR seat sizes smaller and more knee room than the black 18"! Though we did order her a slightly longer flap for her custom made saddle...but in both examples it's clear how much more the knee can drop once in the right saddle.

So if you're chasing knee room, and keep needing to go bigger and bigger, and more and more forwards flaps...stop.  Have a think about whether it's better to look at why your knee isn't dropping, chat to your fitter and see if they can help you.

PS. You can see Emma's account of her saddle fitting here, she has more knee room in the tan saddle shown but look where her bum is!

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