Are the Fabrics of our Stretch Breeches Responsible for Today's Less Than Perfect Riding?

My apologies for missing several weeks of blogs.  I was just too exhausted from riding and something had to give.  I refuse to cut down my riding if the weather is good, so I stopped writing my weekly blog. 

A few weeks ago I went to my “local” tack store and asked the owner to show me the coolest (as in not too warm) riding pants she had since the weather had gotten too hot for my wonderful full seat breeches.  She directed me to the Kerrits Flow Rise Performance Riding Tights, and when I asked her if there was anything cooler she told me that riding buck naked was the only thing cooler.  Since I have MS my body reacts very badly to the heat, and in a half hour ride I can go from being a competent rider to essentially collapsing in the saddle so I was looking forward to my cooler riding pants!

And she was right, these riding tights are cool, in fact if anything they were a little bit cooler than bare skin since the sun was not shining on my skin and I could even feel the breeze on my legs.  I was absolutely ecstatic until my riding teacher told me to trot, when my problems started.  My teacher and I have been working on my lower leg for a long time and I had gotten it reliably stable (my full seat breeches really helped there), but when I started trotting Debbie started yelling at me because my lower leg was wandering back and forth along the horse’s barrel and because I was desperately gripping with my knees I started pivoting at the knees.  I got afraid, and all the bad habits of scared riders appeared.  As I struggled to get my lower leg under control everything else went to Hades and Mick (the horse) was not very pleased with me!  When I finally slithered out of the saddle I was much more tired than usual and in despair.  Where had my usual good, firm position gone?

In my new EZ-fit saddle it was worse, especially since there is no flap like on an English saddle for my upper calf to grip.  I was sliding all over the seat, front to back, side to side, my lower leg did not know where it was and swung wildly.  Cider put up with my unsteadiness but she was not pleased at all and I was constantly grabbing her mane to stay on.  Again fear entered the picture because I could get no stability at the trot.  Cider reacted by leaping into the trot which destabilized my seat even further, making me even more anxious.

After several more exhausting, frightening, and exasperating rides in these tights I finally figured out that the fabric of the tights is VERY slippery.  Since I use fleece seat savers on my jumping saddles I tried to fit one to my EZ-Fit but failed.  So I hit the web based horse forums and found out that someone else thought these particular riding pants were super slippery.  I also read about the Sit-Tite spray and decided to try it.  When I started riding over 40 years ago I would have died of humiliation if I had needed to “glue” myself to the saddle, but that was when I was young and daring.  Today I don’t care, I just want to feel secure.

I got to try out the Sit-Tite spray on Wednesday for my lesson.  My lower legs stayed stable.  Debbie did not yell at me once.  Mia seemed quite content with my seat.  Every ride for the past few years I’ve asked Mia to extend her trot some, and every time before she has started slinging her head around after a few strides.  On Wednesday when I asked Mia to extend she lowered and extended her head into a good contact, she STAYED in good contact, and at no time did she sling her head.  It was as if a simple application of the Sit-Tite spray had improved my seat three-fold and Mia was responding by moving properly.  Rejoicing greatly and feeling GOOD, I got home, sat down and started thinking back over my decades of riding.

When I started riding, both in South America and up here in the USA I wore the usual cavalry twill jodhpurs without any suede knee patches, just plain cotton twill cloth between my legs and the saddle.  Since I was still growing my parents got me looser jodhpurs that I could grow into.  I never felt that the saddles (old English hunt seat) were particularly slippery.  When I finally got my first horse I was outfitted at Kaufmann’s in NYC with breeches of the same type of cloth, again without the suede knee patches.  I was not a perfect rider, far from it since my then undiagnosed MS was affecting me, but I felt pretty secure in the saddle as far as frictional grip was concerned.  I even managed to stay on (as a beginner) when my horse did some unplanned 90° turns at a canter.  I had many riding problems but slippery breeches were not one of them.  When I finally wore out my cavalry twill breeches I got some of the early 1970’s stretch breeches because they were supposed to be better, they had suede knee patches after all.  With much struggle I managed to continue improving my riding but more and more I would ride in jeans instead of breeches.  This probably saved me from many falls as my MS got worse.  Around 1979, tired of riding in jeans, I saved up my money and got some GOOD breeches and rode in them for a while but something was wrong and I went back to my trusty jeans.  Many years later when I got back into riding after I finally recovered from a car wreck I started off in jeans and managed fine, but as I got more formal riding lessons I went out and got myself stretch breeches, this time because the old cavalry twill breeches are no longer available.  I thought all my riding problems were because of my MS.  

As I lay on my bed in my happy post-ride haze I finally realized that even as a beginner/elementary rider I was more secure in the saddle with the old cotton cavalry twill breeches or non-stretch denim jeans than I have ever been as an advanced experienced rider in the stretch riding breeches or stretch jeans, at least until I got my FITS full seat breeches which improved my riding tremendously.  With the deer skin paneled full seat I do not slide much in the saddle and I feel much more secure, as in I do not get frightened when the horse started MOVING.

Then I started thinking of the hunt seat riding fashions through the decades.  When the stretch breeches came out riders deserted the old cavalry twill breeches in droves.  Then, all of a sudden, suede full chaps became the hot, hot, hot new must have thing for serious and/or professional hunter/jumper riders, riders that a few decades earlier had looked down upon chaps as Western, not hunt seat (as in hunt seat riders did not need them to stay in the saddle).  Suede knee patches became necessities, not pleasant add-ons, especially for the shows where the riders had to take their full chaps off.  Most jumping saddles started coming out equipped with suede knee rolls until there were no choices, it was suede knee rolls or nothing unless you wanted to pay big bucks for a saddle.  During these decades GOOD HANDS started disappearing, harsh snaffle bits that would only be used on the most unmanageable horses in the old days became normal for regular horses and riders.  Nosebands went from the loose cavessons on hunt bridles to dropped nosebands, flash nosebands, and finally crank nosebands.  Wandering lower legs became more normal too.  Riding standards started slumping.  Then the expensive full seat breeches came out, at least they did give some security.  

This was also the time that dressage finally started to become popular among hunt seat riders who switched from galloping gloriously cross country to doing endless circles in the ring trying to get their seats, legs, and hands to morph into a more secure seat,  a seat like the one they had as youngsters riding in their old cavalry twill jodhpurs with no half chaps and no suede knee patches!

NOBODY has made this connection between the modern fabrics used for riding breeches and the rapidly worsening horsemanship apparent everywhere.  I didn’t make the connection until Mia showed me the difference that my non-slippery breeches made in my contact.  As all of us riders have been berating ourselves about our horrible riding ability, no one ever considered that out riding is worse because our breeches are too slippery for proper hunt seat riding.  And it is not just hunt seat, the owner of the tack store told me that all the local dressage and saddle seat stables bought a lot of the Sit-Tite spray.

Back long ago before stretch fabrics lots and lots of people rode for pleasure, either in cavalry twill breeches or denim jeans.  Most of these people could not ride very well, most of the saddles were not custom saddles, but people trail rode, fox-hunted, show-jumped and rode Western horses and stayed on (yes people fell off, its just that the riding was so bad that lots more people should have fallen off).  I have old Forward Seat books from the 1930’s and 1940’s, and the hardest hat I see in them is a hunting Derby.  These people were not trotting over cross-rails, that was for beginners, these people were jumping four feet or higher from a gallop.  Back then hunt seat riders were BOLD riders, from ages 4 to 84 and beyond.  No hard hats, no safety vests, no half chaps for jodhpurs, no special “sticky leather” saddles, and very few suede knee patches.  I’ve often  marveled at these riders’ boldness and courage.

I have come to the conclusion that most of the things in modern competition riding that I hate, Hate, HATE may have developed because riders have lost their security in the saddle when riding in modern stretch riding pants.  Behind the vertical horses, normal contact of pounds instead of ounces, sloppy lower legs that continually nag the horse, ever tighter nose bands, over-use of the crest release when jumping, the modern defensive or safety seat for cross country in 3-Day events, etc., etc., etc.; they are all signs of insecure seats.  No matter how far down your heels go, or how proper your leg is on the horse, or how deep and supple your seat, if your pants are too slippery to give you any frictional grip your seat will be weaker.

For all the riders who gave up riding due to fear, for all the middle aged riders who started riding late and get fearful and panicky, for all the riders who fear jumping, and for all the riders who fear that their horse will shy out from under them, it is not your fault.  It is that darned stretchy cloth that your riding pants are made from.  Even stretch denim is slippery!  Cotton mixed with polyester also becomes more slippery.  I did a search on Yahoo--cotton cavalry twill riding breeches, and there are at least two makers in Pakistan, one that makes copies of old military uniforms for re-enactors (look under WW2 uniforms, unfortunately they are only in men‘s sizes) and another that makes baggy jodhpurs and breeches.  These are the old type cotton cavalry twill English riding pants with the sides that balloon out from mid thigh to the waist.  These are funny looking pants, but on the other hand no one will see all your bulges and cellulite.  Some modern riding pants are just too revealing for comfort! 

I will be saving up my money, and I will have to get myself measured to order some.  Maybe I can look deeper and find some in wool for the winter.  This is not a miracle cure for bad riding, but it is something that can make good riding much better.  My new slippery riding tights brought FEAR back into my riding life.  I got DISCOURAGED, I felt HOPELESS, and I felt that nothing I could do would ever make my riding more secure.  I like the Sit-Tite spray fine, it make my legs feel super secure, but I am afraid that it makes my skin itch.  I will have to use it in the heat until I can get myself some old-fashioned funny looking breeches.

Today I got to ride Cider in my EZ-Fit saddle.  I wore my full seat breeches since the Sit-Tite spray causes my skin to itch all over.  I put the Sit-Tite spray on the saddle where my lower thighs and knees touch the saddle figuring it would have a harder time getting through the leather to my skin.  And the result?  A feeling of total security, I enjoyed riding in my new saddle!  And Cider responded, she did not jump into the trot, she was not forging ahead ignoring my gentle aids, she was happy with my contact, and I had a wonderful ride.  I did THREE TIMES the amount of my normal posting trot.  At no time during this ride did I feel like I would fall off if Cider made a sudden unplanned move.  Today I was able to ride effectively.

And Shannon, wonderful Shannon, told me she would look for a pattern for the old-fashioned breeches, the cotton cavalry twill cloth, measure me, and make me some old fashioned breeches!  She understands, no stretch fabric, no polyester, just pure cotton, cotton/linen or cotton/wool.  I told her the range of color that would be acceptable, now we just have to find a proper pattern.  Shannon is a jewel!

These old fashioned breeches no longer look “normal”, in fact they can look like something from a comic opera.  Other people may laugh at me when I wear them, but I will be laughing for the pure joy of riding right!

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran                   

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Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on June 4, 2013 at 2:03am

I dont know that the material in most jodpers is to blame for bad riding Jackie, but the polyester surely doesnt help. I cant ride in anything other than mostly cotton blend, and it cant have any polyester in it at all (I get terrable chafeing if there is). I have the devil of a job finding jods for men of course, retailers just wont stock then. In fact I bought a pair of womans breaches today ( I refused to pay the $250 they wanted for the mens ones they got in for me), and they are made for impossibly long legged women so are more like jods than breaches.

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