As my readers know I have been seeking security in the saddle for years. I have Multiple Sclerosis and I was blaming all of my riding security problems on my MS, my lack of balance, my great weakness, my exhaustion from the least physical activity, my lack of a proprioceptive sense and my general lack of coordination. I figured that there was NO WAY I would ever feel as secure in the saddle as I did when I was younger. As it turns out I was blaming the wrong thing (my MS) for my lack of security on horseback.
I’ve ridden for years at an elementary level, and every time I get into a trot or canter I generally shift around in the saddle too much. Fortunately for me the horses I ride realize that I cannot be as competent in the saddle as a person without MS and they give me great latitude for mistakes and forgive me for my many faults. Of course my unsteadiness still irritates the horses, but they learn to ignore it since I time my aids well. I have continued this way for years, better in the cooler parts of the year and absolutely horrible in the heat of the summer when all my MS symptoms get worse and I have to take off my hot suede half chaps.
This May I bought the coolest riding pants around, the Kerrits Performance Tights and I finally found some mesh half chaps. The first time I rode in them I had major problems with my seat, all of a sudden I was sliding around in the seat of the saddle even though I use fleece saddle seat saver, my legs escaped my control, even my hands got less steady and I was grabbing mane even at a walk. I did some research on other riding sites and found out that these particular riding tights are SUPER SLIPPERY. I got some of the recommended Sit-Tite spray and while it helped I was not totally pleased, yes I felt glued to the saddle but the problem was when I wanted to move my leg a little bit I had to take my whole leg off the saddle. Besides my skin started itching terribly and some strange looking blemishes started erupting on my skin. I decided to look for other solutions.
Basically I am fine in the saddle when I wear my FITS deerskin paneled breeches, but these breeches are way too hot for me in the humid Southern summers. I had gotten these breeches because in one of his books Piero Santini said that the leather of the high boots against the leather of the saddle increase the grip of the rider’s leg. The leather of the deerskin panels against the leather of my saddle gave me much better frictional grip. My riding improved some until it just got too hot to wear these breeches and then it was back to sliding around. After my scary rides in my Kerrits tights I sat down and thought through my decades of riding, realizing that when I switched to the modern knit breeches in the 1970’s my seat had deteriorated. Then I thought of the old (Victorian age) British fox hunters who would ride madcap around the fenced countryside in saddles that did not even have knee rolls. The male fox hunters wore cavalry twill breeches, so I went AHA!, but after further thought I concluded that there had to be another thing that helped these riders stick to the saddle.
Then I remembered that when I started riding we mostly used the old-fashioned yellow saddle soap in the tin. I had continued to use this type of saddle soap off and on over the decades but since I had re-started riding I had mostly used glycerin saddle soap, both the bar type and the liquid spray type. I went out and got the old-fashioned saddle soap (Fiebings) at Tractor and Supply since the tack store did not carry it. This old-fashioned saddle soap is marvelous stuff, dirt comes right off, the leather absorbs it easily, and it leaves the surface of the leather slightly tacky. Since my riding breeches and mesh half chaps are soooo slippery I decided to put some of it on my saddle and stirrup leathers, and also on the gripping areas of my breeches and half chaps straight out of the tin, not using any water, just before I ride. It worked for me.
In “Common Sense Horsemanship” Vladimir Littauer writes about “frictional grip”, “which depends merely on the correct placing of the legs in the saddle, without any additional effort of the part of the rider…the lower thighs, inner surfaces of the knees and the upper calves.” (page 60.) Back in the 1950’s hunt seat rider still used mostly cotton cavalry twill breeches or jodhpurs, and suede knee patches were luxury items, and the glycerin saddle soap was more expensive so most riding stables used the old-fashioned saddle soap. Hunt boots were recommended for added grip and security while hunting and jumping but lots of kids and adults learned to ride securely just wearing the cotton jodhpurs with leather garter straps, staying secure in the ring, over jumps, and in the hunt field. I remember riding in these cotton cavalry twill jodhpurs and breeches, and I never wanted suede knee patches because they would trap my leg in one position in my saddle with suede knee rolls. I also used the yellow saddle soap since it was cheaper than the glycerin type.
I next went to “Stable Management and Exercise” by M. Horace Hayes. On page 309 he spoke out against the old-fashioned saddle soap, saying that it made the leather “sticky and dirty to handle.” I started to get this picture in my mind, of Victorian era grooms using the old-fashioned saddle soap on the saddles in order to make the leather sticky enough so that their lords and masters had some hope of staying on the horse while careening cross country after the fox. However, since the sticky leather “attracted” dust and dirt it fell out of favor and the glycerin saddle soap replaced it, making the leather looking nice, clean, and with no dust and dirt hanging onto the leather. I am beginning to believe that this change of saddle soap is one of the reasons why riding in the USA and Europe is so much worse now, the saddles are so slippery that riders’ seats are insecure and they frequently need to hang onto the reins to stay on! Around the same time people started using saddle pads whether they were needed to fit the saddle right or not, so they would not have to clean the bottom of the saddle as much. Could this be a reason for the multiple problems in saddle fit we encounter now--with the saddles sliding around on the horses’ backs and irritating the horses instead of sticking to the backs and being more stable, and with the leather panels not having enough fats in them to mold to the horses’ backs, are we dooming our horses to uncomfortable backs? 50 years ago saddle fit was IMPORTANT, but it was nowhere as difficult as it is now because the well-soaped wool stuffed panels molded themselves to the individual horse’s back. I know I got away with using the same saddle on 4 horses, using a folded wool blanket if I needed more padding. My horses did not get sore backs.
THE MODERN KNIT RIDING PANTS AND GLYCERIN SADDLE SOAP DESTROYED MY FRICTIONAL GRIP. I survived quite well until my high hunt boots wore out and I switched to the cooler jodhpur boots, then I depended on my suede half chaps for security. But as the knit fabrics of the riding breeches got ever more slippery, even the suede half chaps and my sheepskin seat saver could help only so much and my riding deteriorated. All this time I was blaming my MS for my inability to ride correctly. Then I finally switched back to using the old-fashioned saddle soap on my saddle and breeches and my riding IMPROVED during the heat of the summer, the time of year when my riding usually goes to hell. My saddles’ leather is becoming tackier and my legs no longer slide around every time the horses move. I feel secure even when I wear my super slippery riding tights, this had been wonderful in the 97% humidity since these are my coolest riding pants. My legs are no longer swinging back and forth, I keep my balance easier, and my hands are improving. Usually, by June, all the horses tell me in no uncertain terms that my hands just get too unsteady to keep contact and I switch to bitless riding. This summer not only have the horses allowed me to go on riding with a bit, they “asked” me to switch from my super stable Mullen mouth snaffle to the less stable Dr. Bristol snaffle. For the first summer in decades I can get a horse to willingly reach for and keep contact even though sweat is running down into my eyes. Mia, who has the most sensitive mouth, has stopped slinging her head completely.
And since I am not constantly sliding around in the saddle and constantly having to correct my seat, it takes so much less energy for me to ride now! I now have enough extra energy to clean my tack the day I ride (instead of once every few weeks), I can take short walks the days I do not ride, and I recover from my riding in one or two hours instead of one to two days. The horses I ride are much happier with my more secure seat, my riding teacher is complementing my legs and my hands instead of constantly having to correct me, and the horses worry more about the flies than my riding. I wasted so much energy trying to ride in the slippery breeches and I never feel secure in the saddle when I rode in them. But now, because my legs adhere to the saddle, it does not matter as much that I do not have a proprioceptive sense, I put my legs in the proper position and they STAY THERE. Because my legs stick to the saddle my faulty balance does not matter as much either! Just a few months ago I was holding my RS-tor in my hand every time the horse moved, now I often forget to pick it up. Two months ago I added a neck strap and a grab strap because I felt so insecure in the saddle, and now, because of the change of saddle soap, I have not touched them in weeks.
Frictional grip is WONDERFUL. The past 8 years I rode without much frictional grip and I am wondering how I managed not to irritate my horses into misbehavior and how I managed to stay on. Just by switching the saddle soap I use and by changing how I use the saddle soap my riding has improved beyond all my hopes. The really neat thing is that while my frictional grip is greatly improved I can still use my legs normally, flexing when my weight comes down and easily moving them for my leg aids so I never feel “glued” to the saddle like I did with the Sit-Tite spray.
And today I forgot to put the extra saddle soap on my saddle and breeches before I rode. Since I have been soaping my saddle with the old-fashioned saddle soap after EVERY ride for the past two months it did not matter even though I was riding in my most slippery breeches. The surface of the leather was slightly sticky so I did not slide around, my lower legs stayed stable, and Cider was keeping contact with the bit just fine. This is a HUMONGOUS difference from the way I was in this saddle before I changed the saddle soap, when I was sliding around in the saddle, I could not keep my lower legs stable, and the horses protested my hands vehemently in the heat of the summer. I finally have my frictional grip back and it is soooo good!
I will never use glycerin saddle soap on my saddles again.
Have a great ride!