The Imus 4-Beat® Gaited Horse Saddle - How it all got started!
Author and Gaited Horse Trainer Brenda Imus
After working with gaited horses of every description for a few years, it became increasingly obvious that one of the primary detriments to a fluid, comfortable 4-beat saddle gait was poor saddle fit–or perhaps more accurately, poor saddle dynamics. As I analyzed saddle fit and gait action, the factor that proved troublesome, over and over again, was lack of adequate give in the saddle tree to accommodate the action of the horse’s back as it attempted to move each leg independently of the others, at speed.
Regrettably, there is a widely accepted gaited horse training truism that gaited horses can only gait when ridden in this stiff, hollowed out fashion–despite the fact that such a riding style commonly results in long term soundness problems. I came to the conclusion that this just wasn’t necessary. When a horse is ridden in tack that permits supple action throughout the loins, back, neck and poll, then there is nothing to prevent that animal from performing a comfortable 4-beat gait in beautiful form.
This action is requisite to performing a correctly executed 4-beat gait. I noticed that as the movement of the legs transfers up through the loins and back, a rigid saddle tree seriously restricts that action. (Imagine taking a hike in wooden shoes.) The animal’s natural response is to stiffen up. This causes the gait to deteriorate into a 2-beat pace or trot, and/or the horse hollows out its topline to avoid painful contact with the saddle.
At about this time western and endurance style saddles with flexible bars in the trees were just hitting the market. (Thank you, Ed Steele.) Imagine my consternation when my crew and I started carrying many different types of ‘flex tree’ saddles and therapeutic saddle pads to clinics, only to discover that in spite of our best efforts, many of the horses coming through still weren’t well fitted at the end of a clinic. I more closely scrutinized actual saddle tree designs and construction to compare them to the shapes and actions of the horses with which we work. That’s when another ‘aha!’ discovery was made: most of the western/endurance trees on the market are designed for ‘western’ (aka: Quarterhorse) back conformation. The bars of the tree are set at the wrong angles, and too far apart–among other problems–to suit the topline conformation of a majority of gaited horses.
By now I’d already been disappointed in the results of using so-called ‘gaited horse’ saddle trees, as these not only had rigid bars, but the extra long flared front edge of the bars tended to restrict, rather than enhance, the horse’s ability to rotate the shoulders for adequate front action. Plus, there was generally too much ‘rock’ in the bars, as they were designed to fit gaited horses whose topline had become swayed due to. . .the traditional manner of fitting and riding gaited horses.
Besides all this, saddles on the market are specifically designed to place the rider in an extremely vertical ‘ears/spine/hip/heel’ alignment that in recent years has been widely espoused as the only ‘correct’ equitation seat. My observations and experience indicated, however, that gaited horses tend to move better–and their riders are much more comfortable–when the rider is positioned in a seat more akin to that used for bareback riding. This position places the rider’s seat immediately behind the horse’s wither, rather than farther back toward the loins–as is the case with most saddles. The rider’s heel tends to drift slightly forward, as the shoulders settle slightly behind, rather than on, a true vertical line. While the ears, spine, hip and heel are still in general alignment, that alignment no longer falls on the vertical, but is slightly diagonal.
Again, it only made sense to conclude that if riders of all persuasions naturally take this seat in order to stay in synch with their horse when riding bareback (and they do), then it is because this position enables humans to achieve optimum balance on a horse. You can’t, after all, depend upon placing your weight in your stirrups when riding bareback, but must place your entire body in a position that permits it to move naturally in balance with the horse. Otherwise, rider fall down, go boom!
As an experiment we began to ask riders to ride their horses bareback. Without exception, this slightly diagonally oriented position is the one each person naturally assumed. Also without exception, when we asked these riders to move a bit farther back, and assume the traditional ‘centered riding’ upright seat–both horse and rider stiffened up significantly. This proved to be such dramatic proof of what I had concluded regarding optimum seat position that I’ve had clinic and expo participants perform this bareback riding demonstration in front of audiences all over the country. When a person sees evidence that his or her instinctual manner of wanting to ride a horse is actually better and more functional for both horse and rider than the more upright ‘correct’ position they’ve been taught, the reaction is usually one of great relief. (Those more steeped in and conditioned to the traditional manner of riding do still strongly object on occasion–which is certainly their right.)
I call the seat position we teach and demonstrate "Liberty Equitation™," as it permits greater comfort and liberty for both horse and rider. What we’ve learned is that equitational kinesics are unique to each horse and rider pair–as every horse and rider ‘fit together’ in a totally unique physical relationship. Riders need a saddle that offers them enough liberty to ride in a fashion that best suits their particular body style and manner of communication with any given horse. It is counter productive to place a rider in a saddle that dictates the ‘heels directly under the hips’ position, as it forces the rider to assume an artificial, uncomfortable seat. How many of us have ended a day long ride with sore hips, back, ankles and (last but not least) knees? This is the direct result of saddles being designed and built upon faulty riding precepts.
OK. Back to the saddle saga. Another thing concerned me regarding the saddles we were trying to work with. Aside from a token layer of fleece, there was usually little to protect the horse’s back from the hard edges of the saddle tree digging in under the weight of the rider. Thick saddle pads weren’t a great solution, since they tended to alter the fit of the saddle and complicate matters even more. Also, since even a great tree fit is usually not a perfect tree fit, it seemed obvious there should be some additional type of thin, lightweight, porous padding that would work in much the way as the insole of a good sports shoe. This padding should help distribute the rider’s weight more evenly across the horse’s back, while protecting the horse from any pressure soreness where the saddle tree might tend to rub.
I knew exactly what material would do the job: Supracor® therapeutic padding. I had used Supracor® saddle pads successfully on many hard to fit horses, and was extremely impressed by the effectiveness and durability of this remarkable material. Originally designed to prevent pressure sores on severely compromised, bed-ridden patients, it had found its way into the equestrian market as a marvelous therapeutic saddle pad material. While not cheap (read: downright expensive!), this material was–and still is–by far the most effective on the market for our purposes.
Oh yes–did I mention that by now I was determined to design a saddle specifically for gaited horses that would resolve all the issues we were dealing with out in the field? Well, I was.
I spoke with Ed Steele, who agreed to produce a flexible tree to our company’s specifications, for our exclusive use. This tree would be made to fit the topline conformation of the ‘average’ gaited horse. (Later on we added a wide tree to our line-up, for those horses who don’t fit the average category.) He also agreed to produce them in western and endurance configurations.
Enter Eli, a young Amish man who has a well known saddle making uncle, and had by now built a few saddles himself for local people. Eli was working full time at a local Amish sawmill, and producing several saddles each year on the side. I went to visit him, and we discussed my ideas. He proved to be an agile thinker, as well as a superb craftsman. He built our first prototype saddle. . .and then another. . .and then, another. With each saddle we made improvements and modifications. For one thing, I decided to use only the best top grain leather hides for our saddles. This not only adds to their durability and beauty, but allows them to soften and ‘break in’ much faster than if we used stiffer, more traditional full grain leather. We quickly realized that the fiberglass ground seats that came standard with the trees hindered the ability of the bars to flex with the horse’s movement. So Eli began to hand craft a web suspended, leather ground seat for each saddle. (Our saddles are as impressive on the inside as they are on the outside.)
Most significantly, after several prototypes and several months of sales, I decided to institute a 3/4-fired, three way rigging system on the saddle. This excludes the need for a back girth, and allows us to position the saddle farther forward so that the fork of the saddle gently ‘cups’ the horse’s wither and shoulder, allowing the rider to be seated more forward, closer to the horse’s true center of gravity, while permitting the animal’s shoulder complete freedom of action. Also, since gaited horses tend to have more lift and/or reach in front, saddle galls at the girth right behind the elbow are common. Our rigging system allows the cinch to settle at the least active point of the barrel of the horse, virtually eliminating galls.
We positioned the free swinging stirrups slightly more forward, thus eliminating stress on the rider’s ankles, knees and hips while encouraging a more comfortable and practical,"Liberty Equitationtm," seat. We placed Supracor® padding between the saddle tree bars and the fleece–and then decided "what the heck!" and placed it in the seat of the saddle to give the rider unsurpassable comfort as well. We like this material so much, in fact, that we also chose to use it as padding in the optional matching tooled Imus 4-Beat®™ stirrups!
By standard marketing criterion, we should have started marketing this saddle in the $2000+ range to recoup our initial expenses and earn a ‘standard’ profit. But I believe that it does little good to offer a saddle that increases the comfort, soundness and gait of a majority of gaited horses, if the majority of gaited horse owners can’t afford to purchase it. So everyone involved in this process decided to work on as narrow a profit margin as possible, to make the saddle affordable to as many people as possible. To make this work, folks, we knew we’d have to sell saddles–and a lot of them! Due to rising cost of materials, we've had to increase our prices, but have kept the same profit margin.
I knew perhaps better than anyone that there is somewhat of a ‘saddle glut’ in today’s market. This isn’t a bad thing, since it shows that people are taking the responsibility to properly fit their horses very seriously. The Imus 4-Beat® Saddle introduced so many revolutionary new concepts that we had to ask ourselves: How do we convince people to give this genuinely revolutionary new saddle a try?
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