As with many other para-riders, body asymmetry is also an issue. “Keith actually can’t sit straight in the saddle,” says Haist. “Basically his right side is much more forward than the left side, so we changed the flaps. When he is sitting crooked, it accommodates his body. Seen from the top, one flap is three inches forward of the other flap. But when he sits in it, he looks perfect.”
Small D-rings have been sewn on the girth of Newerla’s saddle. Through them, spur straps are attached to peacock safety stirrups. Black rubber bands made from tire inner tubes wrap around his boots, holding his feet in the stirrups. He can use longer-than-regulation whips because the range of motion in his arms is not as complete as that of an able-bodied rider. Of course, all adaptive equipment must be easily and quickly released for safety purposes.
“After the para-rider gets his classification, he goes through the USEF to get approval by a panel to see if the special tack dispensations are appropriate,” says Newerla. “Once you have approval, the compensating aids are described on a card the rider must show to the technical delegate, the show secretary and the judge at a competition.”
Germany is known for having remarkable adaptive saddles. Haist said he learned the most from German saddle makers who would say to him, “We’re not doing that. It’s not beautiful.” “That is the key,” says Haist. “It must be smart-looking, and you really want it to look like the normal thing.”
Dr. Angelika Trabert, Grade II, is an anesthesiologist born with thighs measuring only about 10 to 12 inches long. “Nobody knows why,” she says. She began riding at age 6 and after some minor setbacks due to a lack of suitable horses and teachers, she went on to compete in the second Para-Equestrian World Championships in Denmark in 1991. She has twice won gold medals and silver 13 times at European and World Championships and Paralympics.
“I have been in the para-equestrian world for some time, so I have seen quite a lot of compensating aids,” she says. She is on her third special saddle. The first was a Voelzing designed with the help of pastor Gottfried von Dietz, whom she describes as the father of a lot of compensating aids in Germany. The second was a Hennig and the third, which she is still using, is sponsored by Passier and “rearranged” by herself and Marc Coumans, her boyfriend. His “hobby” is designing and building prototypes of compensating aids. In the Passier, Trabert’s thighs are supported in leather U-shaped rests attached to the flaps. “It is comfortable for me, but sometimes it is a bit more difficult to adjust to certain horses because of their backs. Therefore, I had another saddle made last year for a more narrow horse.”
Fitting horse as well as rider is as much a challenge for para-equestrians as for able-bodied riders. Seidemann, a Grade II rider who became a paraplegic from a skiing accident, had a hard metal handle put on the front of her Schleese saddle. “It took a lot of years to finally get a saddle that was right,” she says. “Basically you have to fit the horse first. What is the point of having it fit you if it is uncomfortable for the horse?”
Lauren Barwick, 33, rides for Canada and had a serious issue with her own discomfort in the saddle. Barwick, Grade II, has no feeling from her belly button down after a 100-pound hay bale fell on her. “Because of my disability, I had no flesh around my coccyx and my tailbone was getting pressure sores.”
The saddle fitter Barwick first worked with tried to design a solution but it wasn’t suitable. Enter Danny Kroetch, owner of DK Saddlery in Alberta, Canada. Kroetch makes saddles for most of the Canadian para-equestrian team and was willing to work on a different seat for Barwick. “My DK saddle, about a year old, is phenomenal,” says Barwick. “The best seat I’ve had. The way he set it up, the saddle has got a bunch of padding and, in the area of my seat bones and coccyx, he glued and stretched material more like nylon, so the leather is not squishy, but firm.”
Kroetch also did not give her some things she said she wanted, such as knee rolls. “He helped me realize that with them, my hips couldn’t move,” she says. Her advice to other para-riders is to know your body and to find a saddler willing to work with you–one who really understands the biomechanics of how the body works. She also suggests talking to the many disabled riders throughout the world and asking what they have done. “There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Use these resources,” she says. “The other big thing to be aware of is your riding pants and undergarments. The best I’ve used is the seamless underwear from Victoria’s Secret.”