While many saddle fitters are able to help, sometimes an off-the-shelf saddle isn’t sufficient and it will take a specialist to make it work, as in Barwick’s case. Kroetch began fitting saddles for para-equestrians about 15 years ago when the Bartels family in Holland contacted him to help Joop Stokkel, a well-known Dutch para-rider without a right arm or left leg, to be more stable in the saddle.
“When I do a saddle for a para-rider, I don’t like straps,” says Kroetch. “If I have to use them, I will, but I’m reluctant to take a saddle and throw everything on it but the kitchen sink. I don’t want to give them a crutch if they don’t need it. That is why, when I first assess them, I start with a bare saddle–the same saddle I design for everybody. I let them walk, trot and canter to see what happens to their body in my saddle.” Most important for para-riders is to keep their legs still, he says. “An extremely narrow twist allows the rider’s legs to fall straight down and stay underneath her. The twist of the saddle is where the rider’s inner upper thigh lies. The twist has got to be extremely narrow. If it is wide, it rolls the thigh outward and lets the rider’s leg come off the horse.
“It is just as important for the horse to be comfortable as for the rider,” he continues. “Everything I do I believe is about adjustability. The most important thing in a saddle is to have it flexible. I use an air system that is comfortable to the horse. Four bladders in the panel system are fully adjustable. When a lot of para-riders start the trot and canter work, they are very often jarred and they bounce in the saddle. All the jarring creates sore-backed riders and horses as the horses’ backs go rigid, which makes it even harder for riders to sit. That is where the air system works to absorb the shock,” he explains.
Kroetch’s dressage saddles start at $4,900 and range up to $6,000, depending on what he has to add to make it work for the rider. “I take my hat off to all para-riders,” he concludes. “They’re very brave. They’re on a live animal that can do unforeseen things.”
In reality, it is not the lack of tack but lack of appropriate mounts to put it on that is holding back the discipline in this country, says Hand. The 2000 Paralympics was the last time riders competed on borrowed horses. “The U.S. had the best para-catch riders in the world,” she says. Now riders must provide their own mounts. “And we are struggling to get competitive horses. Once we have them, our sport will grow, but it will take us a few years to catch up.”
The USPEA offers comprehensive information for para-riders, including the rundown on classification, a dispensation application form, clinics, training and much more at www.uspea.org.
Approving Adaptive Tack
There is information at www.usef.org regarding the dispensation certificates needed for competitors using adaptive tack. Certificates are issued through the USEF to athletes with a permanent, measurable physical disability. Applications go to the Adaptive Sports Committee. The most comprehensive explanation of compensating aids/adaptive equipment is at www.fei.org (disciplines, dressage and para-equestrian, about para-equestrian, application).