The equestrian industry is known for being traditional and not keeping up with the times. Many companies have brought innovative and revolutionary products to the market, with mixed success, and one product in particular has stubbornly refused to accept modernisation. The basic design of the saddle as we know it hasn’t changed for generations. Many companies have introduced new materials in the construction of the tree, but these invariably follow the same basic design and are usually prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. However, we may now be looking at the first truly innovative design, at a price that makes it accessible to the mass market. The Bua Saddle, is certainly unlike anything I have seen before.
On a visit to Ireland back in August I managed to arrange a trial with Martin Ryan, designer of the Bua Saddle, and I promised you all a full review of what I thought. As anybody who saw my original post will know, I was impressed enough to buy not just one, but two Bua saddles. I will try to explain why that is in a moment, but I think it is important to say at this point that I have no business arrangement with Bua. I am not sponsored by them, I wasn’t given a saddle to trial, I paid full retail price for both saddles, and so I hope my opinion can be taken as genuine and unbiased. I also want to thank my friend Gill Crawford who is based close to my home in Ireland and was kind enough to bring a horse for us to try the saddle on!
Last season I was struggling to fit a saddle to a number of horses and remember asking why we can’t design a saddle where the panels are made to fit the horse, and are independent to the seat, which fits the rider. This would allow both to be interchanged around the tree, so that you could have a custom set of panels to fit each horse and still be comfortable in the same saddle, rather than doing what most people do and use various pads to adjust the fitting to the horse. It turns out Martin Ryan had the same thought... over five years ago, so he is a bit ahead of me! Interestingly, it was this idea of separating the panels and seat which led to the cantilevered tree design, which then brought it’s own set of benefits.
What is a cantilevered tree?
Probably better to check out Bua’s own website as it is difficult to describe effectively. The simplest way to explain it is that when viewed from the side, the tree sits on the horse’s back in much the same way as a traditional tree. However, as it comes towards the front of the horse, the tree folds back over itself to form the seat, which is effectively suspended over the horses back. The tree is made from a composite material that is incredibly flexible and strong, allowing it to fit a much wider range of horses than a traditional saddle, with no adjustment. The tree also sits further back than a traditional saddle, allowing the horse’s shoulder to move more freely and making it easier to fit that wider range of horses. It might sound like a bit of a gimmick, but like many great inventions it has evolved to solve a very particular problem, and actually the design is beautifully simple. It passes the all important ‘KISS Principle’ - ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!’
From what I understand, the original idea was to provide a range of panel sizes and shapes to fit different horses. However, during the testing process they tried the saddle on a range of sports horses and never had a problem with the fit. Different fitting variations will be available down the line, but currently it hasn’t been a problem. Now I was very dubious about a ‘one-size-fits-all’ saddle, but when I saw the tree and it’s flexibility, as well as the foam panels, it does make sense. I was lucky enough to have a friend bring a horse so we could test the saddle (Thanks again Gilly!) and it fitted her perfectly. When we took the saddle off it left a good even sweat mark as you expect from a well fitted saddle. In addition to that, as the fabric covers on the panels are removable and accessible, you could use foam ‘shims’ to rebalance the saddle, in much the same way that many saddle pads do. Another important point is the wither clearance. I have a huge problem with most ‘close-contact’ saddles on high withered horses. It simply doesn’t make sense that you could have a very thin panel and still have enough clearance for a high withered horse. The Bua has plenty of clearance at the wither and all the way down the horses back, without making you feel you are sitting on 6 inches of foam.
The Bua isn’t the only modular saddle on the market, it is however the only one I have seen where you can change the panels and flaps in less than five minutes, at an event, in the front of your car, without any tools. The tree, seat padding, panels and flaps are all removable. You can buy them individually and swap them as you please, with very little fuss. Now, most professionals aren’t going to swap from dressage flaps to jumping ones, and it might not even be something that most amateurs would do. But it does give you the flexibility to change panels as your horse changes shape, or change the flaps should you decide you don’t like the knee blocks, or even change the colour if you want to fit in with a new sponsorship deal. Or none of the above if you are just happy with your saddle! But this is part of the reason I was happy to buy both a jumping and dressage saddle. I will explain later that I think there are one or two adjustments to be made in the dressage saddle for it to work for me, but if all else fails I simply need to buy another set of jumping flaps and I have a second jumping saddle!
The all important question! I tried three versions of the saddle: jumping with knee blocks, jumping without knee blocks and dressage. First up was the jumping with knee blocks. I was impressed how close my leg felt to the horse. The flaps are very thin and flexible so you can really feel the horse underneath you. While the seat is raised a bit more off the horses back than some close contact saddles, it is no more than what a sheepskin or foam pad would do. The suspension action of the cantilevered seat helps you feel more in the motion of the horse and in the firm setting that I tried isn’t at all bouncy as some people have feared. The mare I was riding had a pretty short and bouncy canter and I felt the saddle helped my sit into it, and didn’t give me the feeling that I was going to cause her discomfort by doing so.
The saddle without knee blocks will likely be more popular with professionals and fans of close-contact saddles. I did feel that the extra foam on the knee panel pushed my thigh out slightly and that I lost some of the nice close contact in that part of my leg. However those flaps were newer and perhaps that was the issue. I am planning to buy a set of these panels so I can interchange them.
I am guessing the dressage saddle has had less development, as many of the trials have been done with jumping riders. However the seat functions in the same way and made it much easier and more comfortable to sit on even the most bouncy trots. Unfortunately we hadn’t brought a set of stirrups leathers long enough to for my legs, so I rode without them for much of the session. The panels are shorter than on most dressage saddles, but perhaps this could be a customizable option in the future? The flaps weren’t quite straight enough for my liking and the seat could do with some more support at the back of the saddle, but that is linked to the design of the tree and seat. The thing to remember is that it’s very easy to swap and change the flaps as the design develops. I wonder if adjustable knee blocks might be a good option for more customization by the user. In the end, the fit of the tree and the seat works the same way, and will be massively beneficial in a dressage saddle, and given how easy it is the adjust the balance and position of the saddle I think it will give much more control than any other saddle on the market.
The first question people always ask is price. At €2,000 (currently just under £1500) I think it is very competitively priced. There is a serious amount of research, not to mention some cutting edge materials involved in bringing this to market. This links in with what I will say later about appealing to the mass market and not currently targeting the top end of the market, which is a smart call.
Materials and colours. As anyone who has seen photos of the saddle will know, they are certainly distinctive looking! At first I wasn’t sold by the brighter colours on offer, but in the flesh they look seriously smart. If you are going to ride in something that is cutting edge you might as well shout about it! In the end I went for the brown leather and orange panels for the jumping saddle and a more conservative black and light grey for for the dressage saddle. The blue leather looks beautiful and I am sure it will be very popular... decisions decisions!
The fabric covering on the panels is removable and washable. So should you have that muddy day hunting or eventing, or even if they need a bit of a clean up after a few sweaty workouts, its quick and easy.
The saddles are incredibly lightweight, even compared to the most modern jumping saddles. Really they are more comparable to a racing saddle than a jumping saddle.
As I referred to earlier there is a ratchet style clip on the back of the seat that allows you to adjust the stiffness of the seat, rather like a cars suspension. I don’t see myself using it apart from maybe a long hack, but thought I should mention it.
The Bua is a real game changer. A huge step forward to providing a more comfortable and more flexible saddle to benefit the horse and alleviate many of the back issues we see increasingly within our industry. I loved the feel of all three of the saddles I sat it in, though I admit the dressage saddle may need tweaking. The close feel of the horse, with the support of the cantilevered seat puts you in a great position to communicate with the horse. If the current designs don’t fit you, I can see the modular design leading to very easy customization in the future.
The Saddle Industry
At one of the last events of the season I was speaking to an agent from a large French saddle company. I asked him about the Bua saddle and his only response was that all the top professionals still ride in traditional saddles of one brand or another. I think that says a lot about how these companies view innovation. They effectively ignore it, knowing that the majority of established riders aren’t going to change to something so innovative just yet, and the companies use this to continue their rhetoric of ‘we are the top choice’. They are the equivalent of a large multi-national company, too big to adjust quickly, while the small flexible start-up company can run rings around them. Bua has been very clever by not going after the high end of the market immediately. With what they have now they can gain good market penetration and get people using and talking about the saddle. From there I can see them offering more options, more customization etc. and then they can start to target the high end brands. But that’s just my opinion.
For me, the Bua saddle has everything I love in a product: a no-nonsense/commonsense design, modern high performance materials, it’s scientifically tested, has an eye-catching design ruled by function not form, and a price that makes it accessible to the mass market.
For more information view the Bua Saddles website