The Magic Saddle – The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 2

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fo

Para equestrians, like many adaptive athletes, use specialized equipment, which has to neutralize the detracting ways the body works so para riders can ride effectively and safely. In para dressage, there are standard, profile-specific, and non standard compensating aids. Work with professionals to ensure any equipment you use is safe for you and your horse. Make sure to review the current para dressage rules before using any modified equipment in competition.

As a grade II rider, soft and hard hand holds are profile-specific compensating aids for me. Hand holds are for riders to grab to steady their hands, to pull themselves deep into the saddle, or in case of emergency. I found that a soft hand hold didn’t anchor me as securely as I needed, it was too hard to pick up, too hard to hold onto with my right hand, and it was too long. 

I began using two individual loops attached to each front D-ring. Michel Assouline, U.S. para dressage coach, suggested these at a para clinic and were approved by the Adaptive Equipment Committee as a non standard compensating aid for me. They made a real improvement in my contact. I used my ring finger through my saddle loops and my pointer and middle finger to hold onto my looped reins. I experimented with different materials (different kinds of spur straps, a curb lip strap, paracord), length, how to make them easiest to pick up, and what gaits to use them in. The most successful version was nylon spur straps with tubing to keep them open. I used the loops during all trot work and in all walk movements except the free walk.

Last summer, I sought out advice via video review with Rebecca Hart, a Paralympic para dressage rider. When I trot, my spasticity triggers causing my legs to become stiff and straight. My knee and ankle joints freeze making it hard to sit and carry my hands still. She connected me with her Paralympian teammate, Keith Newerla. He came to give me a lesson with his saddle that has a hard hand hold. He had donated this saddle to Pal-O-Mine Equestrian and they graciously lent it to me for this trial. A hard hand hold is rigidly attached to the saddle and comes in all shapes and sizes. It can help riders improve their contact by quieting their hands. After one ride, it was clear this was what I needed.

I had an essentially brand-new saddle; a Détente Novio from Colleen Meyer and Advanced Saddle Fit. I reached out to Colleen to ask for her help. I had no idea if I needed to buy a new saddle or have my saddle retrofitted with a hard hand hold. Her saddle makers in England were backlogged due to COVID and shipping in and out of the country was taking longer than normal. I began prototyping while I looked for a saddler stateside that could help. I knew how much trial and error I had done with my D-ring loops. When designing my hard hand hold (or bar as we started calling it), I knew I wanted an element of adjustability so I wasn’t sending it to a saddler every time I wanted to tweak it. I scoured social media and Google for riders with hard hand holds (see the Facebook album of what I found). The U.S. ParaEquestrian Association had a few photos in their literature and the FEI Para Dressage Rule Book has maximum height and width restrictions in addition to other tack requirements. I roped my husband into making prototypes with aluminum and steel rods. I had to consider things like height, width, shape, and thickness. We were trying things way out of the box, the first version slid through the D-rings on my saddle and secured and stabilized with everything from Vetwrap, duct tape, chop sticks, para cord, hair ties, and electrical tape – and it worked! We made several versions and with some practice with each version, I began to formulate what worked and didn’t work. This helped me determine exactly how I wanted my saddle permanently modified.

While I played with the prototypes, I needed someone who could do the metal work for the bar and do the leatherwork for the saddle. Through the grapevine of Colleen and her contacts, I connected with Adrienne Hendricks, owner/founder of Adrienne Hendricks Saddlery. Colleen, Adrienne, and I had a conference call to discuss this intricate project. She was instantaneously invested and had great ideas and resources on how to make the necessary adjustments. We scheduled a date to ship the saddle from Virginia to Adrienne in Idaho. 

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fourth, Velcro added to the back of the flap for moveable back thigh blocks. Fifth, an anatomical front thigh block. Before I shipped the saddle, I took copious measurements, notes, videos, and pictures of each element. I used masking tape and wax pencils on the saddle to give Adrienne as much information as possible. I also sent her many of the pictures I had accumulated during my research.

Adrienne and I chatted often (sometimes every day) about the specifics of how I wanted the modifications and the reasons behind each of them. She was incredible; totally invested in learning how my body works and how to make this saddle the best it could be. The metal work guys got totally into it too! They wanted to the bar to be just right. We did have to restrain ourselves from delving into the rabbit holes of “what ifs,” “try this,” and “could we…” We knew that there is only so much to be done until you actually sit in the saddle and ride the horse. 

The end result was better than I ever could have imagined. Not only did I get one bar, I got TWO! These bars bolt into the “paddles.” The paddles attach to the tree and allow for the bar angle to be adjusted with a simple crescent wrench. I had successful prototypes in two different shapes, so she made them both. They are also padded and covered in calf skin. Additional ones could be made at a local HVAC or similar metal shop – sky’s the limit on bar design. The D-rings are functional and discreet. The heroes have ended up being the new thigh block and flap Velcro. I feel so safe and so secure with this front and back block configuration, I haven’t needed to use the slits for thigh straps. (Plus, less Velcro holding me on, the better.) 

I depend on the bar heavily during my warm-up as my body warms up and we get in a groove together. I hold onto it with my outside hand while also holding the rein. To turn from the outside rein, I slide my hand across the bar towards the inside. Now that I’ve spent a few weeks in the saddle, I’m really getting a feel for how to best utilize the bar to ride my best and prevent my body from disrupting Mason. I find it helps my contact and balance. The irony of it all is that I’m using the bar less than I ever would have imagined because I am so anchored by the blocks that my contact is improving.

Thank goodness for the supportive para dressage world. During my research, I spoke with other riders who use modified saddles, each told the story that it’s really just a matter of muddling through. I thought I’d share my story and my resources in hopes it might help the next para rider looking for a modification. If you are that rider: Any of the people mentioned or tagged in my Facebook album were incredibly kind and helpful. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them or me. Good luck!


“Why does she walk like that?!”

I’m going to rip this Band-Aid off. Here’s a video of me walking. The absolutely most difficult thing for me to share. I hate videos of me walking because it shows a disabled person and that’s not how I feel. For years, I have avoided having my picture taken with my scooter, canes, or walker because those were “temporary” tools and “I won’t need those for forever”. Newsflash: maybe they are here to stay. Disability is a strange thing. I may share a disability with someone, but not their diagnosis. Anyone affected by an outward disability hears the same unspoken question, “I wonder why she walks like that.” (And I’m sure it’s never phrased, “What’s wrong with her?”) Here’s my explanation on why she walks that way.

First, a 91-word anatomy and physiology lesson. Muscle groups sometimes work in pairs: when one side contracts, the other relaxes. Quadriceps straighten the knee and hamstrings bend the knee. Calf muscles point the toes and the shin muscles lift the toes. Sometimes muscles work as a group, like hip flexors that flex the hip during the swing of a step. The large and small muscle groups work together to control balance and locomotion. Voluntary and involuntary muscle action is controlled by the nervous system. This is a very simple explanation of an incredibly complex thing we call walking.

Second, a 75-word explanation of multiple sclerosis. “Sclerosis” means scar. Think of nerve cells like electrical wire. The wire, or axon, is what transmits the current; the coating, or myelin, creates a protected channel for the current. In MS patients, myelin is attacked by the immune system; think mice chewing on the electrical wire. The chew marks eventually scar. “Multiple” scars result in the nerve cells transmitting faulty or missing information. These scars are in the brain and on the spinal cord.

My mice have wreaked havoc on my electrical circuits. As a result, the signals to the voluntary and involuntarily muscles used for walking are all out of whack. Spasticity is when muscles get a strong message to contract, but not the same strength signal to relax. I am most affected by spasticity in the large muscle that extend my knees and point my toes. The muscle pairs begin to work against rather than with one another. The counter muscles can’t overpower the spastic muscle. To compensate, I swing my legs outward from my hips. The little muscles in the foot and ankle responsible for balancing are powerless against a flexed quad and calf and result in poor balance. Over time, unused or underused muscles become weak. Just like damaged electrical circuits, somedays my body works better than others. My circuits are more damaged on my right side. Upsides: it is not painful and I CAN walk!

I wrote this explanation because I overheard a lady say to her friend, “Why do you think she walks like that?” I found it strangely cathartic to write this for a person who will never read it. I also am not offended by her innocent curiosity. As someone who is disabled, I find myself wondering the same of others sometimes.

There are two kinds of disabled people: those who own their disability and those who let it own them. I’m the former. I can find appreciation in my circumstance. Walking this way is fatiguing, I have learned to pace myself. I am independent to a fault, so I am learning to ask for help (…sometimes, it’s a work in progress). I have learned to appreciate that I have lots of tools, from my canes, to my scooter, to a stranger’s offered arm. In the world where we can always use an uplifting story and it’s so easy to complain about the bad stuff, I’d like to share my good stuff and how I find positives in the bad stuff. We’ll see how it goes.