One of the questions we always ask before building a new saddle is where the customer wants the fenders hung. The balanced position enables the stirrup to hang directly under your body while the conventional western position is forward of this position. How do you know which position suits you? It depends on what kind of rider you are and what kind of riding you do.
Lets cover the balanced position first. If you’ve been around horses for even a short time you’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Ears, shoulders, hips and ankles in vertical alignment’. In order for this to happen the distance from the deepest part of the seat to the fender needs to be approximately the same distance from the ankle to the ball of the foot. From a sitting position, with your stirrups underneath you, you are easily able to stand up in your stirrups without having to lunge forwards to become balanced. This position ensures that your saddle is spreading your weight out evenly front to back over the length of the horse’s rib cage.
With the conventional position the fenders are hung farther forwards to accommodate a rider who sits in more of a ‘chair seat’ position. From this position it is harder to stand in your stirrups. You end up lunging forwards to get in balance over your stirrup. This position can lead to more pressure in the rear of the saddle than in the front.
So does this mean we should all strive to ride in the balanced position? Not necessarily. To me, saddles are tools to perform a job and as with all tools you need the right one to do a specific job. Riding in the balanced position you are going to cause less impact to your horse. So the more you demand from your horse the more you want to consider riding with your stirrups in the balanced position. If you are a weekend warrior who mostly just walks on down the trail taking in the scenery, do whatever you like. You’re not riding hard enough to make a difference to the horse.
The conventional position is considered to be a defensive position. This position is great for trainers and riders who are on young horses who have less training and are more prone to spooking. With your legs forwards you can brace a bit against the stirrups and help push your rear end into the back of the cantle for a more secure seat. Truth be told, not everyone can sit a horse in the balanced position and be comfortable. When I was 25 I had no problem riding in the balanced position. Now at 55 I don’t ride enough and am not flexible enough in the hip joints to sit comfortably in the balanced position. By moving my fenders forward a bit it relieves the pressure on the hip joints so I can still ride without pain.