Horses and Star Trek: Considering Captain Picard’s Saddle

It’s question time here at SFF Equines, and commenter Jazzlet has a good one:

Could you tell those of us who have only ridden other people’s horses a bit about saddles? I’ve seen mention of people with their own saddle, if I remember rightly one TNG Star Trek starts with the Enterprise being completely vacated, but Picard goes back for his saddle and so the story. Anyway that and other mentions made me wonder about saddles, it’s obvious that no one saddle will fit all horses and ponies, but that’s as far as I get.

I was surprised to discover on searching my past articles that I have never actually devoted one to the subject of saddles. I’ve mentioned them in passing here and there, but never done a whole post. That’s a pretty big omission. I will remedy that in the very near future.

In the meantime, I’m captivated by the idea of Captain Picard’s saddle. Here on this very site, a few years ago, Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer wrote about the horsekid side of Star Trek, with special reference to the episode Jazzlet mentioned, “Starship Mine” (The Next Generation, S6 E18). It’s kind of a tragic post. I’m going to mercifully forget that part, and just think about the Captain’s saddle.

The short line everybody quotes is actually spoken by Dr. Crusher: “Anyone who is an experienced rider naturally has his own saddle.” Picard has a longer exchange in the same episode with Geordi and Deanna, in which he says, “Yes, a saddle is a, a very… personal… thing. It has to be, er… broken in, used, cared for.” A little later he adds that “most serious riders do have their own saddles.”

This is generally true. It definitely was when I was much younger, before the horse world became quite so keenly aware of the need to fit saddle to horse as well as rider. The advanced riders at the riding school brought their own saddles. The rest of us had to make do with whatever the school had—cheap saddles, most often, and not in the best condition; if they didn’t fit, too bad.

The instructors matched mounts to riders based on size and weight as well as experience, so a larger rider was unlikely to be squeezed into a saddle that was much too small, but it wasn’t always a sure thing. Smaller riders might end up on the larger horses in similarly outsized saddles, and might find themselves sliding around more than they liked, but we just had to suck it up and deal. It was part of the learning experience.

Back then, horses with saddle sores were distressingly common. If the school was careful, they wouldn’t have any active sores. But all the older school horses had the tell-tale white spots on their backs, usually toward the front and over the shoulders.

Maybe the best analogy for saddle fit is shoes for humans. If the shoe fits, it’s comfortable. It doesn’t rub or chafe. You don’t get blisters when you wear it.

The same applies to a horse. The saddle, of whatever style (which I will get into when I talk about saddles in general), will sit on the horse’s back in such a way that as the horse moves, it stays in place and does not interfere with the movement. It’s not too wide or too narrow, it doesn’t cause pressure sores (which is what a saddle sore is). It serves as a buffer between the human’s seat and the horse’s back.

Because it’s a saddle however and not a shoe, it has not only to fit the horse who wears it but the human who rides in it. That’s what riders cared about back in the day, and that’s what Picard is talking about. Your own saddle is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s broken in to your conformation and way of sitting the horse.

I have my own saddles. Plural, because I have multiple horses. I have not gone the full-on route of saddles custom-made for both the horse and the rider, that’s way out of my budget, and frankly when you get a custom saddle, you can be pretty sure that it will stop fitting the horse within weeks of arrival. Then you have to keep calling the saddler in to make adjustments.

This is especially true with young horses or horses who have been put back in training after a hiatus. Their musculature changes with the work they do or don’t do. If they’re young they may still be growing, and if they’re older, their bodies will change as they age. They may gain or lose muscle or fat, their backs may raise or drop, any number of things can and will happen to change the way the saddle fits.

The off-the-rack option is a lot more economical, but it requires a fair amount of expertise, and you have to monitor constantly to make sure the saddle is not causing trouble for the horse. Quite a bit can be done with padding, though there are distinct limits. In my case, I have a selection of saddles in different widths and styles, chosen to fit specific horses, and a truly epic collection of pads and padding. And right now I’m praying the new horse won’t need a completely different saddle, because saddle-fitting hell is one of the lower levels of the Inferno and I’ve been there too often as it is.

From the Picard perspective however, all of these saddles are broken in on my end. They aren’t all perfect as a custom saddle might be, but they’re familiar and comfortable. I’m used to the way I sit in them. I don’t have to worry that they’ll be too big or too small or too hard or too soft. They’re just right.

Something I had cause to appreciate on a couple of recent rides at the nearby dude ranch. I do love those beautiful desert trails, and the ranch horses are smart and sane and well cared for. The saddles however…

Ouch. Let’s just leave it that. Ouch.

But they fit the horses, and that’s what matters to the ranch. As it should. Hours of trekking on steep and rocky trails require saddles that fit well and cause the horse no distress. The riders are a much lower priority.

Yes, I might bring my own saddle, but it would have to be fitted to the horse, and it’s simpler just to use the horse’s own saddle.

With all that in mind, what about the horses Captain Picard might hope or expect to ride? Would this future horseman care about fitting his saddle to them?

First of all, if he’s riding on the holodeck, all he has to do is ask for a horse that fits the saddle. He’ll have other specs, too, for gait and temperament and presumably appearance, but he won’t be inflicting saddle sores on the holo-horse. (And there would be a plot for a fic, in which a system glitch manifests as a horse whom the saddle does not fit.)

What about a real horse, if he happens to come across one? That would be on a planet, we can suppose, or a very large space station. Would he have to trust to padding and hope it works? Or might saddle technology have changed enough over the centuries that saddle will conform to any horse?

I would hope that would happen. There are multiple options now that might trend in that direction. Variations in shape and structure of the saddle. Out-of-the-box concepts like the Reactor Panel or the CAIR system. Adjustable trees and changeable gullets—I’ve had both over the years. (The link on changeable gullets has some great information about saddle fitting in general and why it’s so complicated–do click through, it’s worth it.)

Some issues may not be easily solved. A very wide horse may strain the rider’s hip flexors to the point of pain, and a saddle that accommodates both the horse’s width and the rider’s need for a narrower twist (as the part of the saddle directly under the rider is called) might not be practicable. A very small horse and a very large rider would not only present challenges in terms of the horse’s ability to carry weight or the rider’s ability to ride without their feet dragging on the ground, but also in the horizontal axis: Does the horse have enough back for the rider to sit on?

But for the most part, assuming horse and rider can function as a pair, a saddle that will adapt itself to both would surely be a thing by Captain Picard’s time. He can trust that not only will he be able to use his own, comfortable, broken-in saddle, but the horse will be as comfortable in it as he is. Whatever happens after that, whether he’s comfortable with the horse’s gaits and personality, or the horse is comfortable with him as a rider, at least the equipment won’t be getting in the way.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, including a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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