School of Mines, NSCD develop new saddle for adaptive riders
July 20, 2015
On a cloudy, wet July morning, Nicole Robinson stands in the tack room at the National Sports Center for the Disabled's Therapeutic Riding Center at Snow Mountain Ranch.
Robinson, the center's supervisor, holds in her hands what is probably the only commercially available high-back saddle in the country.
Manufactured by Gray's Custom Saddlery in Arkansas, the contraption looks similar to the backrest on a motorcycle seat. Sitting atop a modified saddle, its tooled leather girth strap can hold a disabled rider in place.
Covered in leather, it's not an unattractive piece of tack, but as Robinson lists its drawbacks, it's apparent that the saddle is lacking in functionality.
First of all, it's heavy.
Extra weight can put an undue burden on therapy horses, which are generally older, Robinson said.
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The saddle is also pretty short, so it doesn't quite provide the upper back, neck and head support a quadriplegic rider needs, leading inevitably to "bobble head," Robinson said.
The chest strap is also not the quickest to release.
"What's very important to us is that we're able to release our rider with one pull," Robinson said.
So how does one go about addressing these design flaws when there's no other product on the market?
The answer's simple. Make your own.
Last year, Robinson began working on a new prototype for the high-back saddle.
Using a heat-molded sign and a Velcro strapping system, Robinson and others were able to develop a design that was much more functional than the Gray's saddle.
This winter, Robinson sent the prototype to Joel Bach, Ph.D. Bach is the director of the Center for Biomechanics and Rehabilitation Research at Colorado School of Mines.
His specialties are biomechanics and mechanical design, and he's taken a special interest in adaptive sports equipment.
He has overseen the development of an adaptive cross-country ski and both cross-country and downhill adaptive mountain bikes.
When Robinson contacted Bach and told him about the prototype saddle, he was happy to help, he said.
"It did what they needed, but she knew that it could be a lot better with some engineering behind it, so that was where we started," Bach said.
Bach and a group of student volunteers worked on the saddle through the spring and delivered it six weeks ago, Bach said.
Outside the tack room, Hawk, a 30-year-old therapy horse, stands stoically in the now consistent rainfall.
A few volunteers are securing Bach's new saddle to his back.
Even a cursory glance reveals the advantages this saddle's design holds above the Gray's saddle.
It looks like the bucket seat of a racecar and provides full back support for an adult rider.
Laser cut components make up its structure and lightweight padding sheds precious pounds from its design.
"It's lighter weight is better for the horse and it's also better for the folks in the riding program for putting the saddle on and off the horse," Bach said.
The new saddle's height is adjustable, and a mounting system can accommodate the headrest from the rider's own wheelchair.
Also like a racecar, it includes a four-point, quick-release harness system.
"The old one that they had relied on had Velcro straps to secure the rider, and horses don't like the sound of Velcro," Bach said. "The new harness has a quick release, is much more supporting and doesn't freak the horse out."
Debbie Reichert is one of the volunteers adjusting the saddle on Hawk. Her daughter Haley is quadriplegic.
"When Haley was smaller we used to be able to back ride her," Reichert said, referring to the practice of having an adult sitting directly behind the rider for support.
Haley rides about 15 times a year.
"The high back saddle is perfect for her," Reichert said. "It holds her up. They keep tweaking it every time she rides, and it just gets better and better."
Riding offers relief
Like Haley, Spencer Veraldi is quadriplegic.
His mother Val stands with him underneath a pop up tent at the riding center. The rain drums persistently on the canopy.
Despite the weather, there's an indomitable grin spread across Spencer's face.
Spencer has cerebral palsy, and sciatica causes him excruciating lower back pain.
His family tried a number of treatments including drugs and massage to relieve the pain, Val explains.
Last year, they decided to give therapeutic riding a shot.
"When we came up here last year I was like, 'Oh, this might be really bad,'" Val said, "but after he rode the horse the pain went away."
Val was dumbfounded.
"It was so weird," she said. "I was like, 'oh my gosh,' because the trot of the horse mimics walking. I don't know what's so magical about it."
Therapeutic riding has a two-fold benefit.
The natural rhythm of a horse's movement can help relieve pain for disabled riders like Haley and Spencer while the experience of riding a horse is exciting and stimulating.
At first it was difficult to support Spencer, but the new saddle has been a huge improvement, Val said.
"Now they really don't have to do a lot to support him," she said.
To mount Spencer on the saddle, his wheelchair is pushed up a ramp onto a small metal platform.
Another wooden platform sits a few feet away, and Hawk is led up between the two.
Spencer's headrest is attached to the saddle, and after a quick countdown, Spencer is lifted from his chair into the saddle.
He sits upright and well supported. He's a little wet, but he's still smiling.
Saddles could be marketed
Eventually, the NSCD would like to offer the high-back saddle for sale to the general public, Robinson said.
"We made it so we could produce more of these," Bach said. "We have all of the engineering drawings for them."
The proceeds could help fund the riding center.
But there are still some improvements to be made.
"What we want to do is get something that would be much more versatile," Bach said.
Among the improvements, making a system that's compatible with any saddle and making it more adjustable.
"It worked really well for a few of the clients and for a few others it needed a different kind of support, so we're going to add some modular components to allow them to tweak it based on what the needs are for the client they have," Bach said.
The NSCD would also like to see a child-specific model built, Robinson said.
Bach said he and his students found projects like the high-back saddle "extremely rewarding."
Knowing that the project has been a success is even better.
"Seeing what we can do as engineers and helping people out that way is pretty amazing," Bach said "I'm looking forward to working with the NSCD on other projects in the future."
The riding center is holding a tack sale on Saturday, July 18, from 8 a.m. to noon at Old Time Feed N' Things on County Road 60 in Granby.
Hawk is currently the only horse that the NSCD can use for the high back saddle, Robinson said. Proceeds from the tack sale will go toward purchasing a younger horse for adaptive riding as well as adaptive riding equipment.
Donations or consignment tack can be dropped off at the store on Friday, July 17, from 4 to 6 p.m.
For more information about the sale, contact Robinson by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 970-726-1546.