"We have ridden horses thousands of years, yet we have never seriously explored the saddle as a tool" - Read more about Tad Coffin's mission in Horse Talk Magazine
When you step into the barn at Tad Coffin Performance Saddles, you immediately sense that there is something very different going on there. Nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Greene County, Virginia, Tad and his team are committed to evolving the technology and conversation around saddles. Oftentimes, when it comes to finding the right saddle for our horses, we turn to a saddle fitter or rely on a system of padding to find the right fit. However, at Tad Coffin Performance Saddles (TCPS), Tad takes a different approach, striving to explore the full potential of the saddle by fundamentally changing the design and technology of the tree and panels in order to maximize performance. Tad has committed 25 years to an ongoing research and development program that has led to many surprising conclusions that offer a new narrative in our conversation around saddles and how they are designed and manufactured.
For Tad, the decades of research, engineering, and testing saddle structure and design has been a labor of love and one that stems from his own time as an Olympic rider. “In every other sport, there have been endless hours of research and technology developed in search of finding the best shoe or the best swimsuit that allows athletes to reach their full potential.” Tad points out that “we have ridden horses for thousands of years, yet we have never seriously explored the saddle as a tool.” In fact, when comparing saddle trees from different points in time over the last century, one can see that little has changed, with the majority of saddle trees today remaining technologically unevolved. The tree is the foundation of Tad’s research and development and the initial tree that he designed, a wood version with smooth metal reinforcement, was very different in terms of ergonomics. This version gave way to the next iterations, trees with a wood and carbon fiber laminate, and then to the generations of the SmartRide Technology. SmartRide trees begin with an ergonomic, thermoformed acrylic alloy core that employs many elements of geometry to accomplish specific motion and strengthening. These engineered features were developed after many iterations and experiments to determine what horses respond to best. This core is then further reinforced and fine-tuned with an array of carbon fibers and carbon elements in order to refine motion, strength, and durability.
In the evolution of their saddles, Tad and his team focus on three guiding principles. The first is ergonomics, which was the starting point for Tad, as it is crucial for the tree to have the right shape to correspond to a horse’s back in correct motion. The second is one that Tad and his team have been pushing hard on for years—sympathetic movement. “I don’t call it flexibility, because this idea often implies a non-descript bending or folding. I am persuaded that our long standing notion of flexibility is not really what the horses appreciate. I have come to believe that the tree and panels should be engineered to have specific axis of motion that evolve and correspond to the dynamic needs of the horse’s moving back underneath.” Tad likens the notion of sympathetic movement to that of an excellent rider’s seat—complex, specific, and highly toned, allowing the rider to sit quietly on a moving horse. “Saddle trees with high degrees of flex and bending are the equivalent to a rider with no core. Horses don’t want a rider flopping around on their back, they want a rider who has just the right amount of flexibility in just the right places to sit in complete harmony with the horse. The same concept holds for saddles and to achieve this presents a very different engineering challenge.”
The third guiding principle is durability. “Good riders and athletic horses put enormous stress loads on saddle components. We are engineering our saddles to accommodate the highest stress loads in a dynamic riding environment.” This however, is no easy feat, as “when you think of having something that has motion in it, and something that has a tremendous amount of durability, those two concepts are in tension. The strongest things we know of going back to the Roman ruins are not particularly flexible, and the things that are the most flexible, are not particularly durable. So, we are walking the fine line between what is sufficiently robust to handle dynamic stress loads while simultaneously serving the horse’s needs in motion.”
Tad’s approach to saddle design is horse centric, which may sound obvious, but is often a missing central element, according to Tad. “We have maintained a group of 5 horses since the beginning of our R&D efforts which began in 1992. While some are no longer with us, and others have filled in, these horses have provided me with the feedback necessary to evolve our understanding.” The management of these horses is designed to limit the number of variables in order to make precise evaluations of their reactions to the saddle design iterations. These horses are not on any medications, do not receive therapies of any kind, and are not fed any supplements. They are all ridden every day by Tad in a simple egg butt snaffle and plain cavesson bridle with neither martingale nor breastplate. Tad rides them in an open, rolling field and is constantly evaluating their responses. “It is their feedback that has guided us throughout this entire process. They are completely honest in their assessment of our work and through this process, they have led us to new truths about what they require.” Tad is able to determine how a horse reacts to a change in design by riding them. “People often ask me if I use pressure sensors or heat sensors to help determine how our saddles fit. To that, I say no, not that you couldn’t, but at the end of the day, how do we determine whether a horse is going well? By a computer program or with our senses? It’s a relationship thing—we don’t need a computer print out to let us know if we are having success or not on a relational basis. I have used my experience as a rider and my relationship with these horses over many years as the basis for all my evaluations.”
Over the years, Tad and his team have done thousands of experiments in their effort to discover the untapped potential in the saddle. In addition to the feedback from the equine “saddle testers,” they have received invaluable guidance from one of America’s top engineers, Stan Yavoroski. A rider himself, Stan recognized the need for improved saddle design. “He has helped us solve the major issues that have held back progress in the technological advancement of saddle trees,” Tad says. “He has given us the design concepts, parameters within which to explore, and helped us solve a host of technical difficulties.”
There have been multiple iterations of the SmartRide technology that was originally introduced in 2009. “As we discover improvements that will impact horse comfort and performance, we put them through the testing process. If they get a green light, we put them into production. This might happen 2-3 times per year.” This many evolutions may seem like a lot, but as Tad points out, they are striving to make up for centuries of status quo. Each and every saddle TCPS makes can come back for a technology upgrade, which is something completely unprecedented in the world of saddles. “Customers can take full advantage of our discoveries and have their saddles retrofitted. Some have this done multiple times.”
Every saddle is made on site from the tree up in a workshop that shares the same roof as the horses. “To build a saddle with this level of technological complexity requires a team with a wide skill set, a dedication to quality, and a willingness to evolve the manufacturing process as design changes are incorporated,” Tad explains. He has a hand in the production of every saddle, ensuring that all steps and procedures are followed. “I have had the honor and pleasure to work alongside some truly remarkable and talented individuals. Everyone on this team contributes to our success.”
Tad notes that his saddles do not conform to many of the current saddle design trends and defy many of the commonly held ideas regarding saddle fit. “Current design trends have shifted over the past 40 years, from saddles that we could describe as being minimalist, to today’s designs which are substantially ‘fuller’ in every respect. Much of this design shift is the result of efforts to provide greater security for riders.” Tad offers an alternative to this thinking, suggesting that real security and rider safety comes not from building more into the saddle, but from improving the agility of the horse. “There is no greater sense of security than that which comes from riding a horse that is using his back and carrying himself correctly. Such a horse is easy to sit to and moves across all kinds of terrain in a beautifully balanced manner without resistance, giving the rider both joy and great confidence.”
In contrast, Tad notes that “when horses are unable to use their physiology as it was designed, their natural suspension and balance recovery mechanism is compromised. I’m persuaded that the root cause of this inability comes from saddles. When back mobility is compromised, horses compensate, which results in movement that is either exaggerated or stilted, difficult and uncomfortable to sit to, and puts undue stress on the horse, particularly on the joints of the hind legs. Horses do their best to comply to riders’ demands, but back pain causes tension, greater levels of resistance, slower learning, and premature unsoundness.” Tad is persuaded that his improved saddle technology is where real security, safety, and the joy of riding are to be found. “I have been amazed by how quickly horses react to a truly comfortable ‘saddle experience’; resistances peel away like layers of an onion and their relationship with the rider becomes one of partnership.”
Tad’s insights over the years has led him to consider an even more radical idea—“as improved equipment has changed performance expectations in other sports, does the same possibility not exist for riding? We are breeding more phenomenal equine athletes all the time. Are we short changing their true abilities or leaving such promise unrealized because we’ve overlooked the modernization and technical development of our most significant tool; the saddle? I am persuaded that we’re formulating performance expectations, training methods, therapies and veterinary practices based, at least partially, on horses’ responses to a piece of equipment that has hardly evolved and certainly has never been given a serious, well-funded, long term concerted effort to explore it’s potential benefits.”
Beyond the efforts to improve athletic performance and the relationship between horse and rider, Tad and his team’s results have yielded some real surprises. Tad notes “where we are now is a pretty interesting place where the latest version of our technology called SmartRide Rx can actually be therapeutic.” When placed on a horse’s back for 20 minutes with the girth on, the technology, “has consistently demonstrated an ability to significantly reduce or completely eradicate back pain and create a state of deep relaxation.” To see this for yourself, check out the video of Tad demonstrating this response at https://youtu.be/0vWrWRItZ9A. While this may seem like magic, Tad explains that “this is due, in part, to an electromagnetic phenomenon in the tree that is a result of the combination of the materials we use, the manufacturing processes, and the geometric features.”
The efforts at TCPS is “a lot of very precise work that is all being driven by horse language and by a willingness to go to the ends of the earth to find ways to make them more comfortable.” As they go through the development process, Tad is “continuously amazed that the smallest difference that we can’t even imagine would affect the way the horse goes, really make a big difference to them.” Noticing and exploring these differences, however, are decades and millions of dollars’ worth of research and development. “Going down this road has never had a guarantee, but how are we to make progress if we aren’t willing to go down that road and do a lot of exploration, study, and careful thinking? I call this my second Olympic effort as it has required a similar singularity of focus, an extraordinary work ethic from a dedicated, highly skilled team, and an extraordinary willingness to persevere when the going gets tough or when there are failures.” Tad’s process is different than that of an academic study, “We aren’t doing it for the sake of studying it, we’re doing this with the kind of drive that we want it to make a difference now…but it is not purely commercial either, which makes it different.”
Reflecting on his own time as an Olympic rider, Tad suggests that there is an “Olympic ideal” that he always found appealing and worthy—“it’s a full on effort to realize the best possible performance with the goal being something that is fairly idealistic.” The work Tad and his team are doing is a very similar effort and one that is not solely about athletic performance. “It is because we have a very deep seated belief that the horse, who is responsible for all of our joy and the subject of a lot of our affection and money, deserves something fundamentally different and better if it’s possible to do that.”
As far as what’s next for TCPS, Tad and his team are seeking to “understand as best as we can the therapeutic nature of this piece of equipment.” Beyond that, it’s trying to change the conversation around saddles both in terms of performance improvement and therapeutic capabilities so that even more discoveries can be made and technology can be further advanced. Tad and his team are hard at these efforts every day and they take their mission very seriously—“I have found this work to be fascinating, rewarding, and morally compelling. To have spent all these years with these marvelous creatures and find yet a new way to bring comfort, relief and fashion a new relationship, based not on tolerance but on partnership—well, it doesn’t get much better. Now we need to bring the possibility of a new saddle narrative to the larger equestrian community.”