Our Development Process
Our Approach to Design
is Horse Centric
We have maintained a group of 5 horses, all ridden by Tad since the beginning of our R&D efforts in 1992. While some are sadly no longer with us, and others have filled in, these horses have provided us with the feedback necessary to evolve our understanding of what horses really need from a saddle.
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The effort 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.”
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.”
Development of SmartRide: Decades of Inspired Research
Tad has committed 25 years to an ongoing research and development program that has led to many surprising conclusions. These offer a new narrative in our conversation around saddles and how they are designed and manufactured.
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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.
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.”
The saddle tree is the foundation of our research and development, initially with a wood version with smooth metal reinforcement and 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 culminating in SmartRide Rx.
SmartRide Rx 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.
We have focused on three guiding principles to evolve our saddles. The first is ergonomics, 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 we have been pushing hard on for years—sympathetic movement. The tree and panels are engineered to have specific axes 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.”
“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 third guiding principle is durability. “Good riders and athletic horses put enormous stress loads on saddle components and we are engineer 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.”
The panels of our saddles are the result of an intense R&D effort made in the early years of our company. They are unique in their ergonomic design, material composition, symmetry, performance and comfort. We use non-standard materials, CADD design and CNC machining and proprietary assembly meathods. They are durable, holding up under years of hard use and must not be altered in any way in an erroneous effort to alter saddle "fit". The manner in which the panels transition to the sweat flaps is a unique and patented feature that allows for seamless weight transference and an extraordinarily close feel.
The Engineering Behind SmartRide and SmartRide Rx
“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."
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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.”
In Stan's own words:
"SmartRide™ is a technically advanced saddle tree developed from a process of Top-Down engineering analysis, design and implementation.
The SmartRide™ development cycle began with a scientific analysis of how a horse’s body moves. Over a dozen horses, of significantly different breeds, builds and sizes, were studied at the walk, trot, canter, left bend, right bend, turn, and form over a jump. This motion was analyzed with high speed, stop action photography, load sensors, and strain gauges to determine how a horse moves and how much force the horse generates during the activities.
The results of the analysis showed that the saddle tree should be designed to accommodate eighteen different axes of flexion and bending in order to conform to the horse’s back in motion. The tree was constructed out of an acrylic alloy and wrapped in carbon fiber. Nine different unique structures were developed and incorporated into the SmartRide™ saddle tree to allow movement along these eighteen axes within specific parameters. Examples of these structures include: main engineered support rail to provide longitudinal stability; low frequency wave attribute to provide side-to-side flexibility and freedom of movement of the pommel tips away from the horse’s shoulders; high-strength, multi-directional carbon fiber used to stabilize the girth area and provide load distribution during takeoff and landing; and strain relief areas within the tree to allow the pommel of the tree to act independently from the seat and cantle.
The design of the tree was validated in two ways, through both horse testing and mechanical testing. A control group of horses, ridden by Tad Coffin, was used to register and evaluate reactions to prototypes throughout the iterative design process while the analytic portion of the validation was on a computer controlled test-bed that used pneumatic rams to apply various pressures to the saddle tree in known amounts. The on-horse testing of the SmartRide™ saddle trees is an ongoing process based on both Tad’s daily rides with his on-site group of horses used only for saddle testing as well as a wide variety of horses with riders of different skill levels."