Horsemanship & Innovation (Part 1)
Good horsemen build their understanding of horses through careful observation, thoughtful, principled and often innovative problem solving, and a lifetime of experiences.
Tad’s role models were impressive horsemen, deeply committed to age old principles of classical horsemanship and remarkable innovators in their own right.
Jack LeGoff, esteemed coach of the US 3Day team, introduced interval training for the conditioning of event horses. The success of US horses and riders under his systematic approach remains unrivaled.
Bertalan de Némethy, legendary coach of the US Showjumping team, developed a training system for jumpers based on gymnastic combinations to develop the adjustability, balance, agility, and technique of the jumping horse.
In the post WWII era, formal riding systems were primarily available to US riders through retired European cavalry officers. Tad's first instructor, Raul de Leon, was a student of the best of the European riding tradition. He became one of a handful of brilliant teachers who could articulate and disseminate these ideas of horse and rider development for the American riding public.
The training and influence of these masters gave Tad both the commitment to classical principles and the license and inspiration to innovate. As fate would have it, his focus turned towards the saddle, the horseman's tool with what he considers "the most untapped potential. Could it be that the answer to some of the greatest issues and frustrations encountered in training horses and riders has been hiding from us in plain sight all this time?" says Tad.
Horsemen know anything which creates resistance on the part of the horse hinders progress. Anything that takes away the full capacity of their attention interferes with the horse’s learning. Tad believes the lack of a deep knowledge of how saddles affect horses has perpetuated many resistances and negatively impacted training methods and even riding styles.
Tad views horse and rider as two complexly engineered systems with the saddle acting as the interface between the two. "In my opinion, neither the trees nor the panels in the majority of saddles are up to the task of interfacing between horse and rider. They are entirely too rudimentary, particularly in a dynamic motion environment," says Tad.
"Many riders are unaware that most saddle manufacturers do not make their own trees. They are typically purchased from a handful of saddle tree manufacturers. While trees differ in size and shape, particularly in the height and shape of the cantle, their material composition, reinforcement, geometry and flex modulus relative to the equine physique in motion are very similar, if not identical. The accommodations saddlers make to adjust saddle fit by modifying tree width are even more crude, requiring little more than a car jack and two rollers.
While the narrative of customization is compelling, the fundamental inadequacy of the saddle tree to meaningfully meet the dynamic needs of a horse's back in motion has remained the same for decades. Newer 'smart' technologies offer bluetooth communication with cell phones but fail to address the horse's basic needs," says Tad. For far too long, unexplored and under-evolved tree design has been the culprit of much unnecessary equine discomfort and even career-ending medical syndromes such as kissing spine.
Surprisingly, no known effort has been undertaken by any equestrian organization to sponsor or direct a serious long-term effort to investigate what Sir Winston Churchill describes as one of the greatest secrets, "that which lies between a man and his horse." The investigation, innovation and reengineering of the saddle has been left to saddle manufacturers whose principal focus is necessarily on profit, not progress.
Tad has spent nearly 30 years investigating and innovating the saddle's tree and panels relative to horse performance. In many ways, he is uniquely qualified to do this. He is one of very few individuals who can both ride at the highest level and build a saddle from the tree up with his own hands.
At his farm in Virginia, Tad has created a unique environment for saddle innovation, development and manufacturing. He maintains a group of horses, which he rides daily, whose feedback he relies on to direct every single one of close to 4,500 experiments he's made during the course of his extensive research effort. His careful management of his "test herd" in order to limit variables in test results and his scientific methodology have earned accolades from scientists and researchers.
With the saddle shop and the stable all under one roof, there are added advantages of proximity: With the workbench right there, and components made in-house, he can interrupt a ride, make an adjustment to a test saddle, then resume work with the same horse and assess the impact of the adjustment he just made. It is this methodical work of discovery, performed with the intensity of an Olympian over many years, that has yielded his understanding of what horses need from a saddle.
The goal is to make a saddle that horses look forward to wearing. Not subject to the “placebo effect," each horse lets him know if the latest change he has made has benefited this quest for improved qualities of movement, balance, straightness and relaxation.
Thousands of times they have sent him back to the shop to try again. Tad describes the process using a line from Tony Robbins: "There is no such thing as failure, only results." Every experiment provides a learning opportunity. "It's just as important to understand what horses don't want from a saddle as what they need," says Tad. "There are discoveries of new concepts and additional discoveries of best practices to implement these concepts. One of my chief tasks is to differentiate between a conceptual failure and a failure in the execution of a valid concept."
By incrementally feeling the “add-ons” each successful development brings, a stronger partnership with the horse is realized. “They are really the drivers. Their feedback is what we rely on to discern if we are on the right track. The horses’ very consistent and positive responses build on the edifice of our previous discovery of what is important to them,” Tad says.
In looking at the outsides of any of the classically beautiful TC saddles you wouldn’t realize that there have been so many evolutions in his saddle technology. Tad’s efforts have led to an incremental series of results beginning with the original A5 saddle, followed by the A5G and A5G2 which brought the innovation of carbon fiber to saddle trees.
Through a collaboration with the brilliant engineer Stan Yavaroski, more sophisticated innovations led to the SmartRide tree in 2009 and then the SmartRide Rx tree in 2016. All these efforts were made in pursuit of an improved saddle tree that would offer biomechanical advantages to horse and rider.
The evolution from the SmartRide to SmartRide Rx began when changes elevated the tree from strictly biomechanical advantages to one with additional therapeutic capabilities. This accidental discovery was brought about from the combination of materials, processes and geometry which, in combination, create an electromagnetic field in the far infrared (FIR) spectrum.
Medical applications worldwide have been using FIR with acclaim for its health benefits and healing. It is in the same spectrum of light as the beneficial rays we absorb from the sun at dawn and dusk. The surprising effects of the SmartRide Rx technology and the notion that it functions as a wellness device led to the demand for making the Thera-Tree as a non-riding device for therapy, relaxation, optimized performance, and muscle tissue recovery.
Beyond the beneficial and welcome FIR energy of the SmartRide Rx and Thera-Tree, current research at TCPS involves the study and exploration of sources of and mitigation of unwelcome, static-like charges which many horses find to be agitating and disruptive. In an increasingly electrified world, the health consequences of this electrification have barely come into focus for humans, let alone for horses.
The health benefits of "grounding," sometimes referred to as "earthing" were first brought to attention through the efforts of Clint Ober. His work in this domain has been steadily gaining recognition for improved health and pain relief.
Tad has applied this concept of "grounding" to horses, riders and equipment with surprisingly remarkable results, particularly with horses plagued by tension. His latest developments offer hope to many riders with horses full of potential but unable to realize it due to tension and resistance.
All of Tad’s work, including this most recent study of bioelectricity and the concept of grounding horses and tack, is based on his pursuit of ways to improve the quality of riding and the performance and wellbeing of horses. "As we get it right, horses let us know because they become more willing, cooperative, and joyful partners."
We will bring you more on this in our ongoing series, found on social media and at www.tadcoffinsaddles.com.