Circulair Smart Saddle System
Bianca Koevoets, Aram Hartsuyker & Marius Stanasel
Ill-fitting saddles are a recurring problem in equestrian sports. A misshapen saddle can be a risk for both horse and rider: uneven pressure distribution can destabilise the rider and ultimately injure the horse. Whether a saddle has the right fit, however, is not always easy to tell. A horse cannot say where it hurts. It does sometimes give nonverbal signals, but these are not always recognised or interpreted correctly the rider. Sometimes the rider is the problem: a crooked posture, for example, can create tension that is transmitted to the horse via the saddle.
and connective technology specialist Marius Stanasel spent the past year looking for ways to make the saddle collect information about the horse’s well-being and to transmit it via an app. In a cross-pollination between digital technology and craftsmanship, they redesigned the saddle as an objective measuring tool and means of communication between horse and rider.
Koevoets, Hartsuyker and Stanasel’s research fits into the context of recent debate surrounding equestrian sports. For several years, the sport has been under fire for allegedly paying too little attention to the well-being of the horses: they are said to suffer from coercion and stress, and from aids such as bits and saddles. Koevoets: “Historically, the prevailing idea was that the horse should participate, whether it wants to or not. But there are more and more people who want to be gentler with animals and pay better attention to their signals.”
People prefer to buy their saddles quickly and cheaply and are therefore more likely to choose a commercial party.
Koevoets has always held that view. As a saddle fitter and artisan saddler, she has been involved in improving the welfare of horses in equestrian sports for thirty years, by critically evaluating the fit of saddles and riders’ handling of their horses, and tailoring saddles by hand. This is not always an easy profession. “People prefer to buy their saddles quickly and cheaply and are therefore more likely to choose a commercial party,” she says. Precisely because the saddle industry has become commercialised, the critical eye of people like Koevoets is not always appreciated. “I have sometimes been argued when I gave my honest opinion,” she says, half-smiling.
Koevoets saw a need to enable quantitative measurement of the pressure between saddle and horse in order to objectively analyse the saddle’s fit. “Then I wouldn’t always have to be the one to criticise.” She also wanted to develop a method to improve the fitting of saddles while making them easily adjustable, so the fit can be modified when a horse gets older or changes weight – no need to buy a new, custom-made and manually produced saddle. A win for the rider, for the horse, and for the environment.
Koevoets started researching the possibilities of such a saddle several years ago, in collaboration with students from colleges and universities in the Netherlands. For several years, she has been a member of the scientific staff at the Equestrian Innovation Lab at Hogeschool Gent, a specialisation of the university’s Fashion and Textile Innovation Lab at the same university. Together with ‘an amazing team of diverse expertise’, she works on various research projects revolving around on horse, rider and saddle. After a few years of in-depth research, however, Koevoets was keen to return to craft. “Sometimes it is also good to pull the idea out of the research sphere for a while and think about how it could work in practice,” she says.
She started looking for a parallel partnership to develop a prototype saddle. Around that time, Hartsuyker walked into Koevoets’ workshop by coincidence. He was thrilled when he heard about Koevoets’ research. Because of his experience in 3D technology, Koevoets asked him to work with her on the prototype, under the umbrella of New Crafts, the incentive programme of Crafts Council Nederland. Stanasel, whom Hartsuyker had collaborated with before, joined as well. Hartsuyker: “Bianca had already done very thorough research on that point. Her vision was the point of departure for the development of an actual product.”
At the heart of the saddle project is a network of sensors that are to be incorporated into the saddle’s base material. The sensor technology is able to measure the pressure between saddle and horse, and between saddle and rider. If the saddle wrenches or slides, or if the rider is out of balance, the sensors pick up on it. The registered data are transmitted to the smartphone app Mind Your Ride, which was developed by Stanasel. Through text and audio, the app provides the rider with feedback on the position of the saddle and the rider’s posture. How exactly the technology will incorporated into the saddle is something Stanasel, Hartsuyker and Koevoets cannot yet reveal: at the time of publication of this article, a patent application is still pending.
Equally important is the saddle’s construction, which Koevoets and Hartsuyker took on. They initially developed a way to make saddles fit better using 3D technology. This can be done by using the horse’s measurements to create a virtual matrix of the horse’s back, which can serve as a basis for designing various parts of the saddle. Hartsuyker: “There are parts that can just be taken off the shelf and then there are a few that have to be custom-made. Those too are made based on a general pattern, but that is adjusted slightly for each horse. For example, if there is a bulge in the horse’s back, the matrix makes it easier to take that into account during design and execution.”
Through a combination of digital techniques and craftsmanship, we aim to make it easier to adapt the saddle to the horse’s changing body.
Hartsuyker and Koevoets wanted the saddles to be adaptable as well. Most existing saddles are already adjustable to some extent, but if changes have to be made at the base of the saddle, it has to be thoroughly reconstructed. This is costly because of the amount of handwork involved. As a consequence, many riders postpone this choice or opt for a completely new saddle. Hartsuyker: ” Through a combination of digital techniques and craftsmanship, we aim to make it easier to adapt the saddle to the horse’s changing body. This prolongs the lifespan of the saddle and makes for a happier horse.”
In this process, it is Hartsuyker’s task to find out which parts of the saddle are determining factors for a perfect fit and how these can be made adjustable. “The idea is to digitally tailor these parts to the horse’s body. The digital design can be forwarded directly to the maker, who can execute it. It would be great if a new or adjusted saddle element could be delivered to the rider’s mailbox in, say, a week, so the rider can adjust the saddle quickly.”
This leads to a next question: can every part of a saddle be designed digitally? The big challenge for Hartsuyker as a 3D designer is that a saddle consists rigid as well as flexible parts, he says. “There are so many conflicting forces in a saddle.” Hartsuyker learns a lot from Koevoets about dealing with those forces: about strategic placement of parts in order to create the right tension and the role materials play in all of this.
Leather, the main material of saddles, can actually not yet be grasped by digital design software yet, Koevoets explains. “Every piece of leather is different, because every animal is different. Sometimes it’s thicker, sometimes thinner. Sometimes it’s scarred. And it stretches into all kinds of directions – and sometimes hardly at all.” Hence, she remains responsible for crafting the leather. Koevoets also sews the saddle together manually, a task that remains difficult for machines to execute because of the unpredictable behaviour of the leather and the saddle’s complex shapes.
Because of the patent application, Stanasel, Hartsuyker and Koevoets cannot yet share much about the end result of their collaboration. At the same time, this patent application illustrates the level of innovation that the team is bringing about with the creation of their ‘Smart Saddle’, as it will be called. The saddle is not only technologically cutting-edge, but is also breaking new ground in terms of sustainability. Apart from, or perhaps by virtue of its modularity, it is almost entirely circular. The saddle can easily be disassembled for separation and subsequent recycling. In addition to biodegradable leather, only reusable materials such as steel were used.
Crafts knowledge and experience might become even more important than before.
Hartsuyker and Koevoets are still researching the potential of plant-based leather alternatives for saddlery. Koevoets: “That will take some time, because those materials are being developed. And leather is great in many ways, for example, it is incredibly long-lasting. Whether vegetable leathers are also as wear-resistant and safe in the long term, we don’t know yet.”
Besides transforming the means of communication between horse and rider, the saddle could also change the structure of the saddlery profession. Koevoets: “I expect it will spur specialisation, with separate groups of people measuring and designing, while saddlers continue to elaborate and execute designs. I think the work will be differently distributed.” If that is the case, crafts knowledge and experience might become even more important than before, says Koevoets. “In the end, someone needs to be able to see the full picture: from horse to saddle to rider – and back again.”