Recent technological advances have led to lighter, more comfortable equipment and, subsequently, performance gains for sportspeople. Take cycling. Aluminium frames once dominated, but these have been surpassed by materials like titanium and most notably, carbon fibre, the material of choice for all teams taking part in the Tour de France.
When it comes to the equestrian world, however, it's a different story. The sport has been reluctant to embrace technological advances. One man hoping to change all that is Martin Ryan, who has designed a radical new type of cantilevered saddle made from high-performance thermoplastic composites. The new equipment (which has been patented) is to be unveiled at the RDS Horse Show in Dublin next week.
As Ryan says, the connection between a horse and its rider is fundamental. The saddle is the key piece of equipment that determines the level of connection between the two. Creating a saddle that provides both the stability needed for the rider and the flexibility essential to move with the horse, however, is not easy.
Ryan says a saddle must successfully sandwich a semi-rigid object between two dynamic and organically-shaped bodies.
“Traditional saddles have a single structure that doesn’t really move much. Its shape conforms to the rider and how it fits the horse after that depends on how it is padded up. With my saddle, the cantilevered structure within the equipment provides the support for the rider while at the same time offering an inherent dynamic flexion for the horse,” said Ryan.
As well as being more flexible, the saddle also promises to reduce concussion as the cantilevered tree provides a natural suspension, which means that as a rider drops their weight after jumping a fence, it cushions the impact so there’s a softer transition on to the horse’s back.
“We’ve had a lot of competent riders on the saddle who have positive things to say about how it performs with the horse. We’re already getting a lot of interest from buyers in Ireland as well as the US, Germany, England and even Greece,” he said.
Ryan, who hails from Gorey, Co Wexford, and who has previously won many titles in eventing, showjumping and dressage, came up with the prototype for the saddle while studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin (NCAD) in the early 2000s.
Emerging with a first class honours degree in industrial design, he subsequently won a number of prestigious prizes for the cantilevered saddle concept including the Dyson Student Design award and the IDI Graduate Designer aware. He also reached the final 10 in the world for the Volvo Sports Design Award.
Now working in a number of roles, including programme director of product design and lecturer at Maynooth University, and design innovation coach at VaughRyan, a training consultancy he co-runs with fellow lecturer and creative Trevor Vaugh, Ryan has been finetuning his original design over the past ten years.
“It was a steep learning curve to go from designing a nice concept to something that has become a tried and tested product. It has taken us years to find the right materials. It proved difficult to find something that would be lightweight but flexible. It had to be durable but if it did break, would not break into sharp shards as is the problem with carbon fibre,” he said.
Ryan’s search for the right saddle material eventually led him to working with the Co Galway-based EireComposites, a company which designs and manufactures lightweight, high-performance materials for the aerospace, marine and motor sector.
“We tested the saddle for two million cycles on a pounding machine – equivalent to between two to three years heavy use – and there was no wear or fatigue at all so we knew we had the right material,” he said.
Enterprise Ireland helped provide funding early on for design patents. Working out of Nova UCD, Ryan pursued commercialisation. He eventually gained investment from well-known businessman and ex- shipping executive Austin Conboy and Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) director and former managing director of Irish Continental Group's container division, Liam Lacey. The three jointly set up LAM Technologies, which trades as Bua Saddles, in 2012.
The saddle will retail from around €1,950-€2,000, compared to between €1,500-€5,000 for traditional saddles.
“The saddle industry is very fragmented with an awful lot of small players and it is still seen as something of a craft so we think there’s an opportunity to professionalise it. We’re looking to go against the likes of the French saddle manufacturer CWD Sellier, which is used by a lot of the top riders,” said Ryan.
“We’re expecting this to scale because of the interchangeable components and the way it performs with the horse. The fact that we’re from Ireland, a place that so linked with horses, will obviously stand to us,” he added.
In the hotseat: what riders say about the Bua Saddle
“With the Bua Saddle there is a lot of room at the withers and down through the spine, a lot more room than most other saddles and no contact which offers excellent freedom for the horse to move. I haven’t had a horse that it doesn’t fit.
“The first thing that struck me when sitting in the saddle was the overall balance and comfort it provided. The saddle compressed as I sat down in it then immediately felt stable.”
– Daniela O’Toole: International Show Jumper and Irish Sport Team rider 2014
“I was impressed with the amount of feel that the saddle allowed the rider to have. It was extremely easy to gauge all four hoofbeats of the horse and have a good connection with the horse’s back via the saddle interface. It was also apparent that the horse could more easily pick up on the cues of the rider’s seat aids compared with more conventional flock packed saddles with a standard tree.
“The cantilevered saddle was very comfortable to canter and jump in, offering superb reduction in concussion on the horse’s back if the rider sat heavily or lost balance and fell back onto the saddle.”
– Jody Hartstone: New Zealand Grand Prix Champion Dressage Rider 2010, Winner of Tri-Nations Dressage Derby, South Africa 2007, International Coach of Equine Learning Theory