Realising she couldn’t just stare at four walls every night Helen decided she needed a distraction and, once again she returned to her passion for horses. This time she set herself a challenge to solve a problem her horse was experiencing, as Helen explains: “My horse had a problem, she was acting like she was in pain and discomfort when being ridden and I didn’t understand why.
“I started a process of elimination, reviewing all my horse’s tack and carrying out a significant amount of research and data analysis before I finally established the cause of the discomfort was her saddle pad and the pressure it created.”
Helen sourced some used saddle pads and started altering them to trial a variety of alternative designs. Two core ideas developed, one Helen called the dual wing design and a second which was a mono version.
Initially, Helen’s design ideas developed through trial and error but, as she looked into the issue more deeply, she discovered that there was a science to the approach she was developing.
“The dual wing design functioned because of a cut in the saddle pad at a particular angle and gradient. If I made it too shallow, it didn’t eliminate enough pressure and so was nowhere near as effective. Equally, if I made the angle too big it didn’t work at all”, Helen added.
“Trying to find the optimum angle and length of the wings took some time as I boiled the design down to fractions of a degree.”
Once Helen had fine-tuned her design as far as she could, she made some prototypes and asked friends to try them out. They proved to be a hit; her friends loved them.
Helen had created a new product for the equestrian market, and a good one it seemed. It was something that nobody else had thought of before, and so Helen had to decide what to do with her design next.
She started by creating a presence on social media, to see what the wider reaction to her idea was, and slowly but surely, word of the innovative saddle pad spread and interest started to emerge.
Alongside her awareness building exercise, Helen concluded that she needed third-party validation of her idea—independent recognition for the positive impact that the saddle pad design could have. So she approached leading equestrian scientist Dr David Marlin to carry out some independent pressure testing.
Over the coming months, the social media activity started to generate genuine enquiries, and people were getting in touch asking where they could buy the saddle pads. But the testing had been delayed, and Helen didn’t have any products to meet the demand. So she had to do all she could to stall the potential customers, explaining that the saddle pads were coming soon.
Alongside the steadily growing number of enquiries from interested horse owners, a major manufacturer of equestrian products approached Helen. They had seen the idea and were interested in it. However, the company didn’t just want to purchase a few; it wanted to buy the idea.
At this stage, Helen’s focus wasn’t really on establishing her own business. If she could sell her idea and give herself a financial cushion that left her free to concentrate on her family, that would have been perfect.
Helen was understandably excited by the approach and travelled back to her native Ireland to meet the company. However, despite their initial positive interest, the meeting didn’t go well; the company’s representatives tore Helen and her idea apart citing a lack of scientific evidence. Looking back, Helen feels it was a positive experience, from which she developed a tougher, more confident approach to business, but at the time it was a big blow, and she left the meeting deflated.
However, Helen refocused herself and got back in touch with Dr Marlin, to press for the evidence she badly needed. Within two weeks Dr Marlin had carried out some preliminary tests, and the initial results were looking positive. Fired up about the design again, Helen took the financial risk and commissioned Dr Marlin and a team of top equine research scientists from Hartpury University Centre Gloucestershire; Lucy dumbbell and Victoria Lewis – to carry out deeper research.
Buoyed by the positive reaction from the preliminary research, and confident that she would soon have the hard scientific evidence needed to support her claims, Helen booked a stand at the BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association) International trade show and entered her saddle pad design into their innovation awards.
It was a brave move—the in-depth research had not been complete, and she didn’t have a manufacturing partner. But, Helen was keen to get her product idea out into the market—and deep down, a little motivated to prove a point to the company that had been so dismissive of her and her idea.
Luckily, this turned out to be a good move! Spurred on by the deadline the research team delivered their findings ahead of the event. And the results were excellent, showing that using the pad eliminated any pressure on the horse’s back.
No other saddle pad design had been shown to create zero pressure, and the implications of this breakthrough were significant. For horses like Helen’s, those that suffer from rubbing, the benefits are more obvious. But, the saddle pad design also offers advantages to sporting riders. With no pressure on them, the horse’s muscles are not restricted and are freed up. This increase in movement can allow significant performance gains; so important in competition.
“A horse’s power comes from its hind quarters and its back, and it’s carrying us on those. If you are restricting that power by causing pressure, the horse is not able to work as effectively as it could. If you free up that power, by default you enhance the horse’s performance,” said Helen. “As an example, I’ve had customers report a 10% increase in their dressage scores when using a winged saddle pad.”
In between booking her place at BETA International and the event itself, Helen had also found a manufacturing partner. Her initial trials with a series of overseas manufacturers didn’t work out well, and she ended up striking up a relationship with a manufacturer based in Wales. It has proven to be ideal as the location allows for a closer working relationship and many of her customers also love the fact that her products are British made.
Everything was coming together well. But the icing on the cake came on day two of the BETA trade show when Helen’s winged saddle pads won the innovation award she had entered. In itself that was a fantastic achievement but what made it all the sweeter was discovering that the runner-up in Helen’s award category—the company she beat—was that Irish-based manufacturer who had dismissed her design.
The BETA show and Helen’s award win gave her products a fantastic kick-start. A year and a half later and the saddle pads are selling well, the equine trade press has responded positively to the product, and Helen is growing a new cohort of sponsored riders who are giving her unique design an excellent profile.
However, the success of the design has presented a new challenge. One that, unfortunately, is faced in so many industries. Just six months after the BETA event no fewer than 18 other manufacturers had introduced products incorporating a design very similar to Helen’s.
Helen made it very clear when we spoke to her that she is not going to take this lying down, and why should she. Helen has patent applications pending and various mechanisms in place to protect her intellectual property. And so she has had to initiate legal action against the companies she feels are copying her designs.
While this reflects the unsavoury side of product innovation, in particular for the individual or small business, it does show that the idea Helen came up with, in the dead of night while nursing her poorly son, has revolutionised a global industry.