Whether you ride horses professionally or just as leisurely way to relax, you need the right kind of saddle. Choosing the right saddle not only results in better riding, but it ensures that both you and the horse are comfortable. A well-made saddle provides support and comfort as well as greater security when riding, but only if you match the saddle to the kind of riding you prefer. Pronto’s Equestrian Saddle Buying Guide will help you choose the right equestrian saddle, whether you’re riding for work, show or pleasure.
There are two main kinds of equestrian saddles: English and Western. Choose English equestrian saddles generally, for dressage and horse shows. Western equestrian saddles are generally for trail riding and ranching.
An equestrian saddle’s tree, or frame, determines the weight, flexibility, durability and shape of a saddle. Saddle trees are traditionally made with wood or laminated wood, but newer synthetic models can be lighter and more flexible. Look for a wood saddle tree for the best durability.
With proper care, leather saddles will last a lifetime, and leather or suede is the best choice for dressage and show use. Synthetic saddles are less durable, but they’re also more lightweight and easy to clean. The high flexibility of synthetic saddles allows them to move with the horse, making them more comfortable.
Match the width of a saddle’s underside to the width of your horse’s back. A properly fitted saddle will move freely, and minor problems with fit can be fixed with a blanket or saddle pad.
When you’re sitting on your saddle, your weight should be distributed evenly and you should be positioned at your horse’s center of balance. An imbalanced equestrian saddle will make you feel like you’re sliding backwards or upwards while you ride.
A feature found on all Western and some Australian equestrian saddles, this leather-covered hook was originally designed to hold a lariat for roping livestock.
A style of English saddle also known as a close contact or all-purpose saddle, these were originally designed for fox hunting. Because these saddles are thinner, they provide better contact with the horse, making them preferable for rides that include jumping.
The upper front part of a saddle.
The frame of an equestrian saddle, made from wood, wood laminate or synthetic material.
A pair of metal bars or loops attached to a saddle by leather flaps that provide support for the legs while riding.
The top of a horse’s front shoulders, where the front end of an equestrian saddle rests.
There are two main types of equestrian saddles: English and Western. The term “English saddle” refers to a number of saddles that are linked as much to purpose as they are to their make and look. English equestrian saddles are used for showing or sport and include dressage, hunt seat, horse racing and polo saddles. These saddles are flatter in appearance and lack the horn and self-padding design of other saddle styles.
Hunt-seat English saddles are the most common because of their versatility; they can be used for riding, jumping or learning dressage. While similar to hunt-seat saddles, true dressage saddles have design variations that meet show standards; show saddles have no knee roll and have a small rise in the rear, commonly called the cantle.
Western equestrian saddles were designed to be used on working cattle ranches. These equestrian saddles are often referred to as “cowboy saddles” because they are familiar to movie viewers, rodeo fans and anyone who’s participated in a touristy trail ride.
Western equestrian saddles have no padding and are often paired with saddle blankets or pads. These saddles have sturdier stirrups and use a cinch rather than a girth. The Western saddle’s distinguishing characteristic is its horn at the front of the saddle. This horn was originally intended to hold a lariat for roping cattle. The Western equestrian saddle is generally heavier than other saddles.
Australian equestrian saddles can come with or without a Western horn. These equestrian saddles are common for pleasure and endurance riders and share some features with Western saddles, such as a deeper seat, heavy leather and a high cantle.
The saddle tree is the frame on which an equestrian saddle is built. Saddle trees are usually made of wood or fiberglass that is covered in leather. This equestrian saddle frame is made to fit both the rider and the horse.
The tree of an English saddle is built from laminated layers of wood that are reinforced along their length with spring steel and a riveted gullet plate. These saddle trees have the least flexibility.
Western saddle trees define the size and shape of these equestrian saddles. Traditional Western saddle trees were made from wood or laminated wood, but modern Western saddles also use synthetic materials.
Synthetic saddle trees vary in quality and are more flexible, lighter and easier to customize than saddle trees made from wood. Look for polyurethane saddle trees for the best long-term performance. Because an equestrian saddle with a synthetic tree moves more closely with a horse, you can find a single saddle that will be comfortable to use with several horses of different sizes.
The most common materials for an equestrian saddle are leather, suede and synthetic. Leather is the traditional material for saddles. These equestrian saddles can last a lifetime if correctly maintained, which can be time consuming. To spot a good leather saddle, look at its finish, stitching and fittings. A leather saddle should stay in place during riding and should snugly fit the horse.
Synthetic leather saddles are lightweight and easy to clean, but they’re also less durable than genuine leather saddles. When the first synthetic saddles were introduced, they were covered in nylon fabric and came in bright colors. These early synthetic equestrian saddles were not fit for competitive shows, but newer synthetic leather and suede saddles have a more natural look that makes them worthy of competition.
A poorly-fitted equestrian saddle can result in pain and saddle sores for a horse. A well-fitting saddle should be wide enough to support the bones in your hips but not so wide that it causes discomfort for you or your horse. One saddle will not fit all kinds of horses, and a single equestrian saddle will not fit the same horse forever, as horses change through the years both in weight and in size dimensions. Equestrian saddles change over time too. Both English and Western saddles need periodic adjustments.
Before buying a saddle, measure the width of your horse’s back, then compare this measurement to the width of the saddle’s bottom. You should be able to place three fingers between the pummel of the saddle and the top of the horse’s shoulder, commonly called the wither. When an equestrian saddle properly fits a horse, it will be able to move without restriction. Minor fitting issues can be fixed with a pad or blanket, but major fitting issues cannot be fixed with any amount of padding. Consider talking to a professional saddle fitter to be sure you’ve got the fit right.
When fitting the rider to the saddle, the fit will depend on the design. Consider the length of the seat, as this is the most common way for saddles to be fitted. The length or placement of the flaps of an equestrian saddle also affects your leg position and the way you sit on the saddle. If a seat is too long or too short, it can be uncomfortable to use and make you feel unbalanced or out-of-control when riding.
A properly balanced saddle places you on the horse’s center of balance, so that you won’t feel like you’re sliding backwards or upwards. Western saddles do a better job of distributing a rider’s weight than English saddles.