October 01, 2021 12 min read
Have you ever wondered: what lies beneath the smooth leather of a saddle? What’s the difference between a jumping or dressage saddle? How can I tell if my saddle really fits my horse? We rounded up one comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about horse saddles, both inside and out. Whether you’re shopping for your first saddle or your fifth, take a deep breath and dive into the world of saddles with us.
Can you imagine trying to jump your horse over fences with the large horn of a western saddle hitting you in the gut? Or trying to barrel race in the slick seat of a jumper saddle? You would probably go flying off the horse around the first turn! Every saddle is designed for a specific purpose. Most people can pick out the differences between the un-tooled leather and hornless pommels of English saddles as compared to the large stirrups and wide, square skirts of Western saddles. But saddle variations go far beyond these obvious differences. Whether it’s jumping, barrel racing, roping, or dressage, each specific discipline requires their saddles to meet different demands. To those familiar with the sport, even the smallest differences can have a big impact on your riding ability.
For example, when you first compare dressage and jumping saddles, you may not notice much of a difference. Neither of them have a horn or large Western fenders. But dressage saddles have a longer flap designed to accommodate the long leg position of dressage riders and a deeper seat with a higher pommel and cantle to allow the rider to sit deeply and move with the horse. Jumping saddles are shallower with shorter flaps to allow the rider to get up out of the saddle over fences and ride through the arena in a half-seat position.
Then there are all-purpose saddles which fall somewhere in between the dressage and jumping saddles. Designed to accommodate both styles of riding, the flaps are medium length and the seat is deeper than most jumping saddles, but not quite as cup-like as a pure dressage saddle. Most riders who use all purpose saddles are beginner to intermediate riders. While you’re able to both jump and ride dressage with an all purpose saddle, it can be very difficult to maintain correct equitation. The phrase “jack of all trades, but master of none,” is a great descriptor for all purpose saddles. They’re a good choice for riders who are new to the sport or who only wish to ride for pleasure, not competition.
Similar to dressage saddles, barrel racing saddles are designed with a short, deep seat. This is in order to hold the rider in place around tight turns at high speeds. While they do have a horn, it’s there to give the rider something to hold onto and isn’t sturdy enough for roping. Most of the time these barrel saddles have a rounded skirt and are designed to be lightweight, so as to not hinder the horse’s speed.
Ranch saddles are the bulldogs of the Western saddle world. These horse saddles are heavy and tough, with a strong horn and tree designed to stand up to the everyday demands of the ranching lifestyle. The high cantle holds the rider in place over rough terrain while a hard or roughed out seat offers comfort and grip. Similar to trail models, ranch saddles will usually have additional strings for carrying gear and supplies.
Show saddles are all about the bling. These flashy Western saddles will be adorned with a lot of silver and beautiful tooling designed to be eye-catching in the show ring. While they are on the heavier side and do have a horn, they are not designed to be roped off of. Instead, these horse saddles help the rider to have perfect equitation in the show ring with a nice pocket and lower pommel.
Trail riding horse saddles can differ greatly. A rider who hits the trails to relax with their horse on occasion will have very different needs than a competitive endurance rider who competes across a variety of terrain at distances up to 100 miles. The relaxed, weekend trail rider may only need a saddle that is comfortable for both horse and rider. This could be a dressage or Western pleasure saddle with a deep padded seat and ample attachments for saddlebags. You could even trail ride in a jump saddle, as long as you and your horse feel comfortable.
Endurance riders prefer saddles that are lightweight and durable. These horse saddles will use as little material as possible, some will only have the tree and seat with rigging for the stirrups and girth. Other endurance saddles will have a low rounded pommel or actual horn. This way they can easily attach saddlebags full of the supplies necessary for horse and rider to travel such a long distance.
Each saddle is made up of a series of parts that come together to perfectly distribute the weight evenly across your horse’s back. While every saddle has a tree, there are multiple types of trees, different flocking and paneling, and even different types of leather.
Let’s start from the outside in. English horse saddles are usually covered in leather, although there are some synthetic models on the market. The very front of the saddle that rests over the withers of the horse is called a pommel. The far back of the saddle that comes up behind the rider is called a cantle. In between the pommel and the cantle is the deepest part of the curve, called the seat. In between the seat and the pommel is the twist. A short skirt extends underneath the rider’s upper thigh and covers the stirrup bars for added comfort and protection. Moving down the saddle flap, which covers the sides of the horse, you’ll find a knee roll or a padded cushion towards the very front of the flap. The rider’s knee rests on this cushion for added security and comfort.
If you flip the saddle over, you’ll find a long channel that runs the length of the saddle. This is called the gullet and it protects the horse’s spine. On either side of the gullet are two robust panels. These can be filled with wool, foam or air and provide cushioning, weight distribution, and protection for the horse’s back. If you flip the saddle back over and lift up the flaps, you’ll find two to three billets, where the girth attaches, covered by a smooth piece of leather known as the buckle guard.
Pretend you’ve taken a knife and slowly peeled off all of the leather or synthetic material covering your saddle. Underneath all that, you would find a saddle tree, normally made out of wood, polyurethane, or fiberglass. This tree provides the base for the saddle and cannot be changed. While panels can be reflocked with wool or a gullet channel can be widened or shrunk, the tree itself remains unchanging. Spring steel reinforces the tree while also adding some give to the saddle itself. Stirrup bars are attached directly to the tree, very near the points, to add strength to the stirrup leathers.
There are three main tree sizes: wide, medium, and narrow. However each saddle maker has their own way of measuring and you may come across half sizes such as a medium-wide and medium-narrow. Along with different sizes, there are also various tree shapes. Most commonly there are traditional angled trees and hoop trees. Hoop trees have a rounded pommel arch versus traditional saddles which are shaped a bit more like an upside down “v.” A rounded tree is recommended for horses that are mutton-withered or broad-backed.
While English horse saddles are quite complex, the plethora of customizable parts makes it possible to find the perfect saddle for every horse and rider. Some horses prefer a hoop tree or adjustable gullet to a traditional angled setup. Other riders enjoy customizable wool flocked panels, while still others prefer lightweight air-filled panels. A good English saddle fitter can help every pair find the right fit for both parties.
Western horse saddles look very different from their small, lightweight English counterparts. Whereas English jumping saddles have a low pommel and dressage saddles a deep seat, Western saddles feature high horns and long seats. While they are both covered in leather and are based on a tree, this is where the similarities end. Western saddles are much more complex than English saddles.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of a Western saddle is its tall protruding horn. Depending on the type of saddle, this horn can be used for roping or just to steady the rider. Supporting the horn is not the pommel, but the fork. The fork leads into the seat and back to the cantle, similar to the pommel-seat-cantle setup of an English saddle. But behind the cantle is the Cheyenne roll. The Cheyenne roll is an extension of the cantle that forms a slight handle, making it easier to lift the saddle on and off the horse.
Moving back to the middle of the saddle, you’ll find a seat jockey that covers the connection between the seat and the fender. The fenders have the same function as stirrup leathers in an English saddle, but they’re made of wide pieces of thick leather that connect to the stirrups via a very short stirrup leather. Coming out in a rectangular shape all along the base of the saddle is the skirt. These skirts extend back behind the saddle and have a shorter upper skirt known as a back jockey and a front jockey with respect to where it is on the saddle.
A Western tree is made of four parts. The horn, fork/swell, bar, and cantle. While the horn sits on top of the fork/swell and the cantle at the back of the seat, the bars run against the horse’s back and connect the four pieces together.
According to our saddle fitter, Bob Schneder, if you get the geometry right, the physics work. If your saddle is fitted to both horse and rider correctly, you and the horse will be more connected, have better equitation, and more freedom of movement. But if, for example, the saddle is too far down in front, it pushes the rider forward and kicks the feet out behind you, causing you to arch your back to get your feet forward. This winds up hurting your hips, shoulders, and throws everything out of alignment.
A poorly-fit saddle doesn’t just hurt your equitation. It can cause major health issues for your horse as well. Over time, a saddle that doesn’t fit can cause your horse to hollow its back, lay its ears back while being ridden, develop an ewe neck, and even start bucking and rearing. All of these behavioral responses are due to pain from the saddle pinching the horses back, withers, or ribs. Physical results from an improperly fitted saddle include girth sores, swollen withers, sores along the spine, and even hair that grows in white due to saddle scars.
Many equestrians approach saddle fit with the attitude of “the saddle has to fit the horse first, it doesn’t have to fit me.” While it may seem noble, this belief doesn’t do you or your horse any favors. It’s important to remember that the horse’s body mirrors our own. For example, let’s say that the horse saddle is forcing your legs in front of you and your upper body into a classic “chair seat” position. Now all of your weight is directly under your seat and almost none of it is in your legs. Your riding aids have become ineffective as your feet are way out in front of you. This is absolutely uncomfortable for the rider and a frustrating way to ride. But it can also cause problems for your horse’s back over time. Without proper weight distribution, that one spot directly under the rider’s seat will take a lot of pounding and quickly become sore.
Without the right training, it can be difficult to tell if your saddle fits your horse the way it should. But there are a few basic steps you can take to see if it’s time for you to call the saddle fitter. Don’t use a saddle pad when checking saddle fit. Instead, place the saddle directly on the horse’s back and don’t tighten the girth or cinch just yet. Make sure the saddle is positioned correctly on the back by putting it slightly ahead of the withers and then sliding it backwards until it wants to rest.
Next test the clearance between the withers and the saddle pommel. You should have room for two to three fingers stacked vertically. If your horse saddle has wool flocked panels, you need to leave more room as the wool will mold to the horse’s back and compress. Now that the saddle is properly positioned and you’ve tested for wither clearance, step back and look at your horse from the side. Is the pommel or fork even with the cantle? If the saddle is tipping too far forward or back, it will appear uneven. You do not want the saddle to have a rocking horse motion forward and back.
Step to the forward point of your horse’s shoulder and look at how the panels follow their scapula. You should notice that the panels of the saddle contour with the horse’s shoulders, instead of pointing into the scapula. A saddle with tree points that go straight down into the horse’s back can cause some very serious damage, even bone loss.
Press down on the seat of the saddle with one hand and run the other hand under the saddle and along the panel, next to the spine. You should feel even pressure all the way across. You can also run your hand down the horse’s shoulder underneath the saddle to feel if it is pinching in any one particular spot.
If you notice even one of the following things, then it’s time to get in touch with a saddle fitter:
Luckily, getting in touch with a saddle fitter doesn’t have to be complicated. At Breeches.com we offer virtual saddle fitting with Bob Schneder, our saddle fitter. All you have to do is send in a series of pictures of your horse’s back and Bob will be able to tell you if your saddle fits and help you find the perfect fit. Learn more about ourvirtualsaddle fitting program here.
Both English and Western horse saddles require regular care. The better you take care of your saddle, the better it will take care of you. Preventative maintenance, including cleaning, conditioning, proper storage, and using a horse saddle cover, ensures that worn billets or stirrup leathers are replaced and prevents the leather from becoming discolored or scratched.
Proper storage is crucial if you want your saddle to last. Storing a saddle improperly puts additional strain on the tree and can shorten its lifespan. Never leave your saddle lying on the ground. Not only does this put it in harm’s way but it can also damage the leather and tree. Instead, use a saddle rack to keep your saddle off the ground and in the right position. If you have to put it on the ground, lean English saddles up against the wall with the pommel on the ground and the cantle touching the wall. Western saddles follow the same idea, but do not need a wall as the saddle can balance on the horn. Never put your saddle flat on the ground with the horn or pommel pointing skyward. Not only does this bunch up the flaps, fenders, and skirt, but it also places additional strain on the tree.
While it needs to be cleaned and conditioned regularly, you also don’t want to overclean or over condition your saddle. Only use products that are made for saddle leather. Fiebing’s saddle soap is an excellent tried-and-true option that won’t damage the leather. After setting your saddle on a stand or rack, get your tack sponge just slightly damp. Too much water will ruin the leather, so use caution. Use a small amount of saddle soap and go over the leather in circles. After you’ve covered the entire saddle, rinse your sponge and go over it again with a small amount of clean water to remove any soapy residue. If you have lighter colored tack, test the soap on a small hidden area to check for discoloration before starting.
Condition your saddle while it is still damp from cleaning. Conditioning keeps the leather pliable, prevents it from drying out, and forming cracks. You don’t need much! Apply a light coat of conditioner all over the leather of your horse saddle. Some choose to buff it in with a clean rag, others prefer to let it sit and soak in. Whatever you do, don’t rinse it off. It’s made to soak into the leather and form a protective layer. Again, test out the conditioner you’re using on a small hidden area to check for discoloration.
Using a saddle cover is an easy way to keep damaging dirt and dust off of your saddle in storage. If you have barn cats or mice, you’ll appreciate not having to buff scratches off of your saddle seat. A saddle cover is typically made of fleece or other soft material. Other covers have a fleece lining with a nylon outer shell for added waterproofing. Check out a basic cover like this Henri De Rivel Jumping Saddle Cover or go for something a little flashier like the Tough-1 Nylon Saddle Cover in Prints.
At Breeches.com, we’re proud to be the official website for Henri De Rivel saddles. HDR has come out with a new IGP saddle: The Laureate. This horse saddle was created to offer optimum close contact between the horse and rider. Featuring forward flaps, a medium deep seat, narrow twist, grippy covered leather, integrated panels designed to distribute weight and pressure evenly, and removable knee and thigh blocks, this saddle encourages correct position over fences. HDR’s IGP system makes changing gullets quick and easy if your horse tends to change in weight or muscle mass during show season.
Or, if you’re looking for a Western saddle, we’re proud to offer brands like Tough-1’s JR Showman and Wintec. Check out our Wintec Frontier FQ saddle that features full quarter horse bars, a ⅞” rigging, and stainless steel floral two-tone hardware. Designed to offer an improved and more comfortable position for horse and rider, the Frontier model is an overall higher quality Wintec Saddle.
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