If you are in the market for a new or used saddle, you are about to embark on a long journey. The art of saddlery is all about the details and truly depends on the horse and rider.
Saddles are almost always your most expensive piece of tack in your trunk, with that, it needs to be taken care of to maintain the integrity of the leather and internal parts. To correctly care for a saddle, any equestrian should know the parts of the saddle for reference.
Each part of the english saddle serves a purpose whether for function or aesthetics.
What are the Parts of the English Saddle?
Because the umbrella of English riding has several specific disciplines that fall under it, there cannot be just one saddle that fits all disciplines. Even with specific saddles for each discipline, the basic parts are the same, just modified.
Starting with the outside of the horse saddle:
Tree: The foundation on which the rest of the saddle is built - usually manufactured of wood or a synthetic material. During the manufacturing process, the saddler covers this part and it is not able to be seen from the outside of the saddle. The tree's size determines its fit on the horse's back, as well as the size of the seat for the rider. The tree’s size and shape directly affect the size of the saddle and how it sits. It provides a weight-bearing surface to distribute the rider’s weight on the horse, decreasing the pounds per square inch carried on any one part of the horse’s back. This increases comfort for the horse and prolongs their serviceability.
Cantle: The back of the saddle that gently curves upwards for backward seat support.
Pommel: The front of the saddle that gently curves upwards for the forward seat support
Twist: The “twist” is the part of the saddle tree that sits just below the pommel in front of the “seat” of the saddle (circled in the image). This is a part of the saddle that determines how the saddle sits between the rider’s legs.
Saddles can be classified as having a narrow, medium or wide twist. This highly depends on the rider’s preference, conformation and discipline.
Seat: The portion of the saddle where the rider sits (nope, it’s not a trick question). This part should provide balance to the rider and can be classified (along with the cantle and pommel) and shallow, medium, medium-deep or deep. Different disciplines require different seat depths for suitable performance.
Knee Roll: The knee roll provides a cushion for knee support. Saddles can oftentimes be found with molded knee rolls for added comfort and deep support.
Saddle flap: The saddle flap refers to the flap as a whole that is not in contact with the horse’s back. Saddle flaps can come in different lengths and angles to accommodate the rider.
Stirrup Leather Keeper: The stirrup leather keeper contains the slack of the stirrup leather. Some are a slit in the saddle flap and some are an additional piece of leather stitched on top.
Skirt: The skirt of the saddle protects the rider’s leg from being pinched by the stirrup leather buckle and conceals the stirrup bar. The stirrup bar is a metal piece that supports the stirrup leather to hang freely beneath the flap.
What is under the flap of an English saddle?
Knee Block: The knee block is a solid element that provides support to the leg. These can be found as removable and adjustable to place in the correct position for specific riders as well as stationary.
Thigh Block: The thigh block is similar to the knee block in that it provides support into position. It is up to the rider whether these are the correct choice for them or not.
*Circle* Sometimes saddle makers provide information about the saddle on the flap. This saddle provides this information above the thigh block as shown.
Girth Billets: The girth billets are just that- billets for the girth. Multiple holes allow for adjustments to be made to tighten or loosen the girth.
Billet Keeper: The billet keeper (also sometimes called a buckle guard) protects the under flap from girth buckle damage as well as smooths the bulk of the girth buckle for comfort for the rider’s leg.
What is underside of an English Saddle?
Panel: The panels of the saddle are the two areas that are in contact with the horse’s back (with a saddle pad, of course!) These can be found filled with flocking (wool or synthetic/blend) or foam. It depends on the fit and the preference of your horse when adjusting these. Panels provide cushion and shock absorption from the concussive forces from the rider.
Channel: The channel runs along the center of the saddle and provides a space for the horse’s spinal processes to be undisturbed. This is a very important and sometimes forgotten, aspect of saddle fit. Be sure to make sure there is enough space for your horse’s spine including saddle padding.
Stitching: Signature stitching is often found to distinguish saddle brands and models from each other as well as aesthetics. Some saddles can be found with contrast stitching and some have tone on tone stitching.
Leather Colors: Typical leather colors are Havana (darker, brown), oak bark (brown-red), Australian nut (lighter chocolate) and black (self -explanatory). Some people are dead set on coordinating your leather colors with your horse’s coat as well as the color of your show jacket. Of course, some colors are more popular in certain disciplines than others.
For example, the dressage ring is a black-only world. Clean, classic black. The hunter ring sees any brown shade of leather while the jumper ring can see any color including black and funky dyes for personal touches. The jumper ring is also one of the few places where some customization on your tack is not frowned upon. Want a little bling? Bring it on. Contrasting piping on your traditional saddle? YES.
Name Plates: Name plates are a classic detail that is also functional. Usually coming in brass or silver color, engraving the rider’s name or the horse’s name is a great tool to use to label the expensive items that you do not want to be stolen or lost. These are usually nailed to the back of the cantle of the saddle.
Now that you know the parts of the saddle, why are they important?
How to fit a saddle?
By now, most riders are aware that the saddle must fit both horse and rider. If the saddle does not fit the horse, they may develop muscle atrophy, pinched nerves, soreness, and potentially skeletal damage if worn long term and incorrectly.
For the rider, the saddle is a tool to be used to enhance the connection and communication between the seat and the horse’s back. An incorrectly fitted saddle may place the rider in an incorrect position, which can also be detrimental to the horse and rider’s comfort and to effective riding.
How Do I Know If My Horse Saddle Fits?
There are multiple points to check to determine if your saddle is a properly functional piece of tack or an uncomfortable hindrance to you and your horse.
Below are just a couple to start with:
- See how many fingers (vertically) you can fit between your horse’s withers and the pommel of the saddle. The number should be 3-4. There needs to be enough space to accommodate for added weight (rider) to push down the saddle. If there is not enough space, the saddle will rub your horse’s withers and the rest of the spinal processes. Check the rest of the saddle channel and compare, is there enough room for the spine to be unharmed?
- When you sit in the saddle, how much space is between your seat and the end of the cantel? There should be about 4 fingers to a hand’s width. Less room would mean you might need to increase in seat size (measured in inches from the nail head diagonally to the middle of the cantle).
- When sitting in the saddle, no part of your leg should meet or extend passed the saddle flap and knee roll. A well-fitted saddle to the rider should compliment and properly steady the leg in a correct and comfortable position.
- Test Ride- during a test ride, get in a good work out so you and your horse sweat. This will be a helpful tool when determining fit for the horse. When you remove the saddle and saddle pad, there should be no dry spots. Dry spots could indicate pinching, creating discomfort for the horse.
- Watch and feel your horse move with the saddle on. Does it hinder their movement? Do they move better than before? Do they pin their ears or not want to move forward easily? A correctly fitted saddle for the horse should allow the horse to display natural, forward movement without pain.
As always, consult a veterinarian if you are finding lameness issues. A poorly fit saddle that has been used long term may result in damage to your horse’s body on the spine, shoulder blade and potentially muscle fiber damage.
To avoid this, periodically evaluate the fit of the saddle for your horse. As your horse’s muscle content and formation changes, so do the fit of the saddle! A saddle may fit perfectly when it is first brought to the barn, but with developed muscle tone, it can result in required adjustments to be made. Sometimes adjustments can be minor and just require re-flocking of the saddle. This is only to be done by a professional saddle fitter.
A professional saddle fitter is a great resource to use to check the saddle fit on the horse. Saddles also have different fits by brand. For example, the regular size gullet in a Henri de Rivel is not going to be exactly the same regular as a Circuit saddle. If you’ve found a saddlery brand that you are going for, use their fitters for that saddle as they know the product inside and out.
Finding the perfect saddle can be a long journey, but finding the best fit for you and your horse is worth the wait!