It’s the season to start looking for fantastic presents for the riders on your Christmas list or for you. What better than a new saddle?
Because the wrong saddle can have many harmful effects, buying the right one requires almost as much research and deliberation as buying a horse. To prevent a costly case of buyer’s remorse, here’s some advice to keep handy for your next saddle-hunting expedition.
If you are looking for a western saddle, there are western saddles designed specifically for various disciplines, so you need to make sure you’re looking at the right saddle for the type of riding you do. Sometimes the mere construction of a saddle determines whether it will be a suitable match for you and your horse. For example, a brawny roping saddle may appeal to your tastes because of its authentic, working cowboy appearance. But if your main pursuit is trail riding, you could be disappointed.
All the rigging of a pleasure saddle is done in-skirt, which is referring to the heavy-duty metal rings where the latigos attach to secure the cinch. That keeps them comfortably out of the way of the rider’s leg. But the rigging on a roping saddle is done out-skirt for increased strength and durability. Generally speaking, it’s not to be going to be as comfortable for long rides as the typical pleasure saddle.
Once you’ve found the right style of saddle, you should set it securely on a saddle stand or block and hop aboard. It’s important that you pull yourself down deep into the pocket of the seat. Remember to slide toward the cantle, especially if you are used to riding dressage or hunters. You don’t sit perched in the middle of the saddle, which is too far forward, for a western seat.
Next, evaluate the size of the seat in relation to your personal build. There should be about two-finger width between your thigh and the swell of the saddle. Some riders prefer a little more room, but too much more space and you’ll be swimming in your saddle.
Barrel racing saddles are the exception to the two-finger rule. The riders who run barrels want a tighter-fitting seat. They also want longer stirrups than the average western rider because they’re stepping down in the stirrups and turning at high speeds.
Riders shouldn’t despair if their body shape precludes them from purchasing a ready-made saddle. Occasionally, people need a larger-seat, but they have short legs in relation to their frame, so the stirrups are too long. That can be fixed by taking the saddle to a good saddle-repair person, who can shorten the stirrups on a western saddle. Don’t buy a smaller-sized seat and be wedged in just because you need the shorter stirrups.
Arguably the biggest dilemma when shopping for a western saddle is determining whether your horse requires a full-quarter tree (bars) or a semi-quarter bars. In general, full-quarter trees are designed for low-withered, muscular horses. The gullet — the space between the bars of the tree — is wider to accommodate their brawny conformation. In contrast, semi-quarter bars are narrower and designed for western horses with fairly prominent withers and a sleeker conformation.
Within the industry, semi-quarter bars are 6 1/4 inches. Full-quarter bars are 7 inches across the gullet. But that is measuring the actual bare frame of the bars, so it can be difficult to get an accurate measurement on a finished saddle, especially when comparing brand to brand. You need to determine if your horse resembles a circle at the withers and shoulders (full-quarter) or a triangle (semi-quarter).
A third type of saddle tree is the Arab tree, which is designed to fit horses with relatively short backs.
There are subtle nuances, requiring some expertise, to determine if an English saddle is a suitable match for a horse and rider.
As with western saddles, English saddles are discipline-specific. For example, an eventing saddle features a deep seat and substantial knee rolls to support a rider negotiating a cross-country course. In contrast, the ideal saddle for hunters will be trimmer in overall design with a flatter seat, since the rider typically maintains a two-point position while on course. Different still is the dressage saddle: The placement of the stirrup bars and the longer, more vertical flaps encourage riders to sit deeply and stretch their leg down and around their horse.
Generally speaking, there should be three-to four-fingers width between the rider’s seat and the cantle of the saddle. Make sure you’re sitting in the correct position before measuring the saddle. If you’re looking at a dressage saddle, sit in the deepest part of the seat. You shouldn’t be tilted forward or back, and you shouldn’t be forced to hollow your back in an effort to sit comfortably.
The placement of the stirrup bars and the position of the saddle flaps influence where the rider ultimately places her legs, which should be able to drop comfortably, so you can use your aids properly and not feel contorted or out of place.
Hunter and jumper riders require a much more forward flap. Ideally, the length of the flap should be long enough that it doesn’t interfere with the top of the rider’s boots, but short enough to allow her to get her legs on the horse. Another goal is for the forward point of the flap to align with the rider’s knee, though that isn’t always possible, especially with leggy riders who are long through the thigh bone. Those riders should focus on finding saddles with various flap lengths and shapes.
When you take an English saddle out on trial, set the saddle on your horses back without a pad. Then fasten the girth and examine the fit. Does the saddle sit level on your horses back? If it’s tipped uphill, where the pommel is popped up in front, then it’s probably too narrow.
Bridging is one of the most common reasons to reject a saddle. Bridging occurs when the front and rear of the tree make contact with the horse’s back, but not the center of the tree. Because of the uneven pressure, the horse hollows his back and raises his head, producing poor performance.
Like western saddles, English saddles also address the different widths for horses’ frames. With the popularity of warm bloods in the English disciplines, and the growing interest in riding draft horses, saddles with wide trees are readily available. In fact, numerous saddle makers offer a choice of several tree widths. Other conformation issues that influence saddle choice can be addressed with pads, providing that the saddle fits otherwise.
Pads sometimes get a bad rap. If a horse has lost weight or muscle, or if he has a unique conformation problem, then certain pads can compensate and help the saddle fit better. It is very important, however, to know what the saddle fit problem is before you select a pad. A pad isn’t going to miraculously make an ill-fitting saddle work.
Take your time selecting the best-fitting saddle you can afford. An experienced saddle fitter, a knowledgeable tack store representative and even your veterinarian can be helpful in your search.