Introduction to Horse Saddles
It wasn't long after man domesticated the horse that he realized he needed a more comfortable, secure way to ride than just bareback. The solutions riders came up with varied, depending on their needs and the materials available to them. They range all the way from a deep, heavy saddle used by medieval knights to a simple pad used by Native Americans. Today there are basically two types of saddles - western and English - with dozens of variations in each category to suit a particular need or purpose.
No matter what shape, design or material they are made of, all saddles are made to keep pressure off the horse's spine by distributing the rider's weight evenly across the horse's back. They are also built to help the rider maintain the correct position, keeping both horse and rider as comfortable and safe as possible. In order to accomplish this, they need to be sized to fit both horse and rider.
For the rider, the most important measurement is the size of the seat. For instance, a child's English saddle might be a 14, meaning that the length from the button on the front of the saddle to the middle of the cantle is 14 or 15 inches. What most people don't realize is that it's actually the length of your leg from your hip to your knee rather than the size of your "seat" that matters most in saddle fitting.
For the horse, the important measurement is the size of the saddle's tree. The frame that the saddle is built on, trees typically come in regular, medium, medium wide, and wide. There are special trees available for Quarter Horses and gaited horses to accommodate their breeds' conformation.
The best saddle is the one first and foremost that fits the horse's back. Poorly fitting saddles can cause open sores, stressed muscles and result in a stiff, resistant horse. A good saddle that fits you and your horse is worth any price and, if properly cared for, will last several years.
All western saddles stem from the original design used by the early cowboy to fit his particular needs. Western saddles all share certain similar characteristics such as a deep, soft seat a high cantle and high pommel. A cinch made out of cotton, mohair, or more recently neoprene is used to keep the saddle on the horse's back. It's typically buckled on one side and tied on with the leather or web latigo on the other.
Beyond that, however, there are many variations depending on your particular sport and location.
Pleasure saddle: Probably the most common western saddle, a pleasure saddle has a comfortable seat and moderate horn. They can be used for riding in shows or just heading out on the trails. The skirts often have decorative tooling and show saddles go one step further with the addition of silver accents. Specific pleasure saddles are made for gaited horses to allow them a greater freedom of movement.
Roping/working saddles: These saddles, designed to work cows, have higher pommels and horns that are thicker than a typical horn to facilitated tying off a rope. The seats are also deeper to absorb the shock of a cow hitting the end of a rope. Ropers also typically use the rear cinch (loosely attached) in addition to the regular cinch in order to prevent the back of the saddle from popping too high off the horse's back when performing sudden stops or fast change of direction.
Reining: By contrast, these saddles have lower horns than the typical western saddle to stay out of the way of the reins.
Barrel Racing/Gymkhana: Saddles used for barrel racing and other speed events are lighter than typical western saddles with much smaller skirts to allow for faster times and tighter turns. The swells are slightly larger to help keep the rider in place.
Endurance saddles: A very modified Western saddle with a deep, comfortable seat and heavy kneepads but no horn. The skirts are also very short. These saddles are unusual in that they are most typically made of synthetic materials to reduce their weight and take the pounding of going through woods and scruff without requiring a lot of care.
Australian stock saddles: Similar in design and purpose to their western cousins, the Australian stock saddle is lighter and lacks a horn.
McClellan Saddle: A military saddle developed during the Crimean War by U. S. Capt. George B. McClellan, some people today still claim this unusual saddle is extremely comfortable. Adopted by the U. S. Cavalry in 1859, it continued to be the saddle of choice until the U.S. dismantled their fighting mounted cavalry units and remains the saddle used by ceremonial riders. The saddle is light but sturdy. Unlike a regular Western saddle the McClellan has an open seat (meaning there is a gap down the center of the seat. The pommel is smooth, without a horn. Today some endurance riders use McClellan replicas for their durability and comfort.
Sidesaddle: Although predominantly an English sport, some Western riders also enjoy riding sidesaddle. The saddles are similar to the English version but with Western design features such as tooling and silver.
Western Saddles - How they're made
Western saddles are traditionally built on a wooden tree (hence the origins of the word "tree"). The tree is one solid piece of a soft wood like pine, ash or cottonwood. It is divided into five basic parts - two bars that run parallel, the fork that joins the bars together at the front, the cantle that joins the bars in the back, and the horn. The cutout or tunnel underneath the fork is called the gullet. The open space between the bars is called the gullet channel. The bars are the weight bearing part of the tree. Because of their width, the bars of a Western saddle bars apply only 3/4 pounds per square inch vs. the narrower bars of the English that bear 1 3/4 pounds per square inch.
Recently many companies have begun making saddles using synthetic rather than wooden trees. The trees made of polyethylene injected into plastic or fiberglass molds. The problem is that they vary significantly in their quality. They also aren't as flexible or durable as wood. Most high quality saddle makers continue to use bullhide covered wood trees for a heavier but stronger saddle.
Once the tree is made, wet rawhide is stretched over the tree and allowed to dry, adding greater strength to the tree. The best kind of rawhide is bullhide, known for it's rugged durability and consistent quality. Fiberglass or polyurethane coatings are becoming more popular for a lighter weight, less expensive saddle.
The final step for any tree is a coat of varnish to seal the rawhide, making the tree both strong and flexible.
The underneath side of the western saddle is covered in natural or synthetic sheepskin. Unlike an English saddle, there is no additional padding built into the underside of the saddle. The seat and skirt are typically made of leather but can also be made of a number of synthetic materials for a lighter, less expensive and more care-free saddle.
The final pieces to complete the saddle are the stirrups. Western stirrups are typically made of wood or, more recently, plastic. They are attached to the saddle with wide leather or synthetic straps called fenders.
Today's English saddle can trace it's roots back to the Sarmatians, a nomadic tribe who, around the beginning if the Christian era, developed a heavily armed cavalry. Their deep saddle allowed for maximum security and communication between horse and rider by means of the riders' legs and seat, both a necessity for a successful cavalry charge. The design remained the same for hundreds of years. By the Renaissance era the only significant change was the addition of stirrups. In the 17th century the saddle was streamlined into the selle royale, a saddle still used today by the Spanish Riding School. Finally, in the 1700's François Robinchon de la Guérinière, a French riding master and author of "Ecole de Cavalerie" revised the saddle design, including lowering the pommel, into a saddle that remains the basis for contemporary dressage saddles.
The beginning of the 20th century marked a watershed in the development of a distinctly forward style of riding that was radically different than the more classical style of riding. The change was due in large part to the changing role of the mounted cavalry from a "shock tactic" charge to that of an aggressive reconnaissance riding across country over natural obstacles at great speeds. Captain Federico Caprilli, the chief riding instructor at the Italian cavalry schools, realized the traditional deep seat worked against riders, who needed to move with their horses rather than collect them up as they galloped across country. His forward seat method is the foundation for all jumping today and is reflected in the design of hunter, jumper and eventing saddles that are flatter and have shorter, more forward flaps than dressage saddles.
Even among different classes of hunters there are slightly different styles of saddles but in general, English type saddles can be divided up into the following categories:
All-purpose: Designed as a general riding saddle that can do a little bit of everything, an all-purpose saddle has a slightly deeper seat than a jump saddle but not as deep as a dressage saddle. They can be either brown or black.
Jump saddles: These saddles have a longer tree with forward cut flaps. Older "close contact" saddles have little more than the leather saddle flaps between horse and rider. Today, most jump saddles have knee blocks and/or thigh blocks, knee rolls or the smaller pencil rolls. Designs vary depending on whether you're a hunter, jumper, etc. but typically the higher the jumps, the shorter and more forward the flap. In the U.S. most saddles designed for jumping are brown while in Europe they are often black.
Dressage saddles: Built with a deeper seat with straighter flaps, dressage saddles allow the rider to have a longer leg with more direct contact on the horse. Like the jump saddle, the dressage saddle continues to develop different knee block systems. In the U. S., dressage saddles are nearly all black while in Europe brown is more commonly seen.
Saddle Seat: Unlike other English saddles, these saddles have a cut-back pommel to allow for the high withers of a gaited horse. The saddle is longer and the flaps are close to dressage length. The seat is flat with very little padding and the saddle itself is placed farther down the horse's back than a typical English saddle to allow for the horse's extravagant movements. This position also puts the rider behind the horse's motion, making it easier for the rider to influence the horse's gaits.
Polo: Saddles used for polo are similar to a jumping saddle but with a flatter seat and longer flaps. Like the older "close contact" saddles, they have very little padding or blocks to restrict the rider's movement.
Racing Saddles: Racing saddles are designed to interfere as little as possible with the horse's motion at a full-blown gallop. It also needs to be lightweight and offers little in way of rider security or comfort. They are long and very flat with extremely forward flaps. Most weigh less than four pounds and have an overgirth to keep them in place. Steeplechase saddles are built on a similar design but offer slightly more security for the jockey to maintain his (or her) position over jumps.
Sidesaddle: Originally women who rode were encouraged to do so side saddle, in which both of their legs were on the left side of the horse, rather than astride. The amazing thing is that these ladies even went out on rigorous hunts, jumps and all, riding this way! The seat is relatively deep with something that resembles a saddle horn to hook your right leg around to help you keep your balance. Today the traditional sidesaddle is used predominantly in flat classes in breed shows, such as Morgans, although riders still jump and even participate in events using them.
Treeless: - A recent innovation has resulted in "treeless" saddles, English type saddles that don't have the traditional wood and metal tree as their core. The idea is that horses are often made back-sore, resistant and even lame from poor fitting saddles and the lack of a rigid frame would eliminate those problems. However, the tree is designed to prevent direct pressure on the horse's spine and evenly distribute the weight across the horse's back, not just where the rider is sitting so it's questionable how effective these saddles really are in the long run.
English Saddles - How they're made
The modern English saddle is built on a tree or frame made of laminated layers of high quality wood reinforced with spring steel along its length and a riveted gullet plate. The springs give added resilience, like shock absorbers. These "spring trees" offer a minimum amount of flexibility but remain the standard of a high quality saddle.
More recently, saddle manufacturers are using various materials to replace wood and create a synthetic molded tree, some with the integrated spring steel and gullet plate, some without. Polyurethane trees are often well-made but always keep in mind that synthetic materials vary widely in quality. Many inexpensive saddles are made with fiberglass trees that, while lighter and more affordable, are not as good or durable as a traditional wood tree.
Leather is added on all sides of the tree to create the seat, saddle flaps and panels. Cowhide is typically used but pigskin and even buffalo hide are often seen in higher priced saddles. The panels on the underside of the saddle traditionally are stuffed with either wool or a synthetic blend of material called flocking. Keeping in mind that an English saddle exerts 1 3/4 pounds per square inch on the horse's back, it's important that the stuffing inside be smooth, firm yet absorbent.
Higher quality saddle makers use 100% wool flock because of its superior springiness and resilience, which enables it to recover quickly from compression over many months. It also soaks up oils and moisture from the horse. This enables it to actually conform to the horse's back over a few months time. Acrylic flock will not soak up moisture and may turn hard and lumpy.
Though usually more expensive, saddles with wool flock also have the advantage that they can be re-flocked to adjust the fit of the saddle or revitalize an older saddle whose fleece has been compressed over time. Synthetic materials, such as foam, that are used on more moderately priced saddles cannot be repaired after they've compressed. Rather than simply re-flocking your saddle, you would have to go out and buy a whole new saddle in time. One company is experimenting with a new design that uses sealed panels that are inflated with air to pad their saddles.
Another new element is a saddle with an adjustable gullet system, allowing you to change basically the width across the front of the saddle to accommodate a variety of wither sizes. This way a rider can use the same saddle on horses with different builds. While not a perfect answer to saddle fit, it is an economical way for a rider who can't afford several saddles to ride different horses.
Recent improvements in synthetic saddles have made them a more appealing choice for the English rider than ever before. Built on strong but flexible synthetic trees they are lightweight and resilient against water. Though not as durable as a traditional leather saddle, a synthetic saddle should be considered by a rider looking for an inexpensive saddle that requires very little care.