There comes a point in every horse enthusiast’s life when they move on from learning with a club’s equipment to buying their own kit. One of the most personal, and most expensive, items on the list is your saddle. Equestrian saddles must be chosen and fitted correctly in order to ensure the best performance and safety for you and your horse. With a properly fitted saddle, both you and your horse will feel more comfortable when out riding, making the experience as enjoyable as possible.
Your choice of saddle should take into account the type of riding you intend to do. Not only would your choice of saddle affect the level of control you will enjoy over your horse, but it can also be beneficial in preventing back and muscle pain for both the horse and the rider. It is therefore important that you acquaint yourself with the different types on the market and what to look out for when choosing your first saddle.
Types of saddles
The English general-purpose saddle - The flaps on an English saddle are cut forward more generously to allow for occasional jumps. It has shorter billet straps, in stark contrast to the dressage saddle. This saddle is suitable if you like riding on the flat and occasionally hack or pop your horse over fences and low obstacles.
Western reining saddles - These saddles typically sport the flat seat favored by those who like riding reining patterns. Western saddles are usually custom made to fit you and your horse while keeping the weight as light as possible. You should consider a western saddle if you have a working horse on a farm, a cattle ranch or a similar setting. Since the western saddle comes with very little padding, you may have to use a blanket to increase comfort for your horse.
Endurance saddles - These are lightweight saddles built with close contact in mind. This saddle comes with extra padding and a flexible design that adjusts to the horse’s movement, thus maximizing comfort for both the horse and the rider. This makes them the ideal choice if you are into trail riding and endurance riding.
Dressage horse saddles - This is a variant of the English general-purpose saddles. A dressage saddle would have a deep seat with straight cut flaps. This design ensures that you sit deeply in the saddle thus providing closer comfort with your horse. Close contact makes it easier for you to cue your horse with precision.
What you should look for in a saddle
After identifying the right type of saddle for your horse, the next step is to choose one that fits. Below are the different elements to consider.
Seat - The seat of the saddle should lie close to your horse’s back; the closer it is the better. This enables you to take better control of your horse. Anything two or more inches above the back is too high. The lowest part of the seat, called the pocket, should be near the middle of the seat. It should also be roomy enough to allow you to slide back and forth.
Horn and swells - This makes the biggest difference between a cutting saddle and a reining saddle. In a reining saddle, you should be able to move your rein hand unobstructed. When the horn/swell is too high, it may keep getting in your way. The horn should not exceed a height of 3 ½ inches while the swell should not be higher than 8 inches. However for a cutting saddle, the horn and the swell can be higher, around 8 ½ to 9 inches.
Stirrup leathers - This is one the most critical parts of a saddle, yet it is often overlooked. You should have the stirrup leathers hung forward. Ideally, they should be a few inches behind the swells. If the stirrup leathers are hung back, your feet will be behind your body’s center of gravity causing you to fall forward. The stirrup leathers should also be made from thin, flexible leather to increase the precision of your leg cues.
Cantle - Avoid any saddle with a cantle six or more inches high. If that’s the case, it’s likely it will hit your back when you try sitting a hard stop.
Tree - Ensure that the tree fits the back of your horse. If it’s too wide or too narrow, your horse will be uncomfortable. There should be ample clearance between the gullet and the horse’s withers
Fitting the horse
It is very important that your saddle fits the horse. Avoid making any compromise in the rigging when you’re choosing the saddle. Ideally, you should purchase a saddle with a 7/8 or full double rigging.
Most horses are comfortable with saddles with a 7/8 rigging so avoid choosing a center-rigged saddle. Ensure that you consider the way your horse is built. The narrowest point of the horse’s underline is just behind the front length and this is where the cinch would automatically rest.
When in doubt about your choice of saddle, it’s worth shopping around and taking opinions from a few different dealers and shops. While one or two might be a little biased depending on sales or deals that they have on, the expert opinion of some may save both you and your horse a lot of grief in the long run.
contributed by Lindsey Campbell of Pampeano “exquisite leather products”