Apart from the horse itself, your saddle is probably your most valuable piece of equestrian equipment – it pays to look after it properly and thereby prolong its life. The first hurdle to overcome, however, is finding the right saddle in the first place – one that fits you, your horse and your riding discipline.
Whether you are buying a new saddle, or opting for a second-hand one, there are some decisions to be made up front.
Firstly, decide what type of saddle you want, and whether it should be a leather saddle or less expensive synthetic version.
WHAT TYPE OF SADDLE?
If you’re a leisure rider hacking out and doing the odd bit of jumping for fun, a general purpose (GP) saddle will suit you fine, but if you’re a regular competitor in equestrian sport you’ll need a discipline specific saddle to fit the purpose.
A dressage saddle, for example, has a longer, straighter saddle flap to allow for a longer leg position, and a deeper seat to support you in the correct position. It will also have longer girth straps and possibly fixed knee blocks. Dressage is all about close leg contact.
Jump saddles are cut more forward to allow for shorter stirrups and usually have knee and thigh blocks to support you when jumping. The seat will be flatter so you can shift position when competing in cross country events.
Polo Saddles and Racing Saddles are even flatter, allowing for freedom of movement, and racing saddles have a small, short saddle flap with short stirrup leathers.
Showing saddles have the most basic design, generally straight cut and conforming closest to the shape of your horse, to best show off his assets.
You might opt for a treeless saddle, especially if you have a horse with an awkward shape who doesn’t do well in conventional saddles. The tree is the base (usually wood or a hard synthetic material) on which the rest of the saddle is built. It is the size of the tree that determines how it fits on the horses back, providing a solid load-bearing surface to protect the horse by distributing the rider’s weight. Those who prefer saddles without a rigid tree find them more flexible, allowing the horse more freedom. Treeless saddles are often preferred by endurance riders, often used together with gel pads.
LEATHER OR SYNTHETIC?
Ideally we all crave a leather saddle – there is something very satisfying about the warm smell and smooth texture of quality English leather that adds an element of excitement to mounting up on a good horse! Leather saddles can last a lifetime if properly cared for and well maintained, and although they are pricey (particularly if you have a bespoke saddle made just for you and your horse), they have a good resale value.
A qualified saddler can more easily repair or adjust a leather saddle than a synthetic one, and the leather is more likely to mellow with use, softening to conform to your seat. Wear simply gives the leather an attractive patina.
Modern synthetic saddles are not necessarily inferior to leather ones; very often its difficult to tell mock leather saddles from the real thing. They also have their advantages. They are generally lighter, easier to clean (just a wipe down with soap and water suffices), and of course they cost less. They’re also weatherproof and durable.
If your choice is dictated by budget, you can happily choose a good make of synthetic saddle and – as long as it fits well – not suffer any prejudice up against the leather-seated riders!
THE RIGHT FIT
As any experienced equestrian knows, you can’t just plonk any saddle on any horse. Correct saddle fitting is crucial not only to optimise riding performance, but for the comfort of yourself and your horse. It’s well worth having a professional saddle fitter involved when you choose a new saddle. Just as we humans do, horses change shape during their lifetime, depending on their age, diet, workload, illness and training, so it’s vital to check the saddle fit a few times a year.
For a happy horse you need a saddle that fits not only width-wise. There are all sorts of criteria involved. As a starting point we recommend using a saddle-fitting kitto measure up your horse for the required size and shape for a proper fit. Once you have selected the best saddle for the job, get a professional saddle-fitter in to confirm the choice, put the saddle on the horse and correct any problems. Saddle blankets and pads only go so far towards correcting fit problems – a poorly fitting saddle can’t be made good with padding.
So many factors have to be considered in correctly fitting a saddle. The width is of primary importance, but the length of the tree and the horse’s centre of balance also play a part. The gullet must clear the withers, but not be too narrow to pinch the horse’s back. The tree points shouldn’t interfere with the movement of the horse’s shoulder, and the seat should be positioned so the rider sits over the horse’s balance centre.
The saddle doesn’t just need to fit the horse – it should be comfortable for you, the rider, too. Your seat size and leg length must be taken into account.
Saddle fitting is too important to be left to chance. To find a qualified saddler fitter in your area, ask your veterinarian or local tack shop – or search online on the website of the Society of Master Saddlers.
CARING FOR YOUR SADDLE
Leather saddles, particularly, need to be stored indoors, protected from damp and dust and away from direct heat, when not in use. Leather can go mouldy, or become brittle and dried out, if exposed to heat or wet weather.
Cleaning your saddle – like all tack – is important because a build up of sweat and dirt can not only damage the saddle but also cause uncomfortable rubbing on the horse. Make sure your saddle is wiped down after every outing, and regularly given a thorough cleaning and conditioning.
Here at Totally Tack we’re keen to assist anyone wanting to saddle-up, stocking a range of saddle pads and saddle cloths, as well as numnahs and saddle accessories. We have a qualified saddler on hand for repairs, advice and bespoke tack orders.