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What type of saddle is the best option for you? This general guide will help you decide which style of saddle suits your riding needs, and will discuss fit for both horse and rider. Because both horse and rider come in all shapes and sizes, finding a saddle that is a good fit for both can sometimes be tricky. Fortunately there are many saddle options on the market today, and with all of technical improvements in saddle making, most riders should be able to find a saddle to fit themselves and their horse.
Saddles for English-style riding can generally be categorized into three basic types, dressage, all-purpose and jumping. For Western-style riding, you can find categories such as Trail, Performance and Barrel Racing. Please refer to the special sections in this article for more information on each saddle type.
The manner in which the saddle is structured has to accommodate both the horse and the rider. Because both horse and rider come in all shapes and sizes finding a saddle that is a good fit for both can sometimes be tricky. Fortunately there are many saddle options on the market today, and with all of technical improvements in saddle making, most riders should be able to find a saddle to fit themselves and their horse without resorting to custom options or the use of special pads.
SmartPak does not have a saddle fitter on staff and does not provide custom saddle fitting service. However, we have chosen a selection of saddles from reputable saddle-makers which we believe provide good value for the dollar. This guide is to help you determine which model will best fit both you and your horse. SmartPak also provides a Test Ride Saddle program which encourages riders to test ride a saddle they are considering, prior to actually purchasing it.
Fitting the Horse: The basics of fitting a saddle to the horse are fairly consistent for both English and Western saddles. In general the tree or bars should provide adequate protection to the horse’s back and be designed to place the rider in the best balance for the type of riding that he or she is doing; the panels underneath the saddle should conform to, and aid in protecting, the horse’s back; the girthing system should be located in a manner to effectively hold the saddle on the horse; and the seat style should provide support for the rider without being overly restrictive.
Saddle trees or bars come in various widths and may have special features. In general, horses with a wider build need wider trees or bars. The directions on evaluating saddle fit will explain the basics on how to tell if the tree size is correct for your horse.
Fitting the Rider: Saddles come in a variety of seat and flap or fender sizes and designs. It is important to find the correct seat and flap or fender size and shape. Determining the seat size varies depending upon the type of saddle, and in the case of dressage saddles, on the depth of the seat. In the case of a western saddle, you want to be sure you have 4” between the front ofyour body and the swell of the saddle.The build of the rider, whether very slender or somewhat stocky, tall or short, short or long thighs, etc. will also affect the style of saddle within a saddle type that will fit the best. There will also be personal preferences for the type, durability, and color of leather.
The dressage saddle is the saddle type that has undergone the most design modifications in the past two decades as saddle makers, in conjunction with top riders, have modified the materials and shape of the trees to accommodate the shape and movement of the modern dressage horse. The purpose is to provide more freedom for the shoulders and ease of lateral bending. Modifications have also been made to benefit the rider: the construction of the seat varies from fairly open to very supportive with many variations in between, flap shapes and padding, thigh blocks etc. vary widely by brand and model to accommodate rider comfort and amount of support needed. The choice of flap design, size and placement of thigh supports, depth of seat, type of leather, aesthetics, etc. is very personal. You may need to try several options prior to making a decision.
The saddle tree can be of reinforced wood or synthetic materials. The points of a saddle tree have also been re-designed so that they interfere less with the horse’s shoulders while still providing stability.
The stirrup bar: For dressage this has been extended or moved further under the leg to promote a more vertical leg position. A longer-legged person will usually need a longer bar, or one placed further back, than a short-legged person.
Panels, the padding underneath the seat, have been re-designed on many models to spread the weight of the rider over a broader portion of the muscling on either side of the horse’s spine. The central channel (gullet) between the panels has also been broadened to accommodate the broader backs of many warmbloods. Riders on Thoroughbreds or other more narrow horses, for instance, would not necessarily look for that particular feature. It is important to have the panels rest on the muscle pads with sufficient clearance for the spine. Panel shapes vary and may be gusseted or not. The length and shape of the panels, as well as the type of panel fill has a great deal to do with comfort for your horse and are worth spending some time studying. Backs that are short, dip sharply behind the withers, rise to the croup, very round or very flat etc. all need to be considered when determining the panel type best for the horse. Panels have traditionally been filled with wool flocking. However, the quality of wool flocking varies. Air, synthetic wool, and foam are used successfully by some manufacturers.
Fitting the rider: Personal preference as well as the rider’s experience level, length of leg and pelvic bone width should be taken into consideration. There are many variations on the market today of the width of the twist, width of the saddle seat, amount of padding in, and depth of, the seat with new modifications appearing yearly. There are an infinite variety of thigh blocks and padded flaps to provide support for the rider’s leg, and a variety of flap shapes, some requiring quite a straight leg yet others relaxed a bit forward to relieve stress on the hips, a necessity for many riders. Some riders prefer a high level of support while others prefer more freedom to move their leg or their seat. This will affect whether you choose a deep- or more open seat, more or less leg support, etc.
The width of the saddle flap should provide sufficient protection to the rider’s thigh and upper calf while applying the aids. The length should be sufficient so that the bottom of the flap does not catch on the top of the rider’s boot, yet not be so long that the top of the stirrup is near or overlapping the flap. Usually, the bottom of the flap should not be lower than mid-calf with your foot in the stirrup. Most saddle makers offer a “standard” length as well as “short” or “long”. Most standard length flaps are 16-18” (vertical distance from the bottom of the saddle bar to the bottom of the flap) depending upon the brand and model. However, depending upon the manufacturer, flap length may be available on special order from 13” to 19”. All saddles currently available at SmartPak have standard length flaps for that manufacturer and do vary by brand and model from 16-18”.
Jumping saddles have also been re-designed in the past couple of decades to improve comfort and balance for the rider as well as comfort for the horse. Wider, thicker panels and improved gullet design provide more protection for the horse’s back. In addition, re-positioning the stirrup bar more forward allows the rider to balance properly over fences without having to move the saddle too far forward over the horse’s shoulder. The angle of the flap, position of the flap padding as well as width and depth of seat vary from brand to brand. Some brands offer stitched-in or moveable knee and/or thigh blocks and some offer a soft, padded knee pad. The amount of support desired may depend upon the purpose for which the saddle is intended, whether for high performance jumping or eventing or for lower level hunter courses. The rider’s build and length of leg must be taken into consideration in selecting the appropriate seat size as well as flap length and position.
The all-purpose saddle is just that, a saddle modified to allow the rider to lengthen the stirrup and ride with a longer leg for lower-level dressage, and yet has enough of a forward flap to allow enough of a bend in the leg for jumping. It is a fine saddle for trail riding and lower level eventing, but is not really specialized in the positioning of the flap or stirrup bar or design of the seat to be really effective for a rider specializing in either dressage or jumping.
Several manufacturers carry saddle models that are specifically proportioned for the bodies and leg length of children, providing an adequate, or better, quality of workmanship at a reasonable price. Generally, the seat size for a child is 15” or 16”, with a flap length proportioned according to the style of saddle, although some models may be as small as 13”. Most children’s saddles are available in the wider tree needed to accommodate most ponies. 42” or 48” leathers and 4” or 4 ¼” stirrups are suitable for most children.
Just as in English riding, there are several different styles of western saddles. For example, trail riding saddles are designed for comfort, while barrel racing saddles are streamlined for speed. For the rider, the saddle should allow approximately 4” between the swell of the saddle and the front of your body, and your seat should fit to the base of the cantle but not push against the back. Long legs on a rider may require a larger seat size, to keep your legs from extending past the front of the fenders or pushing against the back of the swell of the saddle. For the horse, even contact is desired between the bars of the tree and the horse’s back. There should be two to three fingers between the gullet of the saddle and the top of the withers.