How to choose a good saddle

- Guides and Tips

A saddle is a key piece of equipment for every rider and, one of the most expensive too other than the horse.  For the sake of your horse’s welfare therefore and your pocket, this is something you want to get right first time.

What type of saddle to choose

The type of saddle you should have will depend on what you want to do with your horse.  For everyday riding and hacking, a General Purpose saddle is fine but if you are specialising in one or more of the equestrian disciplines, then you could opt for a specific type of saddle designed to do the job – more than one discipline usually equals more than one type of saddle.

Dressage saddles tend to be straight cut but with a long flap and longer girth straps than usual to which is fitted a short or Lonsdale girth.  The idea of this design is to remove the bulk of the girth buckles from underneath the rider’s leg so promoting closer contact with the horse’s sides.  The straighter flap sits behind the horse’s shoulder to optimise and show off the quality of movement.  Showing saddles are similar for this reason.

A jumping saddle is a totally different design, with a forward cut flap designed to help position the rider with a shorter stirrup and facilitate the light or forward jumping seat.  Some jumping saddles have knee rolls and knee blocks to help keep the rider’s lower leg in place and they may also have the longer girth straps, a design borrowed from dressage saddles.


Saddle fitting

Most experienced and competent riders know the principles of assessing the fit of a saddle on their horse but if you want a professional view or indeed a new saddle, then you should contact a registered saddle fitter who can come out to your yard and fit your horse.  The Society of Master Saddlers has a nationwide register of qualified saddle fitters.

What will a saddle fitter do?

A saddle fitter will come out and first assess your horses’ static conformation.  Certain types of horse predispose to certain makes of saddle and some horses are certainly much easier to fit than others.  An example of the latter would be a horse with a defined wither and good musculature around it.  An example of the former would be a wide cob or a native pony both of which tend to have round, barrel-shaped backs and a flat or non-existent wither.

The saddle fitter will take a template of your horse’s back using a device which is stiff but malleable.  This takes an impression over the horse’s back just behind the wither and then towards the rear of the back where the cantle of the saddle should sit.  These impressions are taken one at a time and drawn onto a large sketch pad.  They are great reference points for current muscle development and comparing the left and right sides of the horse and are kept as a record.

The next step is actually to try on the type of saddle that you are interested in buying.  The saddle fitter will already have a good idea of which makes will suit your horse based on your previous description and what they see before them in the flesh.  Saddles will always be tried without any form of saddle cloth or numnah.  Saddles of choice will then be ridden in so the rider can assess the feel and the saddle fitter can observe how the saddle behaves on the horse’s back in all three gaits.

Saddle fitters also offer a corrective service so will assess the fit of an existing saddle.  Some saddle fitters have a mobile repair unit so can make minor adjustments such as small amounts of reflocking on site.  Other more major work will probably require a spell in the workshop.

The fit of existing saddles can be improved using flexible pads which are usually divided into quarters offering the option of different inserts of varying depths front and back underneath the current saddle.

Saddle fitters can also make a saddle specifically for the individual horse and this can actually be a really good option for those horses with unusual requirements.  Rather than struggling to get an off-the-peg to saddle to fit a particular horse, creating a template to the actual horse should result in a perfect fit.  This is not necessarily the most expensive option either particularly after the sometimes fraught owner has already spent money on other saddles that simply don’t fit.  There is obviously a time delay if a saddle is being made to measure so this needs to be factored in as well.

Caring for your saddle

Saddlery is one of the most expensive items that an owner will have other than the horse and probably vets bills!  So caring for your tack makes sound economic sense and also has potential safety implications for the rider and health issues for the horse.

Tack that is unchecked and rarely cleaned may cause chaffing and rub on the horse’s skin and possibly create pressure points over his back.  Stitching may wear and go unnoticed and this potentially could put the rider in danger.  Here are some key pointers to help you look after your saddle and indeed your bridle.

  • Tack should be cleaned after use even if it just cursory. If tack is grimy, very dirty or muddy or sweaty then it particularly needs some care and attention.
  • Wash the tack with saddle soap thoroughly, don’t be nervous about getting it wet
  • Check the stitching carefully everytime you clean your tack
  • Every so often depending on usage and to some extent the weather, oil the tack with either neatsfoot oil or a nourishing leather balm. This will feed the leather, restoring natural oils and keep it soft and supple
  • Store tack in a cool dry environment. In the winter months, unused tack should be oiled and put away.  Do not overheat the tack room in cold temperatures but keep a radiator on a frost setting.  Never dry saturated tack with artificial heating, allow it to dry out naturally and then wash and feed the leather with oil

A good saddle fitter will advise you how often your saddle/s need to be checked for fit and condition including the state of the flocking.  This is usually every six months unless the horse has or is radically expected to change shape, a young horse coming into work for example.  Saddles that have been reflocked completely usually require a three-month check and possibly an adjustment as the contents settle down.  Take good care of your saddles and they will take care of your and your horse.