A beginner’s guide to saddles
When you’re getting into horse riding, finding the right saddle should be very high up on your to-do list — you can’t really start safely riding on your own without one. Your saddle is an essential piece of tack that ensures you and your horse are safe and comfortable during sessions, as well as helping you to balance. That’s why it’s vital that you invest in one that suits you both perfectly.
However, without the right knowledge, it can be hard to know where to start when looking for the perfect saddle. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the key parts of a saddle and the different types available before helping you to measure and fit one to your horse. We’ll cover:
- What are the parts of a saddle?
- What are the types of saddle?
- How to measure a saddle
- How to measure a horse for a saddle
- How to choose a saddle
- How to put a saddle on a horse
The parts of a saddle are well worth learning as the knowledge will serve you well further down the line, whether you’re trying to follow some advice from an instructor, order a replacement part, or just join in with some equestrian chat. Most importantly, you’ll be able to identify and describe the key components when you’re looking to invest in your first saddle.
In the UK, the most common type of saddle you’ll come across is the English saddle, which is used in both competitive and general riding. As this is probably going to be the first type you will be looking to buy, let’s take a closer look at its anatomy in more detail.
In the image, you can see all the parts of a saddle that are usually visible. Below, you will find an explanation about what each part is and does, including the components hidden within the saddle’s body. Each one plays an important role in making sure that the saddle is secure and comfortable.
Within the saddle body
- Tree: The tree is the foundation for the rest of the saddle and isn’t visible from the outside. It dictates the shape of the saddle, how it fits, and how much sitting space there is. The main aim of the tree is to disperse the weight of the rider across the horse’s back so it’s more comfortable. They are typically made from either wood or a synthetic material.
- Gullet: The gullet, sometimes called the channel, is the space that exists between the bars of the saddle tree. It is located along the length of the inner saddle and sits above the horse’s spine, where it plays an important role in the fit on the horse. There must be enough space within the gullet for the horse’s spine as well as any padding.
- Panels: There are two panels that are in contact with the horse’s back (through a saddle pad) either side of the gullet. They are usually filled with foam or flocking to provide cushioning and shock absorption when the rider moves around. You can normally adjust the panels to suit the fitting needs of your horse.
On the outside of the saddle
- Pommel: The pommel is the raised front area of the saddle that provides front seat support. It is the spot where the bars join with the gullet in the saddle’s tree.
- Cantle: The cantle forms the back of the saddle and provides back seat support through its upturned shape.
- Seat: Located between the pommel and cantle, the seat is the part of the saddle where the rider sits while riding their horse. Each saddle’s seat, along with the pommel and cantle, will have a certain depth: shallow, medium, medium-deep, or deep.
- Twist: The twist is located between the pommel and the seat, making it the narrowest part of the saddle. It defines how the saddle sits between the rider’s legs.
- Skirt: The skirt is a small flap that is attached to the side of the seat. It covers the stirrup bar and acts as a barrier between the rider’s leg and stirrup buckle.
- Flap: The flap is a large piece of material that hangs down from the seat area. It sits under the skirt, stirrup bar, and stirrup leathers but hides the girth and billets.
- Panels: The panels are located under the seat at the back of the saddle on each side of the gullet, where they provide cushioning for the horse.
- Knee roll: The knee roll is a padded section at the front of the flap to provide a guide for where the rider’s knees should be positioned. They are an optional feature on many saddles.
- Stirrup bar: The stirrup bar is a metal bar that attaches the stirrup leathers to the saddle. It is hidden from sight and protected from leg contact by the skirt.
- Stirrup leathers: The stirrup leather is a leather (sometimes synthetic) strap that connects the stirrups to the stirrup bar. The slack of the leathers is gathered in the stirrup leather keeper to ensure it’s not hanging loose.
- Stirrup leather keeper: The stirrup leather keeper secures the excess in the stirrup leathers once they’ve been adjusted to the right length. It’s usually a leather loop or a slit in the flap.
- Stirrup: The stirrups are metal frames that the rider places their feet into when riding so that their legs are positioned correctly and comfortably. They are also used when mounting and dismounting the horse.
Under the saddle flap
- Girth: The girth is a strap fastened under the horse’s belly used to hold the saddle in place. It is attached via the billets, which can be adjusted during saddling to ensure a good fit.
- Billets: There are three billet straps on a saddle, which are located beneath the flap and used for the adjustment of the girth strap. Usually, two of these are used.
- Knee block: A knee block can be attached to the front of the under flap to give additional support. They are typically removeable and adjustable to suit the rider.
- Thigh block: A thigh block can be added to the back of the under flap to provide support. Like the knee block, they’re optional and can be adjusted.
There are three main types of saddle you’re likely to come across in the UK:
- English saddles: The most popular type in the UK and favoured for the English style of horse riding. Widely used in equestrian competition up to Olympic level.
- Western saddles: A heavier saddle that was designed for ranch riding and driving cattle, but which is now also used in sports such as reining.
- Side saddles: A saddle originally designed for ladies with long skirts and dresses. It is much less common in modern times, but is still used at shows today due to its heritage.
The English saddle is a type of saddle that is designed for the English style of horse riding, which is one of the most popular riding styles in the world and what you’re most likely to be introduced to when you begin riding in the UK. It’s also the approach that is used in equestrian competition, including eventing, dressage, and showjumping, all the way up to Olympic level.
Compared to other types of saddle, English saddles are flatter in appearance, are lighter in weight, and offer closer contact with the horse. They also have lots of self-padding in the flaps attached to the seat. Unlike styles such as the western saddle, they do not feature a horn.
However, there is quite a lot of variety within English saddles. Different designs vary in the length and angle of the flaps, the depth of the seat, and height of the cantle, each of which is designed for a specific purpose or area of competition. Below, we’re going to take a look at some of the most common types of English saddle:
- General purpose saddle
- Dressage saddle
- Jumping saddle
- Racing saddle
- Endurance saddle
- Polo saddle
- Showing saddle
The general purpose saddle — also known as the eventing saddle — is designed for versatility so is capable of adapting to most “general purposes”, including dressage and showjumping. It features a deep seat for flatwork and a forward saddle flap for jumping but doesn’t have knee pads. It’s possible to alter the stirrup length to achieve comfortable dressage and jumping positions.
As this saddle is so flexible and can adapt to its rider’s needs, it is a popular choice for those that are new to equestrianism and for riding schools. This means that it’s probably the first type you’ll come across as a beginner. The saddle is widely used at novice and intermediary levels, including at events, but most riders will change to more specialised saddles as they grow in skill and experience.
The dressage saddle is a specialist saddle designed for flatwork only. It has a very deep seat and long, straight flaps to help the rider maintain a long leg position and to ensure they are able to influence their horse when performing manoeuvres. The straight flaps also free up the horse’s shoulder so that they can improve their gait.
The cantle of the dressage saddle is higher than the pommel to assist the rider when performing a sitting trot, which is one of the fundamentals of dressage. There is usually less padding on these saddles to allow for a closer feel of the horse, something that’s important when working together so closely. A drop girth system is typically used to secure the saddle, ensuring the horse’s shoulders aren’t impeded.
The jumping saddle is a specialist saddle that’s designed to aid the rider when jumping by providing an improved level of balance and security. It does this by having a flatter seat than a dressage saddle and forward cut flaps to allow for a short stirrup and bent knee. These features, plus the padded knee rolls on some models, allow the rider to adopt a two-point or half-seat position more easily. A low cantle and pommel on the saddle also ensure that the jumping position isn’t hampered.
Because the jumping saddle is designed to make jumping as easy as possible, it’s used in a variety of English riding disciplines where clearing fences and obstacles is heavily featured, including showjumping, hunt seat, foxhunting, and cross-country. These saddles tend to be favoured by riders at an advanced level who need a more specialist saddle than a general purpose model.
The racing saddle is a small, lightweight saddle designed for horse racing. It features a long flat seat, as well as a flat pommel and cantle, as jockeys don’t actually sit on the horse, but rather squat above the saddle on very short stirrups. This means that there is not much balance or security offered for other types of rider, so racing saddles are only used exclusively for racing.
There are some differences among racing saddles. Those intended for flat racing have small flaps to keep the weight lower, while those designed for jump racing have larger flaps to provide security as the horse and jockey clear fences. Furthermore, some race rules impose restrictions on the weight a horse can carry, so many jockeys have racing saddles in a variety of weights to suit the event.
The endurance saddle is designed for comfort and support for both horse and rider when riding over long distances. This means there is usually more padding than other types of saddle, with a soft or quilted seat commonplace and larger under panels to distribute weight across the horse’s back. But, despite having extra padding, they are usually as light as possible to make it easier for the horse.
There is a variety of styles out there, with some resembling a western saddle with no horn and others looking closer to a general purpose saddle with more padding included. Most will typically have a larger or additional D-rings for extra attachments, as well as stirrups with a wider tread.
Endurance saddles tend to be used by riders who specialise in competitive endurance events, where a horse and rider partake in a long-distance race. Due to this, it’s generally not a model that you are likely to need as a beginner to equestrianism.
Endurance saddles are typically constructed from synthetic materials rather than genuine leather. This makes them lighter and easier for the horse to carry, while also keeping the rider comfortable during long-distance endurance events.
The polo saddle is a saddle that has been designed for optimal performance in the equestrian sport of polo. It features a flat seat and long, straight flaps, so the player can adopt a straight leg position. While it shares a similar design to a dressage saddle, the leg position is slightly more forward. A defining feature of the polo saddle is its lack of padding beneath the rider’s leg, which allows maximum freedom of movement during matches. You’re unlikely to come across the saddle as an equestrian novice.
The showing saddle — or show saddle — is a type of saddle that is used for horse shows, most commonly in the UK and Australia. These shows differ from eventing, dressage, and showjumping competitions, as they are dedicated to exhibiting the horses without competitive athletic contests. There is usually some riding and jumping over low obstacles, but this is not the focus of the show.
Because of this, a show saddle is designed in a minimal way so that the form of the horse is more visible. It has a close fit and a straight flap to ensure the shoulder can be seen, while also having a flat seat and little padding, so there isn’t much support for the rider. And, as show horses are not as athletic as competitive horses, a more generous girth strap is present to keep the saddle secure on a rounder body. Other major differences include a forward set stirrup bar and a cutback pommel.
The western saddle is a type of saddle that was developed in the USA for use when driving cattle and riding the range, which often meant long days and distances. They are heavier than English saddles but are more comfortable for the horse and rider over lengthy periods of time. This is because the saddle covers a larger area on the horse, so the weight of the rider is spread out further and there’s a reduction in pressure points that can make life uncomfortable.
The most obvious feature of a western saddle is the horn, which isn’t included on English saddles. It was added as a means for roping and guiding cattle. Western models don’t have a great deal of padding, unlike English models, so an additional blanket or pad has to be used to add more comfort for the horse. You’ll also find sturdier stirrups for extra comfort and support on long days, as well as a cinch method of securing the saddle (using a knot), rather than a girth strap.
There are a few notable types of western saddle:
- Roping saddle: A heavy and sturdy saddle designed for stability and freedom of movement when working with cattle for long periods of time.
- Barrel racing saddle: A lightweight saddle with a wide swell and cantle that allows the rider to sit securely while freeing up the horse for sprinting and quick turning.
- Ranch saddle: The heaviest type of western saddle, with a thick horn, high cantle, and deep seat. Designed for all-day ranching activities.
- Trail saddle: Also known as a pleasure saddle, this type is designed for maximum comfort over long but slow rides. Features a deep, padded seat; medium cantle; and a thinner horn designed for gripping.
Western saddles belong to a family of saddles called stock saddles, and you’ll find variations of the general design in the likes of Argentina, Mexico, Australia, and other locations where ranching is common. While they are not prevalent in the UK compared to English saddles, they are still present, and you may come across a western rider from time to time or might even fancy giving it a go yourself.
A side saddle is a type of saddle that features a two-pommel design that allows the rider to sit on the horse with both legs on one side. It was invented for women to use when wearing long skirts, letting them adopt what was considered a more “moral” posture on horseback, and was widely used from the 14th to the 19th century.
When riding with a side saddle, both legs remain on the left side of the horse, with the right leg over the upper pommel and the left over the lower. There is only one stirrup, which is used by the left leg. Despite the name of the technique, the rest of the body is still able to face forwards to maintain full control over the horse. Side saddle is actually a very secure way to ride, with jumps and galloping still possible.
While the heyday of sides saddles is well and truly in the past, many people still pursue the style for both competition and pleasure. Modern side saddle riding is still seen in many equestrian disciplines, including eventing, dressage, and showjumping, and most shows have side saddle classes for those who wish to compete. It has also found popularity for those riders with certain disabilities looking for more comfort. As a new rider, side saddle is unlikely to be a part of your introduction to riding, but it’s certainly something you can try later on.
How to find the right saddle
Now that you understand the parts of a saddle and the types available, you’re ready to start thinking about finding a saddle that’s right for you and your horse. This will involve assessing your needs and picking the right type of saddle, choosing either leather or synthetic materials, deciding whether to buy used or new, and measuring and fitting the saddle.
In our Fit For Welfare series, The Society of Master Saddlers goes through all the essential information you need to know before booking a saddle or bridle fitter for your horse. Watch the trailer below and become a H&C+ member to stream the full series on your laptop or mobile device.
The first thing you’ll need to consider is what type of saddle is right for you and your horse. We have looked at the various styles you will most regularly come across, so you should now have a good idea of what may be available. However, the important thing to remember is that a saddle is crucial for the safety and wellbeing of both you and your horse, so it’s important that you assess your needs as a rider and invest in a type of saddle that will best meet them.
If you are reading this guide as a new rider looking to get your first saddle, then you will probably be in the market for a general purpose saddle, as this will allow you to practise and compete (at lower levels) at in events, dressage, and showjumping, as well as being a solid pick for pleasure riding. It’s only when you begin competing beyond the intermediate level that you will need to upgrade to separate dressage and jumping saddles.
Leather vs synthetic saddle
Another decision you will need to make when planning your saddle purchase is what material you are going to look for: leather or synthetic. At one point, the only option for a saddle was leather, but advances in technology have made it possible to have them made with synthetic materials, including imitation leather and suede and other colourful fabrics. So, let’s compare these two types of saddle.
The pros and cons of leather saddles
|✔ They’re hardwearing: Leather is a much more rugged and durable material than synthetic fabric, so a leather saddle will be less prone to getting damaged and will enjoy a longer lifespan than a synthetic saddle.||🗶 They’re more expensive: Leather is generally a more expensive material to make a saddle out of than synthetic fabric, which means that they carry a higher price tag.
|✔ They look smarter: Leather is the traditional material used for saddles and generally thought of as smarter in appearance than synthetic. This is why leather is preferred at high levels of competition, when presentation can be a crucial part of winning.||🗶 They’re heavier: A leather saddle will be substantially heavier than its synthetic equivalent, so you will likely be putting more weight on your horse. When you’re trying to keep the load as light as possible, this can be an issue.
|✔ They shape to horse and rider: Leather is a very pliable material that conforms to both rider and horse over time, so a leather saddle will end up providing personalised comfort and support that isn’t possible with synthetic materials.||🗶 They’re not as easy to clean: Synthetic fabrics tend to be designed to be easily washable, while leather is a natural material that has particular care requirements. This is something you need to take into account.
The pros and cons of synthetic saddles
|✔ They’re more budget-friendly: When you’re in the market for a budget-friendly saddle, a synthetic option will nearly always be cheaper. This can be useful if you’re a new rider who does not want to spend too much.||🗶 They’re more prone to damage: While synthetic fabrics can be hardwearing, they simply can’t match the durability and lifespan of a leather saddle. And, while wear and tear makes a leather saddle look vintage, it doesn’t have the same effect on synthetic fabric.|
|✔ They’re lightweight: When you are trying to make the load on your horse as light as possible, a synthetic saddle will probably be a less hefty option than leather. This is simply because these materials tend to weigh less.||🗶 They’re more informal: Generally, synthetic saddles are not looked on as being as formal or traditional as leather saddles, which is part of the reason leather is preferred by many when competing, when appearances matter. Synthetic saddles are often used more for non-competitive riding.|
|✔ They’re easier to clean: Synthetic materials are usually purpose designed to be low maintenance and easily washable. Leather is a natural fabric that needs specific care and can’t just be washed with any cleaner.||🗶 They don’t shape to horse and rider: While you’ll certainly find adjustable synthetic saddles, they don’t have the wearing-in quality of leather that will ensure a saddle conforms to the horse and the rider.|
Decide on a used or new saddle
You will also need to think about whether you wish to buy a brand-new saddle for your horse or shop for one that has already been used. Let’s have a quick look at the benefits and drawbacks that come with each of these buying decisions.
Purchasing a new saddle can be expensive, but you will be getting something that is untarnished and has no wear and tear damage. In theory, it will probably give you more years of service, as long as it’s a quality model. There may also be more options open to you for tailoring the saddle to you and your horse, depending on where you purchase it from. It’s also worth noting that there will likely be a “break in” period with a new saddle, where it may be uncomfortable until you wear it in.
On the other hand, saddles can be found second hand from other riders, in tack shops, and online at much more wallet-friendly prices, which can be helpful if you’re a beginner with a limited budget. A pre-owned saddle is a much more involved purchase, however, as you’re investing in something that may already have been damaged, so you’ll need to spend extra time checking it over to ensure that it is in good condition.
In episode five of our Fit For Welfare series, ‘When to Call Your Saddle Fitter’, we look at the kind of damage a saddle can pick up through wear and tear. View the clip below to know what to look for in a pre-owned saddle and watch the full series here.
In theory, a used saddle shouldn’t have a “break in” period, as the material should already have been softened and made pliable by previous use. However, you may need to try the saddle to see whether the leather has conformed to a previous rider in a way that makes it uncomfortable for you.
With a better idea of the saddle type, material, and condition you will be looking for, you can now begin looking for one that is perfect for you and your horse. To do this, you will have to find a saddle that fits, which will involve finding your seat size and your horse’s gullet size, then checking the fit.
Note: This advice is tailored for measuring an English saddle, the most common type in the UK.
How to measure yourself for a saddle
By finding out your seat size, you will be determining what size of seat your saddle will need for you to sit comfortably. In this section, we’ll walk you through the steps to getting this measurement and provide advice for choosing the right size.
To get your saddle seat size:
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and back touching the backrest.
- Use a measuring tape to measure from the end of your knee to the back of your buttocks. (You might want to ask a friend to help you.)
- Take this measurement and use the table below to find out your saddle seat size. The sizing is typically provided in inch or half-inch increments.
|Your measurement||Your saddle seat size|
|Less than 16.5″||15″|
|More than 23″||18″|
Please note: These measurements are only intended as a guide and you should refer to the saddle maker’s sizing for a particular saddle’s seat sizes.
If you find you are between seat sizes, it’s always a good idea to go for the size up. With a seat that is too small, you’ll end up sitting on the cantle and not the deepest part of the seat, putting unnecessary pressure on your horse’s back.
Should you not have access to the seat size of a saddle, you can check it’s right for you by measuring it yourself and then comparing it to your sizing in the table above.
How to measure a saddle
To measure a saddle, set it down with the seat facing upwards. Measure from the head nail on the pommel (point A on the image above) to the cantle (point B). The measurement in inches is the seat size.
Finding out your horse’s gullet size is just as important as finding the saddle seat size as it ensures any saddle is comfortable for your horse. The gullet size — sometimes referred to as the tree width, saddle width, or tree size — is the clearance a saddle will provide over your horse’s spine, and you will find that different models offer varying widths.
Getting a gullet size is not as fine an art as determining seat size and can usually be predicted with no need for measuring. Saddles usually come in narrow, medium, wide, and extra wide gullet sizes. The majority of horses will need a medium gullet size, but large types, like Warmbloods and draught horses, may need a wide or extra wide saddle, while some breeds, like Arabians and Thoroughbreds, have narrow backs that require a narrow fit. If you’re not sure, speak to a trainer or a saddler, who may be able to provide a specialist gullet measuring tool.
How to fit a saddle to a horse
Once you have a good idea of both your and your horse’s sizes and you’ve picked out a saddle you think might be suitable, it’s time to try fitting and testing it. This will involve safely saddling up your horse, inspecting the fit, and going for a test ride.
First, you need to see if the saddle fits your horse correctly. Place the saddle on the back without fastening the girth. It should appear level, with the cantle sitting about one inch higher than the pommel. The end of the saddle should not extend back further than the horse’s ribs do. You should be able to place a flat hand in between the front of the saddle tree and the shoulder and slide it from top to bottom. If there is any tightness, it’s likely the saddle tree is the wrong angle for your horse’s shoulders, and it may be uncomfortable when your horse starts to move.
Next, you should fasten the girth strap and tighten it, carrying out a visual check that the saddle tree and the padding sit evenly on the back without any bridging (when the panels don’t follow the shape of the horse). There should be at least two fingers’ gap between the pommel and the horse’s withers and enough spacing along the gullet that the saddle is not resting on the spine anywhere.
If the saddle is fitting your horse, it’s time to check whether it’s right for you. So, mount up and see if you feel balanced and centred. You should be able to sit on the flat of the seat without feeling any hard edges in the saddle tree. If you can, the saddle could be too narrow. Try placing your hands behind you on the seat — if you can get more than one hand on the surface, the saddle seat is too big, but if there’s no space behind you, it’s too small. There should be roughly two to four inches clearance between you and the front of the pommel and the same for the back of the cantle.
Finally, it’s time to test the saddle during a ride to ensure it feels okay. While every saddle will have a little movement, there shouldn’t be any adverse movement as you ride, like the saddle moving up and down or side to side. If you’re buying a saddle that you will be using for jumping, you should also test it out on some small obstacles. You should be able to keep a 90⁰ knee position when at jumping length stirrup and your knees should not come over the front of the knee roll when you leap.
No matter what type of saddle you have, there is only one way to put a saddle on a horse that you will need to master ahead of your riding sessions to ensure you’re both safe and comfortable. Here, we’ll take you through the step-by-step process of saddling up.
Please note: Saddling is traditionally done from the horse’s left side, which our steps will follow.
- Groom your horse: Before you saddle up, take a moment to groom your horse. Grooming will ensure that their hair lies flat and you get rid of any dirt or dust particles that could rub and be irritating when you saddle up and start riding.
- Place the saddle pad: From the left side, place your saddle pad on your horse’s back so that it’s over the withers, then slide it back into position so that the hair lies flat underneath. Check that the pad is evenly placed and isn’t folded or rolled up anywhere. Depending on your saddle pad’s design, you may have ties or fasteners that connect to the D-rings of the saddle — if so, ensure they’re facing outwards.
- Organise your stirrups and girth strap: Before you lift the saddle up, make sure that the stirrups are tied up, so they don’t hit you or your horse or get tangled up. You’ll also want to make sure the girth strap is folded back over the seat (or reattached on one side and folded back if you remove the strap each time).
- Place the saddle: From the left, lift the saddle up so that it’s high enough to avoid your horse and your carefully placed pad, before placing it down. You should aim to place it forward and move it back in the same way as you did with your pad. Ensure your actions are gentle and that you don’t drop the saddle down, as this can risk spooking your horse.
In episode three of our Fit For Welfare series, ‘Saddle Fitting Know How’, we speak to Andy Milner from the Society of Master Saddlers, who shows us how to place the saddle correctly:
- Check the sides of the saddle: Check around both sides of the saddle to ensure there are no creases in the pad under the saddle and lengthen the stirrups as you go so they’re hanging down. If your girth strap is still unattached, now is the time to attach it on the right-hand side of the saddle.
- Secure the girth strap: From the left side of the horse, reach under the belly and pick up the hanging girth strap, pulling it towards you. Tighten the strap gently in small increments to avoid any sudden tightness that could unsettle your horse. Don’t fasten the girth too tightly: it should be secure but loose enough so you can slide your fingers underneath it. Fasten any ties or fasteners from the pad to the D-rings of your saddle.
- Settle the saddle: Lastly, you will need to stretch your horse’s skin under the girth strap to make sure there are no wrinkles. Do this by going to their head and facing down the side of their body, then picking up their front leg on the pastern and stretching it towards you. This will work the muscles and stretch the skin to work loose any uncomfortable wrinkles. You should perform this action on both sides of the horse.
Choosing the right saddle for your horse can be a challenge, but hopefully this guide has gotten you up to speed on the various parts of a saddle, the different types available, and how to find the right saddle for your horse. You’ll also have a good idea of how to saddle up.
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