The prospect of buying a new saddle should be exciting, but with such a wide variety of different saddles available, it can prove to be pretty daunting.
Before you part with your money, it’s well worth doing your research and answering a few key questions to help narrow down your search — after all, buying a saddle isn’t cheap so it’s really important to get it right.
Follow our simple five-step guide which will help you find the best saddle for you and your horse. Also, when you’re looking to buy a saddle it’s always worth setting your budget, and remember to factor in the cost of a visit from your saddle fitter too.
1. Call in the experts
The first thing to do is book an appointment with a registered Society of Master Saddlers (SMS) Qualified Saddle Fitter. They will guide you through the whole process of buying a saddle — new or second-hand. Most will have a selection of different brands of saddle that they will be able to bring out to your yard so you can try them.
When you book your appointment, you will be asked a number of questions. Expect to be asked about your horse’s breed, fitness, age, condition, and what style of saddle you’re looking for. Your answers will influence which saddles the fitter will bring out for you to try. They will be on hand to give advice on which saddle is best suited to you and your horse.
Whether you’re buying new or second-hand, always have the saddle fitted by a qualified saddle fitter and make sure you have regular check-ups (twice a year is recommended) to ensure your saddle is fitting and is correctly balanced. Any slight imbalance in the fit of your saddle will affect your horse’s comfort and way of going, and influence your position in the saddle.
To find your nearest qualified saddle fitter visit Master Saddlers.
2. Saddle style
What style you choose is down to the main discipline that you do with your horse. There are three main styles, which are each made
according to the way you sit for that particular discipline.
General purpose saddle
As the name suggests, a general purpose (GP) saddle is suitable for most disciplines and is a popular choice. A well-designed GP saddle will allow you to do dressage, hacking and jumping in comfort.
A GP saddle has a slightly rounded saddle flap and quite often has no knee blocks, although some have
removeable blocks. This allows you to move the blocks to give you support when needed, or to remove them.
These have a straighter saddle flap so that you can ride with longer stirrups, with your legs in close contact with your horse’s sides. Dressage saddles usually have larger knee rolls and a thigh block to help you maintain the correct leg position. The blocks can be fixed or moveable.
The seat tends to be deeper to help you stay in balance with your horse and to sit correctly. Most dressage saddles have long girth straps meaning you use a short girth — this prevents the buckles of the girth from interfering with your lower leg and allows that close contact feel, as well as eliminating any bulk underneath your lower leg
A jump saddle has a forward cut saddle flap, so you can ride with
shorter stirrups. There’s also the choice of a traditional two-flap style, or a close contact saddle or monoflap with longer girth straps (used with a short girth).
Jumping saddles have a flatter seat to allow greater freedom of movement — this is particularly useful for cross-country riding.
3. Leather or synthetic?
The material your saddle is made from is another important consideration.
Leather saddles are still the preferred choice for a lot of riders and there are many different types of leather used to make saddles, from some that give you a grippy feel to softer, smooth leathers. You can expect to pay more for a leather saddle, and you will need to look after it well. Regular cleaning and conditioning is required to keep your saddle in good condition. Take good care of your leather saddle and it will last for years.
Leather saddles are usually heavier than synthetic, but this does depend a little on the tree that’s used.
Thanks to the use of modern materials, synthetic saddles now look like leather but are lightweight, durable and easy to look after — a quick wipe with a damp cloth does the job. The other big advantage of a synthetic saddle is the price tag — they are considerably cheaper than leather. If you’re on a limited budget, don’t be put off by a synthetic saddle; there are some great options on offer from Thorowgood, Tekna, Wintec, Collegiate and Premier Equine.
The best of both worlds
If you’re not convinced a synthetic saddle is for you, there are a few manufacturers that produce saddles that use both leather and synthetic materials.
Tekna’s LeTek range combines the softness of leather with the durability and low maintenance of synthetic material. The seat, seat flap, flap and upper panels are made from leather. The underflap and bottom panels are synthetic.
Thorowgood T8 Saddles have quality leather on the seat, kneepads and trim to give the feel of an all-leather saddle.
John Whitaker International produces a range of saddles that include the Harrogate dressage, Bedale GP Jump and Overton Jumping that are a leather and synthetic mix — the outer is covered in soft, comfortable, durable leather while the underpanel of the saddle is made from a synthetic, wipe-clean material.
4. Other features
The overall design of and methods used to make saddles have changed very little. Most saddles are handmade by highly skilled craftsmen, many of them in the UK. What has changed is the development of clever modern features that enhance the fit of the saddle. The aim of these is to make sure you and your horse are as comfortable as possible so you can both concentrate and enjoy yourselves.
Altering the fit
Picking a saddle with a changeable gullet is worth considering. It allows the width of your saddle to be altered quickly and easily by your saddle fitter if your horse changes shape. Essentially, this could mean that one saddle will last your horse a lifetime, or if you buy a new horse, it’s highly likely that your saddle can be altered to fit him, saving you money on buying a new saddle.
Many of the well-known saddle brands produce saddles with changeable gullets, including Wintec, Thorowgood, Bates, Fairfax, John Whitaker International, Tekna, GFS, Collegiate and Kent & Masters.
Albion Saddlemakers has developed the Adjusta-Tree, believed to be the first British precision-engineered adjustable wooden saddle tree. The Adjusta-Tree has been specifically designed for adjustment using pressure by any Albion saddle fitter. The fitting can be altered without damage or distortion to the headplates or rivets of the tree using Albion-approved pressure systems, while remaining within the saddle.
Enhancing fit further
The Platinum range from Albion Saddles goes one step further with an interchangeable tree and a switch panel that allows the width and the saddle panels to be changed for improved fit. These can only be changed by an approved Albion stockist.
The Easy-Change Fit Solution is available for Wintec and Bates saddles. This system allows you to select the optimal tree width for your horse’s current shape and muscling with the Easy-Change Gullet System, or make adjustments to the saddle panel for optimal balance and clearance with the Easy-Change Riser System. Together, these systems offer unparalleled scope of adjustment for a total fitting solution that’s not only easy but also measurable and completely reversible, giving total confidence to be able to make changes to the saddle easily. You can find out more about this system at Easy-Change Fit Solution
Wool is the most widely used material for flocking saddle panels. Flocking can easily be added or removed to ensure a good fit by a qualified saddle fitter.
However, there are a few alternatives. The CAIR Cushion System replaces the traditional filling with two independently sealed air cushions in each saddle panel. The CAIR Cushion System is available in Bates and Wintec saddles, and the concept is that air offers the ultimate in cushioning for your horse.
Being a fluid medium, air constantly adapts to your horse’s muscles as they work. Once you are in the saddle the air moves to hug your horse’s shape and distribute your weight evenly over the entire bearing area of the saddle panel.
This eliminates pressure points, supports the muscles during work, absorbs shock and aids correct muscle development. For more information, visit CAIR Cushion System.
Flair panels is a system of four adjustable airbags (two at the front, two at the back) that replace the flocking your saddle. These provide a soft, flexible and even weight-bearing surface and can be fitted to all conventional saddles. Each individual airbag can be altered to give a customised fit.
Flair panels give your saddle a constant flexible layer of air that absorbs shock, allowing your horse to move more naturally because the muscles of his back and shoulder aren’t restricted. Head over to their website Flair for more details.
5. Buying second-hand
If money is tight there’s always the option of buying a second-hand saddle. Your saddle fitter may well have a selection of second-hand saddles available so it’s worth checking to see if he or she has something suitable for you to try.
There are also a few online companies that specialise in second-hand saddles. They have a large selection available and offer a trial period and fitting service too. Take a look at The Saddle Bank and Saddles Direct.