How to Choose an English Saddle

If you’re reading this, then most likely you’re thinking of buying an English saddle. After your horse, the saddle is the most significant investment many horse lovers will make, so it is an important decision. This guide is here to help you through that process and is essential reading before you begin to search for English saddles for sale.

I remember the first time that I walked into a tack store to buy an English saddle. This was a long time ago, and I had only recently become interested in riding. The sales lady bamboozled me with a gazillion terms I’d never heard of before, and then asked me what kind of tree I preferred. At that point, I wondered if I’d wandered into a garden supplies store by mistake!

Do not make my mistake. Before you set off to buy your first English riding saddle, ensure you at least know all the basic terms and have some idea of what you want to buy.

Read on to learn about:

  • the history of the English saddle
  • the composition of an English saddle
  • the difference between an English and a Western saddle
  • different styles you may come across
  • whether leather or synthetic is better
  • how to fit an English saddle
  • the advantages and disadvantages of a used English saddle

A Brief History of the English Saddle

Up until the eighteenth century, horse riders in Europe used saddles with high cantles and pommels designed for horseback combat or hunting large animals. At that time fox hunting became popular, which placed new demands upon the rider.

In order to keep up with those nimble foxes, horse and rider needed to jump fences and hedgerows. The high cantle and pommels of preexisting saddles proved uncomfortable for jumping, and the English saddle was created in response. Later development of this saddle to make it more suitable for a range of different sports led to the various popular styles we see today.

What is the Composition of an English Saddle?

All English saddles are constructed around a solid supporting frame which is called a tree. Seen from above, this is a roughly rectangular frame where the two longer sides that run parallel with the horse’s spine are called the bars, the front portion is called the head and the rear the cantle.

Trees are traditionally crafted from wood reinforced with steel, though today other materials are frequently used in place of wood, such as polyurethane and fiberglass.

The leather (or synthetic alternative) components of a saddle that are visible to an observer are attached to this tree to create the seat, flaps and panels. Traditionally, the panels were stuffed using wool flock, which is still the preferred material today, but many modern saddles use more economical combinations of layered wool, foam, and felt.

The main English saddle parts are:

  • tree — the foundation over which the rest of the saddle is built.
  • stirrup bars — these are metal bars riveted to the tree and used to attach the stirrup leathers.
  • panels — the padding between the horse’s back and the rest of the saddle which protects the horse and provides balance to the saddle. The portion of a panel near the front is termed the “front panel” while the portion under the cantle is the “rear panel”.
  • gullet — technically, this is the space between the bars of the tree, but in practical, everyday use this is the space between the panels.
  • seat — this is the lowest point on top of the saddle where the rider’s seatbones sit.
  • pommel — the raised front portion of the saddle.
  • cantle — the raised rear portion of the saddle. Both the pommel and cantle are raised in order to give the rider more security in the seat.
  • Flaps — the saddle flap forms a barrier between the rider’s leg and the various straps and buckles, while the sweat flap performs the same duty between those buckles and the horse.

What is the Difference Between an English Saddle and a Western Saddle?

The English riding saddle is smaller and weighs less than its Western counterpart, and is designed to allow the rider greater contact with the horse’s back. The Western saddle is designed to better spread the weight of the rider over a larger area of the horse’s back, making it more comfortable for the horse during long, long days out in the heat chasing after cows.

But which is better, English vs Western saddle? Well, it depends what you want to do with your horse. If you are going to herd cows all day for weeks on end, probably the Western saddle is for you. But if your interest is in jumping, dressage, eventing, or racing, then an English saddle will afford you more control and a better seat.

Styles of English Saddles

When you are deciding what kind of English saddle to purchase, it is important to choose a style that will be fit for the purpose you wish to put it to. So, you must decide whether your main interest is in jumping, trail riding, dressage, or a little bit of everything. The following are the most frequently encountered styles of English saddle and their uses.

General Purpose or Eventing Saddle

Since the sport of eventing involves the rider in a variety of very different disciplines — usually cross-country, dressage, and showjumping — any equestrian who enjoys this sport must use a saddle that is equally as versatile. The all purpose, flexible saddle that may be used for both jumping on the rough and riding on the flat is known as the eventing saddle.

The-all purpose English saddle has a deep seat to offer security and comfort. The long, straight flaps of a dressage saddle are blended with the forward flaps of a jumping saddle to create flaps that are forward but long. Thin saddle leather is used to promote maximum contact between rider and horse.

Because the eventing saddle is a jack of all trades, it is a master of none. Equestrians who have gained a high degree of competence in a particular discipline may choose to use a more specialized saddle better fit for their purpose. However, for the novice rider who wants to try their hand at everything, the eventing saddle is ideal.

Close Contact or Jumping Saddle

This saddle is the style closest to the original English saddles and is still used by people who go on fox hunts today. It is well suited to riders who love to jump the highest hedges or fences their horse can manage. Obviously, it is also the preferred saddle for showjumping.

This saddle is relatively flat and has a low pommel and cantle to ensure jumping is as comfortable as possible. The saddle flaps are large and forward. The stirrup bars are relatively forward facing, the the stirrups are hung shorter than on an eventing saddle.

This style of saddle is great for jumping and obstacle courses, but not so great for extended periods of use on the flat.

Dressage Saddle

This style of saddle is designed to facilitate perfect balance and close communication between rider and horse. To maximize contact and therefore control, the saddle is slim and lightweight. The seat, however, is deep and well padded to ensure optimum balance and security. The saddle flaps are exceedingly long and straight-cut to match the longer leg position.

The dressage saddle can be used for casual riding on the flat, but it is not at all suitable for jumping or rough going. You would probably only want to buy this style of saddle if you were seriously interested in dressage.

Cutback or Saddle Seat Saddle

This is a variation on the show saddle that is designed to better display a gaited horse’s fancy footwork.

This style has an opening in the pommel to create more space for the high withers of gaited breeds. The seat is long and flat, placing the rider further back than on other saddles, and is relatively thin and unpadded. The flaps are broader and wider than on the dressage saddle.  The stirrups are hung very long.

The cutback saddle is really only designed to be used at shows to show off your horse’s capabilities. It does not supply the necessary support, protection or comfort for prolonged or rough riding conditions.

Endurance Saddle

As its name implies, this saddle is designed for riders who are taking long journeys over rough terrain in inclement weather conditions. For that reason, it is designed for maximum comfort for both horse and rider. It is a style descended from military saddles.

This style offers a deep seat with extensive padding. The cantle and skirts are extended to increase the area of contact with the horse so that the weight of the rider is more evenly distributed across the horse’s back. In spite of these two things, this saddle is also lightweight to reduce the load for the horse.

Strangely perhaps, the English endurance saddle is generally said to work better for endurance riding than the Western saddle. It is lighter than the Western saddle, and the rider’s weight is further forward. This has been shown to lessen a horse’s fatigue. However, the Western saddle is better designed to carry a lot of extra gear.

English Show Saddle

This is like a little, black cocktail dress for your horse, designed not as much for comfort or practicality as to show off your horse’s body to its best advantage. It looks like a minimalist designer has taken a close contact saddle and cut it down to the bare minimum.

These saddles are great for showing off your horse’s confirmation, but they are not practical for more rigorous use. The minimal paddling makes this saddle uncomfortable for the rider on longer trails and offers little security over rough terrain.

Racing Saddle

It does what it says on the box. This is an extremely specialized piece of tack only designed for optimum performance during a race. It is tiny, trim, and lightweight. The seat is flat, long and forward, designed to give the horse the freedom of movement necessary for maximum speed in the gallop.

These saddles are really all about maximizing freedom and potential speed for the horse and offer very little in the way of control or security for the rider. Being so light and thin, they are not comfy either. These are not a great choice for general riding.

Sidesaddle

No list of English saddle styles would be complete without mentioning the sidesaddle. Once the predominant saddle style for ladies, these days the sidesaddle is more of a special purpose saddle used in parades and exhibitions. However, modern sidesaddles are still a valid option for riders who have suffered injuries or have conditions that prevent them from sitting astride a horse.

The seat is broad and flat to accommodate both the buttocks and the thighs of the rider. The rider uses only one stirrup, but there are two pommels. The extra pommel is called a “leaping horn”, and curves down over the left leg.

There is an art to riding sidesaddle, and it is not for everybody. However, there are many riders who wish to honor the past by preserving this riding skill.

Are Leather or Synthetic Saddles Better?

When the first synthetic saddles were manufactured, they frequently came in lurid and bright colors which made them unacceptable for showing. Advancements in saddle manufacturing mean that modern synthetic leather and suede very much resemble real leather, so now synthetic saddles are a valid option for the serious equestrian.

Synthetic saddles tend to be lighter and easier to clean than their leather equivalents. If you actually like unusual colors and patterns, you can still purchase synthetic saddles in shocking colors. And a huge advantage of synthetic materials is that they are not made from animal products. A great number of horse enthusiasts love a broad range of animals and so feel uncomfortable sitting on the skin of something that was once living and breathing like their horse.

Leather is, of course, traditional. If you are a die-hard traditionalist, you may insist that all your tack is made out of leather. But be aware that there are different kinds of leather, and some leather is less durable than others.

You must ensure that any leather saddle you buy is constructed from top quality skirting leather. Consider carefully the finish, stitching, and the fittings. Buy a good quality saddle, maintain it well, and you will find that it lasts for years.

Types of Leather

You may stumble across the terms skirting leather and tooling leather and wonder what they mean. Skirting leather has been tanned using techniques to make it firmer for extra strength and durability saddles and other tack in mind. Tooling leather is softer and easier to mark with tools for decorative work, but less durable than skirting.

All varieties of leather are marketed in four grades: full-grain, top-grain, corrected-grain, or split. The two grades you will most frequently see are full-grain and top-grain. Full-grain is taken from the top layer of an animal’s skin, just below the fur, and is used for heavy duty purposes like saddles or boots. Top grain is usually thinner than full-grain, making it supple, and is utilized where flexibility is important for a product, like for chaps or leather jackets. All grades of leather display a rough and a smooth side. The term “rough out” does NOT mean that a product was poorly made or made using “rough” leather. Nor does it mean the item was designed with roughly use in mind. It means the product was manufactured using leather with the rough side, and not the smooth side, showing.

How to Properly Fit an English Saddle

An ill-fitting saddle can cause your horse many health issues from chaffing to serious spinal injuries. It will also result in poor performance and training issues. If your saddle does not match you properly, it will not only be uncomfortable for you, it could also potentially be dangerous.

A horse with a poorly fitted saddle may exhibit a change in behavior while being groomed and saddled. She might show aggression by pinning back her ears, biting, bucking, and kicking.

Considering your horse first, the key factor you need to consider is the shape of her back. Does she have prominent withers like a Thoroughbred, or are her withers rounded like a Quarter Horse? A saddle with too broad a gullet will press down on her withers, but a saddle with too narrow a gullet will pinch. You must ensure that the saddle you choose matches her shape.

The balance of the saddle on your horse’s back is also important. Is it level, or does it tip forward or backward? If it is not balanced, the saddle may cause uncomfortable pressure on your horse, and also cause problems for you in maintaining your seat and posture.

You must also ensure that the saddle is the right size for you when riding. If the saddle is too large, you will have difficulty maintaining your position. If the saddle is too small, you will become uncomfortable during those sitting trots as you bump against the pommel with every step. There should always be a hand’s width between the cantle and yourself when you sit in the lowest part of the saddle seat.

How to Measure an English Saddle

To ensure that a saddle you are thinking of buying actually fits your horse, there is a simple check you can perform. First place the saddle on your horse’s back without a protective pad and do not fasten or even attach the cinch (girth strap). Using just your hand, apply pressure to the center of the saddle. You should be able to fit three fingers into the saddle’s channel, ie. the clearance between the saddle and the withers.

The gullet must be broad enough so that the saddle contacts only muscle and fat, not the spine. If the bottom of the pommel is too close to the withers, the saddle is too wide, and you risk damaging your horse’s spine. If the bottom of the pommel is too far from the withers, the saddle is too narrow, and you risk pinching your horse. Both issues will cause your horse discomfort and mean that you are not balanced in the saddle.

Second Hand or New?

If this is your first saddle purchase, you might like to consider a used saddle. Not only will this be more affordable than buying new, but used saddles are also “broken-in”, so the leather will be supple and soft from the get go. If you are looking for used English saddles for sale, you will find that many tack stores that sell English horse tack have old saddles for sale that are on consignment from their other customers. These are often offered at very reasonable prices.

However, when choosing a used saddle, it is important to ensure that the tree is in good condition, and that the saddle in general has been well maintained. In particular, check the key stress points detailed below.

Modern saddletrees are frequently manufactured from fiberglass or plastic, though some are still made using wood. If the tree is broken, the saddle is dangerous for your horse because it will offer no support and using it will damage your poor horse’s back.

To that the tree is in good condition, you can hold the saddle lengthwise against your thigh with the pommel closest, then grip the cantle and pull. An undamaged tree will flex when you pull. Watch out for too much give, which would indicate that the seat was buckling. This would suggest a problem with the tree.

Examine the billets (straps) carefully because they are usually the first area of the saddle where the leather will deteriorate. Because the billets hold the saddle to your horse’s back, it is essential that they are in prime condition. Check that they are not de-laminated (pulled apart) or cracked.

An obvious place where you will find wear on the saddle is the seat, especially where your pelvic bones press down into the leather. Check where the “piping” runs around the seat’s outer portion.

Next check the panels. Panels do deteriorate over time, so look for cracks or signs of excessive wear. The panels may require re-stuffing.

Be aware that all the potential problems listed above can be repaired. Trees are extremely difficult to repair, so expensive, but possibly less than the cost of a new saddle. Billets can be replaced for as little as $100, but replacing seats is much more expensive and will vary greatly depending upon the saddle and repair shop. The cost of restuffing panels starts at around $50 and depends upon whether the stuffing is pure wool or a combination of foam, felt, and wool.

When you buy second-hand, most sellers will enter into reasonable negotiations on price. Ideally, only put down a deposit on the saddle until you can check that it fits your horse perfectly. When you buy a used saddle, there are no guarantees unless a reputable tack shop specifically adds one. If it does not fit your horse, ou will have lost your money.

What Next?

Hopefully this guide has told you everything you need to know about English saddles.

This is a really important purchase for you. Choosing the right saddle is essential for your growth and safety as a rider and also for your horse’s health and progress. Take some time to think through what it is that you most want to do with your horse over the next few years, and then make sure that you buy the style of saddle best suited to that purpose.

Whatever kind of saddle you decide to buy, I wish you…

Happy trails!

 

 

Best Leather Horse Saddle Bags (July2017)

What is the point of owning a horse if you don’t go trail riding? Out on the trail, just me and my mare surrounded by beautiful wilderness and breathing in that fresh mountain air, well, that’s when I feel truly alive. And if there’s one essential piece of extra tack you’ll need out on the trail, it’s a saddle bag.

If you’ve been out hiking in the wilderness, you’ll be used to sticking all your essentials — food, drinks, cellphone, map, etc. — into a backpack. Obviously, that’s not a viable option on horseback, but you’ve still got to put those necessities somewhere. That’s where saddle bags come in useful. The two most common types of saddle bags are cantle saddle bags and pommel saddle bags.

Cantle Saddle Bags

Cantle saddle bags are the most popular type of saddle bags. You’ll have seen them in a thousand Western movies when dust-covered cowboys with parched throats stumble into the saloon each with leather Western saddle bags hung over one shoulder. As the name implies, these bags are designed to be draped over the rear portion of your saddle. Often D rings, grommets (holes reinforced by metal rings) or both will be supplied to enable these bags to be secured to your saddle. Traditional designs have a central strap that hangs over your saddle with two bags that hang one each side of your horse.

Pommel Saddle Bags

Pommel saddle bags, sometimes called horn saddle bags, are usually smaller than cantle saddle bags and attach to your saddle’s pommel, ie. the front of your saddle. They are often shaped in a similar style to cantle saddle bags, but have a hole in the center of their strap so that they can be easily secured to your saddle horn. Riders often use pommel saddle bags to store items they might need in a hurry because they can be easily reached while you’re still mounted. You sometimes have to dismount to access cantle saddle bags.

Leather or Synthetic?

These days there are hundreds of saddle bags available on the market, but all may be divided into two kinds: leather or synthetic. Leather is the traditional material used to manufacture saddle bags, but synthetic substitutes are now rife.

Okay, so my feelings about this are quite simple. I’ve bought my leather Western saddle, my leather bridle, my leather boots for riding in. I’m even wearing those leather chaps that make my daughter giggle and accuse me of being a wannabe rodeo star. So why would I want to add something synthetic to that ensemble? I mean, when I’m out in the wilderness with a few friends, and we decide we want a photo to remember what a great time we had, I think my horse looks pretty photogenic with her vintage leather horse saddlebags.

Of course you want to buy leather saddle bags for your horse. I think it’s a no brainer. But what kind of leather should you choose?

Types of Leather

You’ll sometimes see the terms skirting leather and tooling leather and wonder what that means. Well, skirting leather is tanned using techniques to make it more firm for added strength and durability especially for the manufacture of saddles and tack. Tooling is softer, so more easily marked with tools for decorative work, but also less durable than skirting leather.

All kinds of leather are sold in four grades: full-grain, top-grain, corrected-grain, or split. The two grades you’ll most often come across are full-grain and top-grain. Full-grain comes from the top layer of the animal’s skin, just below the fur, and is utilized for heavy duty purposes like footwear and saddles. Top grain is typically thinner than full-grain, making it more supple, and is used where more flexibility is required in a product, like for making chaps or leather jackets. All grades of leather have a rough side and a smooth side. When you see the term “rough out” applied to leather goods, this does NOT mean that the item was made with “rough” leather or poorly made. Nor does it mean that the item was designed to be roughly treated. It simply means that the product was made using leather with the rough side, rather than the smooth side, showing.

Best Leather Horse Saddle Bags

Now let’s take a look at a range of good quality horse saddle bags for sale so you can get to grips with what’s on offer.

Weaver Chap Leather Saddle Bag

This leather equestrian saddle bag is made by Weaver Leather, a company founded in Ohio in 1973 which has a well-earned reputation for high quality leather products. This cantle saddle bag features:

  • top grain chap leather
  • brass plated hardware including D rings and grommets
  • inside stitching to provide a smooth appearance
  • size: 11” x 12” x 4”

This product was designed to be spacious and practical. One young guy told me he keeps his iPad in there, along with other more necessary items, while on the trail. He stated that he preferred the more supple material used to manufacture this saddle bag when compared to other hard and stiff leather saddle bags he had tried.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend taking a tablet out on the trail. I don’t think Apple had “survives being rolled over by a half-ton of prime horseflesh” as a target when working out their design specifications for the iPad.

Weaver Chap Leather Saddle Bag with Spots

This is another well-made cantle saddle bag from Weaver Leather which features:

  • distressed top grain leather
  • scalloped flaps
  • stainless steel designer buckles
  • nickel-plated side D rings
  • stainless steel grommets
  • size: 11” x 12” x 4”

These are designed to function just as well as the previously described Weaver Chap Leather Saddle Bag, but with all the bells and whistles of the horseshoe brand patterned buckles designed by Jeremiah Watt, etched nickel brass spots along the scalloped flaps, and that beautiful distressed top grain leather — a little more expensive, but it looks great!

Tough-1 Basket Stamp Saddle Bag

These custom leather horse saddle bags are supplied by JT International, a well-respected tack distributor based in Indiana that has been around since 1973. These cantle saddlebags feature:

  • embossed basket weave design
  • size: 12” x 12” x 4”
  • secure buckle closure

These spacious bags are made from high quality leather with the aim of providing durable service.

A keen trail rider told me that she uses them to hold: an emergency first aid kit, maps, hoof pick, water, horse treats and a few other odds and ends. However, she did find the leather a little stiff in contact with her horse’s skin and needed to use a longer saddle pad to prevent chaffing.

It’s a great idea to take along an emergency first aid kit. One lady I know who is highly allergic to bee stings takes along an EpiPen in her saddle bag whenever she hits the trail.

Tough-1 Leather Saddle Bag

This is another cantle saddle bag supplied by JT International. This bag features:

  • premium quality skirting leather
  • secure buckle closure
  • size: 12” x 12” x 4”
  • available in a choice of colors

Made from skirting leather, this saddle bag is designed to be extra durable.

An amateur photography enthusiast mentioned to me that he uses this for his camera and accessories. However, he warned me that the closure was slightly loose, and small articles might fall out, so he uses a lightweight bag inside these bags for extra security, placing his equipment first into the lightweight bag, and then slotting that bag into the saddlebag.

Skirting leather can sometimes be a bit dry. When you receive your product, if you’re happy with it but find it too dry, rub it down with coconut oil or some leather conditioner.

Tough-1 Leather Pommel Bag

This is the last of the three bags from JT International in this selection. Unlike the others, this is a pommel saddle bag. It features:

  • premium quality skirting leather
  • buckle flaps
  • easy fit to saddle horn
  • size: 8” x 6” x 4”

Like the preceding cantle saddlebag, this is made of skirting leather to be especially durable. You’ll note that it’s smaller than all the other bags, but that’s common with pommel saddlebags. The advantage of these is that you can reach anything inside them with ease, so several folks I know keep their cellphones in their pommel saddlebag.

Just a word to the wise, though. If I were you, I’d use a fanny pack to hold your cellphone rather than placing it inside your pommel saddle bag. Fanny packs aren’t as useful as saddlebags because they can hold very little, but they will hold a cellphone and your wallet. You see, if you fall from your horse and get hurt, and your horse then spooks and runs away, is your horse going to dial 911? No! So keep your phone and your id on your person.

Black Leather Western Trail Horse Saddle Bag

These black leather horse saddlebags are supplied by Horse Equipments. These cantle saddlebags feature:

  • rough out split leather
  • two buckles to secure each bag
  • size: 10.5” x 11.5” x 3.5”

These bags are value for money, costing less than most other bags listed here, but they are slightly smaller.

I only know one teenage rider who had used these leather western saddlebags, but he told me that he had no problem fitting his raincoat, sweater, some towels, and a few other items into his bag when going trail riding. He also said that he’s happy with the quality, and the bag looks great with his black saddle.

Outfitters Supply Handcrafted “Vintage Bomber” Leather Saddlebags

These vintage leather horse saddlebags were manufactured by Outfitters Supply, a company based in Columbia Falls, Montana and founded in 1986. These cantle saddlebags feature:

  • guaranteed US chap leather selected to give the vintage appeal of a bomber jacket
  • solid brass hardware
  • grommets and D rings for your saddle strings
  • made in Montana
  • size: 12” x 11” x 3”

This is the executive model in this selection of saddlebags. Outfitters Supply manufacture these heavy-duty saddlebags to high specifications and with practicality in mind but only charge affordable prices.

One guy told me that when he first fastened these to his saddle, his friends started mimicking that whistling tune from one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest Spaghetti Westerns. If you know the tune I’m talking about, you’re either as old as me or a classic Western addict!

Showman Rough Out Leather Horse Saddle Bag with Double Buckle Closure

This classic look bag is made by Showman, a saddle manufacturer mainly known for their show saddles who have been in business since 2001. This cantle saddlebag features:

  • rough out leather
  • double buckle closure
  • size 9” x 3” x 10”

Showman made this bag to complement their range of saddles and other tack. This is the smallest cantle bag in this selection, but it is also the least expensive. A man I know who bought this said he liked the natural, unfinished and rugged look, and is easily able to fit a sweater, tablet, cell phone, keys and wallet into the bags together with a few other items when he goes out on the trail. He was happy with what he got for the price he paid.

Do note, however, that this bag is very basic, so there are no grommets or D rings you can use to securely attach it to your saddle.

 

 

One final word of advice about saddle bags. Whatever else you pack into them, make sure you enclose a paper that states very clearly your name and address and cellphone number. Imagine if your horse spooks and runs away and then you can’t find her. Anybody else who caught her wouldn’t know what to do other than calling the local ranger station or maybe the ASPCA for advice. But if they find your name and details in the saddle bag, reuniting you with your horse will be made so much more simple.

What Next?

Now you know all about different kinds of leather horse saddle bags, and you’ve perused the quality selection reviewed here. In my honest opinion, trail riding is the most fun anybody can have on four legs. And if you’re going trail riding for the first time, you will need to store your essentials somewhere. Obviously, you need a saddle bag, and one of those above should suit you to a tee. I just hope I’ve helped you to choose the one that’s best for you.

Happy trails!

Best Bareback Pads – Buyer’s Guide (May 2017)

I love bareback horseback riding! For me, it’s because when there’s no clunky saddle between me and my horse, it seems I can feel every powerful muscle on her back tense and relax in rhythmic order. You know how when your horse picks up into a smooth canter you feel like you’re floating over clouds? Is it just me, or don’t you feel that it’s much more exhilarating when you’re riding bareback?

But you know what I hate? Dirt and sweat on my jeans! Also, I’m no spring chicken, so sometimes after a long bareback ride, my tush hurts. And what about my poor mare? What does bareback riding do to her without the padded protection a saddle provides?

There is an answer, you know. Bareback pads.

What Are Bareback Pads?

Many horse owners love to go bareback horse riding, but they hate getting their clothes dirty from their horse’s sweaty coat and dislike that riding bareback sometimes leaves them feeling sore. Also, they worry that riding without any protection for their horse’s back may hurt their horse.

Bareback pads, sometimes referred to as bareback saddles, are like soft saddles that provide a more natural riding experience than traditional saddles but provide the rider with extra padding and grip. They help riders to keep their balance and essentially make the ride more comfortable for both horse and rider than unaided bareback riding. They also prevent dirt, sweat, and molting fur from getting rubbed into your clothes during a long ride.

Basic bareback pads are merely a pad forming a seat that can be fastened to your horse with a cinch. More luxurious examples may have multiple D rings attached to facilitate the use of other equipment, such as breastplates, lead ropes, and water bottles. Some even have pockets for storage and stirrups. There are even bareback pads with stirrups.

I would advise you to be cautious if you’re considering buying a bareback pad with stirrups. Bareback pads have no tree or spinal channel, so it’s easy for the pad to slip if the rider accidentally places more weight in one stirrup than the other. This can potentially lead to a dangerous situation. Also, the stirrup and girth attachment that goes across your horse’s spine will place pressure in one fixed spot on your horse’s spine without the usual protection supplied by a tree or spinal channel. This may cause permanent and serious damage to your horse’s spine.

On the other hand, there are riders who feel that stirrups attached to a bareback pad are a real help when they mount and are essential to help them balance. So, you need to think about your own preferences. You may want to buy a bareback pad with detachable stirrups so that you can use them to begin with but then remove them once you’ve got used to riding bareback.

Personally, I’d recommend that every rider try bareback riding. It’s a more natural way to ride than using a saddle, helps a rider to learn how to communicate with their horse, and improves their sense of balance. However, it’s much trickier than riding with a real saddle, and so I’d recommend that novice riders master riding with a saddle first and then graduate on to bareback riding with a bareback riding pad.

Since you’ve read this far, I guess you’re seriously considering trying riding bareback. If so, I really recommend you use a good quality bareback pad. But which one? There are hundreds on the market, but only one may be right for you. You need to think seriously about what’s important to you when you choose your pad. Below I’ve reviewed 10 popular bareback pads that you might want to consider when you’re deciding which to buy along with a few words of advice about each one.

The 10 Best Bareback Pads

Tahoe Custom Horse Bareback Pad with Reinforced Stirrups & Girth

Derby Originals of Ohio manufacture the Tahoe Tack range of equestrian products, including this particularly popular bareback riding pad which features:

  • suede leather reinforced fenders
  • fleece lining
  • felt core
  • grab strap attached to the front
  • removable stirrups

This bareback pad is designed for a comfortable and safe ride. A lady who enjoys trail riding told me she bought her Tahoe Tack bareback pad specifically because she wanted to go swimming with her horses and wanted something she was confident would survive the experience without any damage. She loves her pad and thinks it’s good value for the money she paid. Apparently, the pad takes a long time to dry after a swim but cleans up fine afterwards, and she now swims with her friends on a regular basis. She likes the girth, the solid buckles, and thinks that the durable stirrups are a great help with mounting. She also claims that her horse shows a preference for this bareback pad over the saddle.

As I said before, I’m a little leery of using stirrups with a bareback pad. Of course, with this model you can detach them. Some folks have told me that if they place excessive weight on one stirrup, the pad slips around, which is potentially dangerous. Needless to say, those people have detached theirs permanently.

 

Best Friend English Style Bareback Riding Pad

This bareback pad is made by Best Friend Equine Supply, one of the newer companies in the tack business founded in Kentucky in 1995.

This bareback pad features:

  • synthetic suede seat for a great grip
  • non-slip breathable base and girth
  • high density foam core for a comfy ride
  • a shape contoured to fit the shape of your horse
  • easy to clean and care for
  • additional padding on the withers
  • available in two sizes, for adult or child rider/horse or pony

The manufacturer of this pad began operations in the nineties with the specific aim of designing and then providing a better quality bareback riding pad than any then on the market. Though they have since expanded their product range to include other items, such as halters and muzzles, pads are still a focus for this company.

If you want to feel close to your horse yet comfortable while bareback riding, this pad is a great choice. A riding instructor informed me that she uses this pad with all her students because she finds it very universal for all riders and horses within the size range. She particularly likes the extra padding provided on the withers. However, she suggested that a saddle pad underneath this bareback pad might work better if your horse has a particularly bony back. The sturdy construction appeals to her very much because it makes it very hard-wearing.

Note that with this bareback pad, if you have a larger horse, say 17 hands tall, then the pad will look small on its back, and the girth provided almost certainly won’t fit. However, Best Friends do sell a matching bareback pad girth extender, which solves this problem for a little extra cost. The girth circumference ranges for the two product sizes are 60 to 86 inches for the horse and 53 to 76 inches for the pony size option. Make sure you select the correct version for your horse!

 

Best Friend Western Style Bareback Pad

This is another quality product manufactured by Best Friend Equine Supply and includes:

  • synthetic suede top for a better gripping seat
  • non-slip breathable base and girth
  • high-density foam core with additional padding in the withers for a comfy ride
  • contoured to match the shape of your horse
  • easy to clean and care for
  • handy side pocket on one side and water bottle on the other
  • convenient hand hold

As noted above, this company was established specifically to produce better bareback saddle pads, so you know that these people care, and this is going to be one of the best quality pads on the market. The supplied girth fits circumferences of between 60” and 86”, though you can buy extenders that add up to 14” to that.

One mother who bought this for her daughter told me that she adores this bareback pad and recommends it to all her friends who have horses. She thinks it looks stylish, and her daughter says that it’s comfortable and does not slide around at all.

One handy tips when you’re on the trail and alone. Do NOT keep your cell phone in the side pocket. Keep it in your jacket pocket instead. Imagine what happens if your horse spooks, throws you off, and then runs away. Will your horse dial 911 for you?

Best Friend Comfort Plus Bareback Pad

This is the third bareback pad featured in this guide manufactured by Best Friend Equine Supply. There is a reason for that. This company focus on bareback pads, and they’re good at what they do. In fact, if you check the ratings on Amazon, you’ll find that this particular Best Friend bareback pad is the highest rated of this selection.

The Comfort Plus Bareback Pad features:

  • a plush top for a comfy ride
  • non-slip breathable adjustable girth
  • girth range from 49” to 82” circumference
  • D rings at the cantle and pommel

This pad is quite simply loved by everybody who tries it. One enthusiastic rider told me that she thought riding with this pad was like riding on a cloud. She had health issues with her back and so was leery of bareback riding as she found it uncomfortable. However, she gave this pad a go and says that she is amazed at the results. Even though she owns a high withered horse, she found this pad really comfortable to ride. However, she noted that when her horse grew his winter coat, the pad began to slip backward a little. She made use of the D rings provided and clipped on a breast collar, which fixed the issue. She also finds the pad easy to clean with a wet rag.

As a side note, avoid using detergents when cleaning this product as I’ve heard it sometimes doesn’t go too well. If your horse has a particularly bony spine, I’d also recommend a regular saddle pad underneath to add just a little more padding.

Intrepid International Non-Slip Bottom English Bareback Pad

This bareback pad is made by Intrepid International, a relatively new manufacturer founded in 1996 and based in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

This bareback pad features:

  • non-slip base
  • foam filling
  • fleece top
  • fleece girth included

These bareback pads were designed with safety in mind for both adults and kids. A keen amateur show jumper told me that when she’s just riding for fun, she loves to use this particular bareback pad because she feels comfortable using it to canter and even jump her 16 hand warmblood. However, she notes that the girth might struggle to fit around a more stocky, taller horse, and yet also feels that the pad would look too big on a pony.

Intrepid International Comfort Plus Western Style Bareback Pad

This is another high quality bareback pad from Intrepid International in Pennsylvania and features:

  • breathable suede that cleans easily
  • open weave non-slip base
  • non-slip elasticized adjustable girth
  • D rings at the pommel and cantle

Intrepid International designed these pads with safety as their main concern and for both adults and children to use, but for customers who prefer more Western style tack. An experienced bareback rider recently told me that she’d bought two of these bareback pads because the first she bought went with her previous horse when she sold it on and she bought the same style pad again for her new horse because she loved it so much. She says it’s the best pad she ever used, though she’s tried several makes and models over the years, and very reasonably priced. Since she only likes to ride bareback, her Comfort Plus Western Style Bareback Pad is her only “saddle”.

I must emphasize here that although some folks refer to their bareback pads as “saddles”, they really aren’t saddles at all and should never be confused for one. A saddle provides much more support for the rider and protection for the horse when riding. I would recommend anybody new to riding to master riding in the saddle first, either Western or English style, and only then progress onto bareback riding. Bareback riding is fun, but you need more balance and experience to be proficient bareback than you do with a saddle and stirrups.

Weaver Leather Herculon Bareback Pad

This bareback pad is made by Weaver Leather, a company founded in Ohio in 1973 which has earned a reputation for high quality leather products.

This bareback pad features:

  • Merino wool fleece bottom for extra cushioning for both horse and rider
  • Herculon mildew resistant top, quick drying and easy to clean
  • 1 inch thick felt core
  • cut back design over the withers to ensure a great fit

This reliable bareback pad was manufactured for optimum quality and utility. A regular rider who bought one told me that he loves his Herculon Bareback Pad because the youngster he is bringing along sometimes gives him a bumpy ride, almost like a Bronco, but this pad has great grip and provides a well cushioned surface to sit on. On the negative side, he feels it’s a great shame they didn’t provide any strong D rings because he would have liked to use a breastplate. Other than that, he loves the quality of the workmanship.

Toklat Microsuede Bareback Pad

This bareback pad is made by Toklat Originals, a company in Oregon that has been selling tack since 1976.

This bareback pad features:

  • an ultra-soft MicroSuede top to prevent the rider slipping
  • a removable, machine-washable girth that adjusts on both sides
  • a fleece bottom
  • felt lining
  • guaranteed to be made in the USA

This bareback pad was designed to prevent slipping and provide a really comfortable seat. It is especially suitable for younger riders.

A horse breeder told me that this was the bareback pad she chose for her 12 year old granddaughter. She likes the adjustable girth, which she finds easy to fasten, and loves the feel of the non-slip surface for the rider. She considers it very well made.

Tough-1 Premium Bareback Pad

This bareback pad is supplied by JT International, a well known tack distributor based in Indiana that has been in business since 1973.

This bareback pad features:

  • a tough 600 denier Nylon outer shell
  • fleece lined bottom offering great comfort
  • lightweight so you feel closer to your horse
  • raised pommel and cantle to provide an more secure seat
  • fully adjustable Western-style plastic stirrups supplied
  • Strong D rings for hanging saddle bags and water bottles

This bareback pad was designed to be lightweight in order to facilitate that bareback feel and yet also incorporates saddle like features for safety.

A trail riding enthusiast told me she loves this bareback pad. She finds that the lightweight seat enables her to feel every movement of her horse, and yet she also feels like she’s sitting on a pillow because it’s so comfy. She feels secure while ascending and descending steep slopes, and on the flat in trot and canter. She had a few problems using the stirrups to begin with until she learned how to fasten them properly, which was not made clear in the manufacturer’s instructions. To secure the stirrups on this model, the straps must be looped around the top holder of the stirrup twice to stop them slipping.

When properly fastened, the stirrup leathers are relatively short, so taller people will not be able to use them. If you’re 6′ tall, you will probably struggle. The actual stirrups are plastic, not steel which would be better, and lots of riders have noted that the nuts on the stirrups are loose and easily lost. If you do buy this pad, make sure you tighten the nuts and maybe use plumber’s tape to hold them in place. Note that this product does NOT come with a cinch.

Kensington KPP Fleece Bareback Pad

This bareback pad is made by Kensington Protective Products, a long-established company that has manufactured tack in California since 1954. The pad was designed for maximum user comfort while bareback riding.

This bareback pad features:

  • maximum comfort seat
  • heavy duty saddle fleece
  • 1 inch thick foam core
  • an easy mount center handle
  • double billet straps for maximum versatility

A keen rider told me that he found this bareback pad much more comfortable than he had expected when he first saw it in the saddlery, and that he found it didn’t slide as much as other pads he’d tried. He also noted that he’d used the same pad on multiple horses and ponies of varied size and found it fit well every time. But he did say that after a year of hard use, it was not as soft as he’d originally found it though still functional.

I’d say a year’s worth of daily rides is worth the money this particular pad cost, even if it’s not so comfortable for him to use now. Clearly, any item of tack you use so regularly as this guy is going to suffer wear and tear. I mean, how many stirrup leathers have you gone through over the years?

However, take note. If you’ve got a larger horse, say over 16 hands and rotund, you may struggle to make the girth supplied with this pad fit and so need to buy an extension.

What Next?

So, you’ve read all I have to say about bareback riding pads and perused my reviews of 10 popular models. From what I wrote, it should be obvious to you that riding bareback is fun and will help you bond with your horse. But equally, it should now be clear that using a bareback riding pad will significantly improve your riding experience and make it much safer for both you and your horse. Your only real decision now should be which of these pads you want to buy.

Happy trails!