How to Choose an English Saddle

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!