Saddle-Savvy or Stumped?
While it is possible to ride a horse without a saddle, using one is usually a lot safer and more comfortable for horse and rider. Not only does the saddle help me balance, it also distributes weight more evenly to protect my horse’s back. He probably doesn’t want my seat bones digging into his spine!
Finding a saddle that fits you and your horse correctly is a top priority, but you also want something that’s comfortable and designed for your chosen discipline. That said, an All-Purpose saddle can be a great place to start until you narrow down exactly what you’d like to do!
Safety should be uppermost in your mind when you’re looking for a saddle. Avoid anything that might put you in danger or cause your horse discomfort. When in doubt, ask a professional training and/or saddle fitter for assistance.
Western or English is the first decision you need to make about your saddle. After that, you can either opt for an all-purpose design or focus on discipline-specific saddles.
If you live in the middle of nowhere or, like me, in Africa, you may struggle to find your chosen saddle at an affordable price. Getting a Sommer saddle imported from Germany or a Syd Hill & Sons stock saddle sent over from Australia could leave your bank balance reeling, so it’s often worth limiting your choices to what’s available nearby.
Fit (You & Your Horse)
Some saddles prioritize rider comfort, while others focus on the horse. Traditionally, Western saddles were fitted to the rider, but these days, it’s generally accepted that the saddle must fit the horse first and foremost. After all, an ill-fitting saddle can cause muscle atrophy, pinch nerves, and create painful pressure points.
Your saddle must fit your horse correctly, but you also need some element of comfort in the saddle. There’s little pleasure to be had while perched uncomfortably on a rock-hard piece of leather!
Saddle prices vary wildly! You can pick up a basic starter saddle for a couple of hundred dollars or spend thousands on a high-quality, handmade specialty.
You can also save money without skimping on quality by looking for a used or second-hand saddle—just watch out for scams.
While the very first saddles were made from cloth, leather soon became the go-to material and remains so today. Synthetic saddles have gained popularity due to them being more affordable than leather saddles. They’re also lighter and easier to clean.
|Long-lasting, durable, comfortable, provides good grip, and naturally breathable.
|Expensive, heavy, and requires a lot of maintenance.
|Affordable, lightweight, and easy to clean.
|Not as naturally grippy or breathable and won’t last as long as leather.
The English-style saddle is smaller and lighter than the Western saddle.
English saddles were developed in Europe in the 18th century. With its smaller, flatter seat and lower pommel and cantle, the English saddle allowed the rider more freedom of movement, making it easier for them to jump hedges and ditches.
Types of English Saddles:
Key Benefit: A
Dream of competing in tails, curious about why riders love dressage, or heading down centerline? Learn all the basics about this beautiful discipline.
- Start speaking—and understanding—the lingo
- Understand how levels are organized and scored
- Identify the most common dressage movements
- Memorize your test like a pro
- And much more!
Show Jumping / Close Contact
Description: Unlike the
Purpose: The close contact or showjumping saddle enables riders to get out of the saddle and adopt a forward, two-point, or hunt seat over obstacles.
Key Benefit: A close-contact saddle won’t restrict a horse’s shoulder movement and makes it easy for the rider to get out of the saddle when necessary.
Drawback: A close-contact saddle has a shallow seat that offers little support or stability, making it harder for the rider to balance.
Whether you're brand new to the sport of show jumping, starting to compete, or simply curious if this discipline might be a good fit, you need to know the basics.
- Find out what equipment you need starting out
- Understand which classes to enter at a show
- Identify the most common types of fences
- Get 10 Rookie Tips to improve your skills
- And much more!
Description: All-purpose saddles fall somewhere between
Purpose: All-purpose saddles are ideal for equestrians who want to participate in lots of different disciplines. You can jump in an all-purpose saddle, go for a trail ride, and do a low-level
Key Benefit: The all-purpose saddle is extremely versatile and can be used for almost any discipline.
Drawback: You can only go so far with an all-purpose saddle. If you want to jump higher, you’ll need a close-contact saddle. Similarly, if you want to compete in more advanced
Cross Country / Eventing
Description: An eventing saddle is very similar to a jumping saddle but tends to have shorter flaps and more forward knee rolls to accommodate a shorter stirrup. Many cross-country and eventing saddles are also mono-flap.
Purpose: A cross-country saddle gives the rider close contact with the horse. Which along with the shorter stirrups, helps when tackling large fences.
Key Benefit: Helps the rider maintain a two-point position for longer periods than a jumping saddle.
Drawback: You can’t ride a
Saddle Seat / Cutback
Description: The saddle seat or cutback saddle is extremely flat, and places the rider slightly behind the horse’s center of gravity. A low seat and cantle enable the rider to sit deep, moving with the motion of the horse.
Purpose: The cutback saddle fits horses with high withers and a greater range of front-end movement. They are often used in saddle seat competitions where the emphasis is on the horse’s high-stepping action and high-head carriage.
Key Benefit: The cutback saddle is specifically designed for horses with high withers and a high action in front.
Drawback: Many cutback saddles actually pinch the horse’s withers rather than reducing the pressure. They also tend to have thin panels that may not adequately protect the horse from the hard tree.
Description: Racing saddles are flat and lightweight, with small saddle flaps and short stirrup leathers.
Purpose: Racing saddles are designed to keep the jockey crouched over the saddle in an aerodynamic position that allows the horse complete freedom of movement.
Key Benefit: Racing saddles are small and lightweight, allowing the horse to travel at high speeds with little interference. Rather than sitting on the saddle, the jockey hovers above it perched on very short stirrups!
Drawback: Racing saddles are only suitable for racing, providing little support for the rider and little protection for the horse. Racing saddles also exert considerable pressure on the horse’s withers, which could cause discomfort and loss of performance.
Description: A polo saddle is very similar to an all-purpose saddle, although it tends to be lighter and has a higher pommel and lower cantle. The padding under a polo saddle is also wider, helping the saddle grip the horse more securely.
Purpose: Designed for polo, the polo saddle has a high pommel to give the rider extra security when swinging for the ball and a lower cantle so they can lean further back. There are no knee rolls as these would restrict the rider’s movements.
Key Benefit: A polo saddle will optimize your performance and withstand the rough and tumble activities required on the polo field.
Drawback: Polo saddles are designed specifically for polo and will likely not perform well in any other discipline.
Description: Unlike other English saddles, the side saddle has two pommels, each of which supports one of the rider’s legs. Both the rider’s legs are positioned on the left side of the horse, with the left leg in the same position as it would be were the rider astride a normal saddle.
Purpose: Traditionally, the side saddle was designed for women wearing skirts or dresses to ride horses in fine clothing. These days, some people choose to ride side saddle simply for the fun of it.
Key Benefit: Using a sidesaddle, you sit higher off the horse, so you could continue riding a horse that normally might be viewed as a bit small for you. A sidesaddle may also improve your balance and posture, and prevent you from getting ahead of your horse when jumping.
Drawback: It can be a lot harder to dismount from a side saddle in an emergency.
Description: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a monoflap saddle has just one flap. What that actually means, however, is that instead of having layers of leather between you and your horse, you have just one.
Purpose: By reducing bulk, a monoflap saddle puts you in more direct contact with your horse, enabling you to communicate more clearly and consistently.
Key Benefit: The girth straps are much lower on a monoflap saddle, meaning you can use a shorter girth, which increases stability.
Drawback: The single flap will be exposed to more wear and tear, reducing the saddle’s lifespan.
The Western saddle was designed for cowboys who spent their entire days in the saddle. It can withstand the rigors of ranch life while distributing the rider’s weight over a large area of the horse’s back.
The larger, deeper seat, high pommel, and cantle also make it comfortable and secure for the rider.
There are just as many different types of Western saddles as there are English, but again, rookies can get away with using a single all-around saddle for several disciplines, at least in the beginning.
Types of Western Saddles:
Description: Like an English all-purpose saddle, a Western all-around saddle can do everything your horse can do. It has a strong enough horn that you can rope with it, a flat enough seat to cut in it, and is durable enough to ride in it all day.
Purpose: An all-around saddle can do everything, from ranch work and cutting to pleasure riding and trails.
Key Benefit: These versatile saddles are suited to almost every Western discipline.
Drawback: All-around saddles tend to be quite heavy and bulky, so they may restrict your horse’s movement—and prevent petite riders from lifting it.
Description: A cutting saddle has a low cantle, high pommel, and flat seat. They usually have longer, squarer skirts than all-around saddles and a taller, thinner pommel.
Purpose: A cutting saddle allows the rider plenty of freedom of movement so they can stay out of their horse’s way while working cattle.
Key Benefit: A cutting saddle optimizes the rider’s mobility, enabling them to stay close to the horse during difficult maneuvers.
Drawback: You can’t rope in a cutting saddle.
Description: A reining saddle has a small horn and low swells to optimize the movement of the rider’s hand. It sits close to the horse, enabling the rider to sit the stops, and is generally lighter than other types of Western saddle.
Purpose: Reining saddles help the rider stay in close contact with their horse. The stirrups are hung further forward to help keep the rider balanced during quick stops.
Key Benefit: Reining saddles optimize security in the saddle while allowing the rider’s hand to move unobstructed.
Drawback: Reining saddles are surprisingly versatile, but may position you too far back in the saddle to be comfortable on an all-day trail ride.
Description: Roping saddles are extremely heavy-duty. Made with a wooden tree and a large horn, they can withstand the considerable force of a reluctant calf.
Purpose: Roping saddles are designed for roping cattle and need strong horns that the rider can attach the rope to once the calf has been captured.
Key Benefit: Roping saddles offer considerable stability in the saddle, while the lower cantle makes mounting and dismounting easier.
Drawback: The roping saddle is usually heavier than other types of Western saddle.
Description: Trail saddles are safe and comfortable over any terrain. They have deep, cushioned seats, short, rounded skirts, and are much lighter than roping saddles. Trail saddles vary widely, with riders having a choice of horns, swells, and seats.
Purpose: Trail saddles are intended for long-distance rides at steady speeds.
Key Benefit: Trail saddles are comfortable and provide the rider with plenty of cushioning and support. They are also lightweight, making them more comfortable for the horse.
Drawback: A trail saddle won’t allow you the unrestricted movement you need for cutting or the durability you need for roping.
Description: Ranch saddles are versatile and robust, capable of taking on any of the tasks they might encounter on a ranch. A bit like all-around saddles, they must give the rider enough freedom of movement that they can perform multiple jobs. They usually have a strong horn for roping and a back cinch for additional stability. They are generally heavier than trail saddles and have a taller horn than the all-around.
Purpose: Designed to perform ranch work day in and day out, the ranch saddle is robust and heavy.
Key Benefit: A highly versatile and hardwearing piece of equipment.
Drawback: Ranch saddles tend to be heavy.
Description: Barrel racing saddles are the smallest of the Western saddles, and weigh a lot less than cutting, roping, or ranch saddles. They have short skirts and a high horn and cantle, giving the rider a deep and secure pocket to sit in.
Purpose: Barrel racing saddles help the rider remain balanced when the horse races around a cloverleaf of barrels at high speed.
Key Benefit: The barrel racing saddle has a deep seat or pocket, which keeps the rider secure in the saddle around tight turns and, therefore, reduces the risk of falling off.
Drawback: The barrel racing saddle is too lightweight to be used around the ranch and won’t withstand the stresses of roping or cutting.
Description: The swell at the front of a mounted shooting saddle is tilted forward to give riders more room to draw their guns. The high cantle provides support and security, while the suede seat provides grip.
Purpose: This type of saddle was specifically designed for riders who shoot from the back of their horse. Mounted shooting is one of the fastest-growing equestrian sports in the world and requires a lot of agility from the horse, who must accelerate quickly from a standstill and perform tight, fast turns.
Key Benefit: The mounted shooting saddle is both lightweight and durable. It provides a safe, secure seat for the rider while allowing them enough space to draw and shoot.
Drawback: Similar to a barrel racing saddle, a mounted shooting saddle isn’t heavy enough for roping work.
Description: A Western show saddle is practically a work of art and is often decorated with lots of silver and detailed tooling. They have close-contact skirts to improve leg cues, a short, thick horn, and a nice deep pocket.
Purpose: With its equitation-style seat, the Western show saddle helps to enhance rein aids and leg cues while encouraging the rider to have a deep, balanced seat.
Key Benefit: Riding in a show saddle may improve your position and enhance your cues and leg aids.
Drawback: Show saddles are not suitable for roping and can be very, very expensive.
“Bonus” Saddle Descriptors
These don’t really fit in either the English or Western saddle categories.
Australian Stock Saddle
Description: The Australian stock saddle is easily distinguished from all other saddles by its exaggerated knee rolls, which rather than bolstering the knee, support the upper thigh. It has a deep seat like the
Purpose: The Australian stock saddle was designed for stockmen who spent hours riding through the Australian outback. It’s suitable for cattle work,
Key Benefit: The high knee pads help keep the rider in position over difficult terrain and steep inclines and declines.
Drawback: Australian stock saddles are heavy, usually weighing around 28lbs. By comparison, the average Western saddle weighs between 10 to 25 lbs, and an all-purpose English saddle between 15 and 20 lbs.
Description: A treeless saddle lacks the stiff inner foundation known as the tree. Without this structure, usually made from wood or fiberglass, the saddle is lighter and enables the rider to sit closer to the horse. Treeless saddles come in all shapes and sizes, and you can get a treeless
Purpose: Treeless saddles give the horse more freedom of movement, allowing it full extension of its shoulders.
Key Benefit: Treeless saddles are easier to fit and will generally fit most horses with minimal adjustments.
Drawback: Treeless saddles don’t give the rider the same level of support or security as treed saddles. They also fail to distribute the rider’s weight as effectively on the horse’s back.
Description: An endurance saddle looks like a cross between a Western saddle and an English one. It has no horn, a low pommel, a higher cantle, and a padded seat for increased comfort.
Purpose: The endurance saddle was designed specifically for long-distance rides. They are lightweight and have longer panels that distribute the weight over a broader area of the horse’s back. Additionally, they also have padded seats to make the experience more comfortable for the rider.
Key Benefit: Endurance saddles are comfortable for both horse and rider and reduce fatigue for the horse over long distances.
Drawback: As endurance saddles are designed to be ridden with long stirrups, they aren’t suitable for showjumping or cross-country. In fact, you’d probably struggle to complete a
Additional Saddle Basics
Although saddles come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, the basics of the saddle remain the same.
Every saddle has a front, horn, or pommel, and a back, known as the cantle or rear pommel. In between the two is the seat, where the rider sits, and the whole construct is held in place by a girth or surcingle. All saddles have stirrups, which are attached to the saddle by stirrup leathers.
A Brief History of Horse Saddles
Even though people started riding horses around 5,000 years ago, it took thousands of years before someone figured out that it would probably be more comfortable with a saddle.
The first saddles were introduced in around 800 BC by the Assyrian Cavalry. While these were little more than pads to begin with, they soon became status symbols, and riders quickly started trying to outdo one another with evermore elaborate designs.
Early saddles were basically glorified pads, lacking the tree that prevents the saddle from resting directly on the horse’s spine. These cloth saddles were nowhere near as durable as the leather saddles we know today. They also did little to distribute the rider’s weight or help them balance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are there different types of saddles?
There are two main types of saddle—English and Western. Within each of these types, there are various saddle designs, each of which has a specific purpose or discipline. For example, you get jumping,
Q: What is the safest saddle to ride in?
The Western saddle offers more support, stability, and security than an English saddle. It has a high cantle, a deep seat, and a horn to hold onto it. It also distributes the rider’s weight more evenly on the horse’s back.
Q: What is the difference between a Mexican saddle and a Western saddle?
Mexican saddles are even larger and more ornate than the most eye-catching Western saddle. Also known as a Charro saddle, it is heavy and decorated with intricate designs, silver and gold.
Q: How do I know what kind of saddle I have?
Most saddle manufacturers stamp the details of each saddle into the leather. On an English saddle, this stamp is usually found under one of the flaps, while on a Western, it will be on a fender or behind the cantle. Once you have a model or serial number, you can contact the manufacturers to confirm the make and model.
Riding bareback is fun from time to time, but riding with a saddle gives you a lot more security and is more comfortable for both you and your horse.
If you’re just starting on your equestrian adventure, look for a good-quality, well-fitting saddle that’s versatile enough for several disciplines. Once you’ve gained a bit more experience, you can decide if you need a more specialty saddle to take you to the next level.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- Discipline Deep Dive: Endurance Riding for Rookies
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The Different Types of Western Saddles and their Purpose – saddleupcolorado