Flat or deep, rolls or blocks, wool or foam—when you choose a saddle, you’re faced with choices. Today’s saddlemakers offer thousands of models to fit any horse and rider combination.
Mainstream brands now include production model variations. Buying “off the rack,” you don’t have to pay custom prices for the options you want. New designs and technology make traditional flat saddles more specific for the disciplines of hunter, jumper, eventing, and dressage. Trends include more technical design in the panels, to fit the horse’s musculature, and customized support in the seat and flaps for the rider. To help you and your clients choose the right saddle, we’ve surveyed the market of new models.
FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT
The tree and panels form the foundation of the saddle. Both components must conform to the horse’s anatomy, particularly the large muscles of the back and shoulders. The saddle must not interfere with the horse’s gaits and jumping. Since the panels rest on these weight-bearing muscles, saddlemakers aim to equalize the load to eliminate pressure points, while positioning the rider close to the horse.
Lori Carter of German Equestrian Manufacturing, Inc., describes how the Passier saddle meets the needs of horse and rider: “The panel drops the front down one centimeter to eliminate leather that used to be under the head. The horse that’s a big mover has space to move, and you still have close contact.”
The shape of the panels and saddle tree help keep the rider in balance, with her weight over the horse’s center of gravity. “The saddle has to be balanced for the horse, to create balance for the rider,” explains Kitty Garrity about the L’Apogée saddles. “You want the tree to balance and not interfere with the horse.”
The Kontact eventing saddle from Albion was designed with British champion William Fox-Pitt. His goal was to remove pressure from the loin and shoulders when the horse jumps, and still keep the saddle stable.
The width of the tree and the contours of the panels conform to the horse so the saddle doesn’t rock or slide. Some new tree designs have shorter points, to free the shoulders and still hold the saddle over the withers.
Also look for a wide, deep channel between the panels, to ensure clearance of the spine. The width of the channel matches the tree width. “You don’t want the channel too wide, to drop down on the loin muscle,” advises Carter.
Today’s saddles are built on either the traditional spring tree or a molded synthetic tree. The L’Apogée is made with a laminated wood tree, as is the Antares, a popular choice in the hunter ring. Henri de Rivel saddles also use a laminated wood spring tree.
Pessoa jumping saddles have carbon-polymer trees. “The tree has plenty of spring and some movement on the horses back, but it won’t spread,” says Peggy Murray of English Riding Supply. To customize your saddle’s fit, adjustable designs let you fine-tune the angle of the gullet. Instead of a rigid headplate, you replace the gullet. Bates and Wintec saddles have the Easy Change Gullet System. You’ll also see an adjustable gullet system in the new Pessoa Legacy XP3. Murray explains the process to change the gullet plate: “Lift up the jockey flap and you see screws to detach the panels. You expose the gullet plate, take it out, and put in the new plate. It clicks in and spreads that part of the tree.” The system includes four gullet sizes: narrow, medium, medium wide, and wide.
In panel designs, saddlemakers craft panels in both traditional wool flocking and foam shapes, with gusseted rear panels now on some jumping saddles as well as dressage styles. Panels must bear weight evenly on the muscles on each side of the spine. Henri de Rivel’s new Devrel saddle line offers two panel types, described by Nina de Petris of JPC Equestrian: “The SEF is a wool flocked felt envelope covered with leather. This style panel works as a flocked panel, but has the look of a foam panel. “The new foam panel used on some of the Devrel models is a sculpted, concave foam panel that allows for very close contact between the rider and his/her horse.”
You’ll also see the sculpted panel shape in the new Alliance saddle line from Lynn Palm. Panels made of a memory foam match the tree shaped to fit the broad shoulders and back of stock horse breeds. “The memory foam really hugs to the shoulder,” says Palm. “It forms to the shape of the side of the wither and to the top of the shoulder.” Slight depressions in the foam allow the form-fitting.
Palm describes three different thicknesses of the panels to match the horse’s back muscles. “A lot of horses with some age on them start to have weakness in the topline. We offer different thicknesses so the saddle will fit by being level on the horse’s back.” With an older horse, the thickest of the three panel types makes extra saddle pads unnecessary, “avoiding bulkiness under the saddle,” she explains.
The air-filled panel, such as that used on the the Cair and Flair brands, is another option. The Wow saddle from First Thought Equine allows you to customize your saddle with over 3,000 combinations: seat, headplate width, flaps, and panels. For each horse in your barn, you can change the flaps’ positions, girthing, width, stirrup bar position, and panels. For the rider, you can change knee blocks or even replace flaps. With such flexibility, a single saddle can be used for jumping and dressage.
Of the CWD saddle, Kenneth Vinther says, “We have molded foam on the panels. The panels are shaped with the muscle.” This French design has integrated panels stitched into the sweat flap. To increase stability, billets should maintain the girth in a vertical position. Billets spaced apart in a dressage saddle can prevent slippage. You’ll see widespread billets in saddles like Courbette’s Bernina and the Arthur Kottas Champion Dressage Saddle.
POSITIONING THE RIDER
In a well-fitted saddle, the rider is able to move with the horse and influence him with the rider’s seat and back. The saddle doesn’t inhibit the rider’s movement, yet it helps maintain position. Fitting starts with the seat shape, which the rider feels immediately when sitting in any new saddle. The seat’s depth and breadth dictate comfort while helping to find the correct position.
Designers face a challenge to make a seat that fits the rider, that’s broad and yet with the narrow twist most riders prefer. “You don’t want pressure on your hip joint,” says Carter. If the rider is tall with long legs, she can order a longer flap in many brand-name saddles. And for the petite dressage rider, the new Trilogy Debbie McDonald dressage saddle has a narrower seat and straight flaps, so you can ride with a longer leg. A 19-inch seat is now available in production-line saddles. Here the designer must match seat to panels, so the larger seat can still fit a horse with a short back.
In jumping saddles, hunters choose close-contact, with a very flat seat, and the “half-deep” or “semi-deep” for jumpers. Few of today’s saddles are “flat”—almost all have inserts on the fronts of the flaps, plus cushioned knee rolls, knee or thigh blocks, or a combination of these, to support the rider’s position. Hunter saddles usually have only knee rolls stitched on the fronts of the flaps, taking up about one-third of the flap’s surface. The narrow pencil knee rolls are out of fashion. Jumper and dressage saddles may add thigh blocks that lock legs in position and keep thighs flat against the horse’s sides. Many saddles come with adjustable or removable thigh blocks to customize support. A saddle with less bulk under the thighs increases the feel of the horse. The monoflap design has a single flap (no sweat flap), a style often seen in more upscale jumping saddles, such as Vega by Amerigo. This Italian-made saddle has a flexible polyamide tree with a steel headplate.
COMFORT IN LEATHER
The surface of the leather of the seat and flaps affects the saddle’s comfort. For example, the calf leather in the seat and knee inserts of the new Marcus Ehning jumping saddle from Passier increases the “soft seat” feeling.
You’ll see more saddles made of “grippy” leather, such as embossed cowhide or durable buffalo leather. A new example is the SW Trainer from Smith-Worthington, a close contact saddle made for the long days of schooling horses.
Pessoa offers a new dressage saddle for young riders, the Anky Junior. Murray says, “It’s made from buffalo print leather, and is a much easier saddle to break in.” With a 15 ¾-inch seat, the saddle is sized for a smaller rider on a smaller horse.
Custom saddles include the CWD jumper saddle. CWD notes that at the 2006 World Equestrian Games, 24 of the 116 jumpers competed using their brand.
The new Meredith jumping saddle from Prestige offers a choice of sizing, to match the length of the femur from thigh to top of knee. Prestige offers six flap lengths, and six flap angles. The Barnsby Aurora is available in jumper, dressage, or event models, all handmade in Walsall, England. From France, Antares has introduced its Hampton Classic, a close contact jumping saddle.
New saddles continue to rise in price. Typically, expect average retail prices around $1,700 to $2,000 for a reputable brand name. In this range, you can find models from Stübben, Bates, Pessoa, and Henri de Rivel.
You can find a few new leather saddles priced under $1,000—good buys in the $900 range include the Collegiate and the Stamford from Beval Saddlery.
For entry-level riders, look at more affordable synthetic saddles. Brand names include Wintec, Thorowgood, and Weaver Leather. The Wintec 500s are best sellers made of Equileather, in both close contact and dressage.
At the other end of the spectrum—handmade saddles from Europe—you’re in the price bracket of $2,500 to $4,000. Beval Saddlery sells the popular Butet, and also offers the BZ Natural jumping saddle. At any price point, you and your clients should expect to examine, sit in, and try out a range of candidate saddles. Shops often arrange trials, and working with a saddle fitter will help you make the right decision. Many U.S. fitters—either a brand’s representative or an independent expert—have attended courses presented by the Society of Master Saddlers. Choosing a new saddle can help you and your clients benefit from the goal of improved performance, as expressed by Walsall saddler Frank Baines: “You get the rider feeling comfortable and in unison with the horse—and the horse feeling like he has no rider at all.”