Different Types of Horseback Saddles

Through the many different disciplines of horseback riding, one thing stays fairly constant: most riding is done with a saddle. But for every type of riding, there’s a type of saddle specially designed for the safety and comfort of horse and rider. This quick guide will show you how to choose the right saddle for your horse and where to get one.

English Saddles

The most freely available type of saddle all over the world is the English saddle. And these versatile saddles can be used for almost anything, but they’re not suited to every rider. English saddles can be separated into three basic subcategories: dressage, jumping, and general purpose.

Dressage Saddles

The dressage saddle is designed for flatwork, dressage, and other classes that do not involve jumping. The deep seat and long, straight flaps encourage the rider to have a still and secure seat, with the long, draping leg that characterises a truly balanced position for flatwork. When using a dressage saddle, the stirrups have to be long to accommodate for the straight flap. The flap also allows the horse’s shoulder to move more freely for more loose and extravagant gaits. 

Nothing beats a good dressage saddle for flatwork; it assists the rider’s position hugely and is very comfortable to sit in for half an hour or an hour. However, many riders may feel insecure in this saddle on young or difficult horses, as the lower leg is more stable in shorter stirrups. It’s also practically impossible to do any kind of jumping in a dressage saddle.

Jumping Saddle

This saddle has a short, forward-cut flap and is used with short stirrups. The seat is far more shallow, allowing the rider to get up out of the seat more easily for jumping or light seat. The more forward cut of the flap allows the rider to have a greater bend in the knee, which also makes light seat easier. Jumping saddles have a tendency to pull the rider’s lower leg forward, helping to prevent the common mistake of the lower leg swinging back in midair and unbalancing the rider. Some jumping saddles even have a “spring” tree, which has a little bounce in it to let the rider come out of the saddle more easily over fences.

These saddles are excellent for anything involving jumping, and can be used for schooling flatwork on jumping horses. However, they’re not allowed – or really practical for – the higher levels of dressage; and the short stirrup position gets very uncomfortable over time, making them exhausting to ride longer distances in.

General Purpose Saddle

Commonly known as “GP” saddles, these saddles are the most freely available and also the cheapest of all the English saddle types. They combine the functions of the dressage and jumping saddles to create a versatile saddle that can be used for basically anything. The seat is of medium depth, and the flap is cut slightly forward at medium length; they can be used for lower-level dressage and jumping, as well as trail riding, schooling, or practically anything else.

The disadvantage of the GP saddle is that it does not assist the rider to stay in a specialised seat the way that a jumping or dressage saddle does. However, for the novice or amateur rider, the GP is often the option that makes the most sense. It is the most budget-friendly, and allows the rider more options without having to purchase different saddles for the same horse.

Western Saddles

Western saddles are highly comfortable. Originally designed for the cowboys of old who would literally spend all day in the saddle, they are comfortable and place the rider into a slight “chair” seat – with the hips further back in the saddle and the legs slightly further forward. They have a high cantle and a pommel that extends up into a horn, giving a deep seat. This is designed to allow the rider to more easily sit sharp turns and stops as required in cutting, reining or cattle work, but it also gives the novice rider a greater sense of security.

There are a few different varieties of Western saddle, having small differences. For instance, the roping saddle has a much longer and stronger horn, allowing the cowboy to rope an animal and secure it by wrapping the end of the lariat around the horn. The Western trail saddle will be lighter and less expensive to buy, with a slightly shallower seat. All Western saddles should be used with two cinches (girths); the second cinch attaches nearer the back of the saddle and serves to stabilise it, especially for roping.

For the horse, the Western saddle is significantly heavier to carry than an English saddle, but can still be comfortable if it fits well enough. It is suitable for all the Western disciplines and can be a great option for trail riding, too, but it is highly inadvisable for use in jumping. The horn prevents the rider from folding into the correct jumping position, and the longer, heavier saddle will impede the horse’s movement over the fence. The Western saddle also lacks knee blocks, which can feel very insecure for the rider who is used to an English saddle.

Trail, Endurance and Stock Saddles

Stock saddles, similar to Western saddles, were developed in Australia for cattle work. These are also designed for comfort, but are fairly heavy and the wings at the front of the saddle prevent the rider from posting the trot – so they’re best for fit riders or horses with very smooth gaits.

Endurance and trail saddles are specifically designed for distance riding. They are much more lightweight for the horse without compromising on rider comfort. These are predominantly made of synthetic materials like suede and fiberglass instead of leather and wood, which makes them lighter and easier to care for. These durable saddles are generally quite inexpensive compared to leather tack. They are also comfortable to ride in and are highly recommended for trail riding, but they lack knee rolls, which means that they do encourage the rider’s leg to slip forward. This is not a problem for the trail or endurance rider, but for English riding disciplines, these saddles do not encourage the correct position. The high pommel also makes them unsuitable for jumping.

Finding the Right Fit

Having the right saddle has a profound impact on you and your horse’s safety and comfort. When it comes to finding the perfect saddle for you, it’s best to consult a professional saddle fitter. They will be able to advise you on the type of saddle that suits you best, as well as fitting the saddle to your horse to keep him happy and sound.

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