Horses For Dummies
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Each horseback riding discipline not only has its own associated style of riding, but also its own equipment. To function properly in the horse world — and to eventually shop intelligently for your own stuff — you need to know the differences. In the following sections, we get you started with the most important piece of equipment: saddles.

Different types of saddles

Most people know that a saddle is a big piece of wood or fiberglass covered with leather that goes on a horse’s back. But there’s more to it than that. Saddles come in different styles. The one you buy depends on the type of riding you plan to do. Pay close attention here; the saddle represents one of your biggest investment in your new hobby.

Knowing the parts of the saddle that are common to all disciplines helps when you’re shopping for a saddle. They include:
  • Pommel: The front rise of the saddle
  • Cantle: The rear rise of the saddle
  • Seat: The center of the saddle where the rider sits

Hunt-seat saddle

The hunt-seat saddle (a type of English saddle) was originally designed for fox hunters, those members of the British aristocracy who found pleasure in chasing foxes through the countryside, leaping over fences, logs, and other obstacles in the process.

If you plan to ride your horse in the hunt-seat discipline — eventually learning to jump — you need this saddle, because it’s designed to make going over jumps comfortable and secure for the rider. A saddletree, the wooden or fiberglass frame on which the saddle is constructed, determines the fit of the saddle on the horse’s back.

A hunt-seat saddle and its parts are shown in the following figure. These same parts also apply to other English saddles.

hunt-seat saddle The hunt-seat saddle makes jumping comfortable.

Dressage saddle

The dressage saddle is a type of English saddle that is specifically designed for use in the discipline of dressage. It differs from a hunt-seat saddle in that the cantle and pommel are a bit higher, the seat is deeper, and the stirrup irons are longer. Dressage saddles are constructed to put the rider in more of an upright position than you see in a hunt-seat saddle. The rider sits deep in the saddle with her legs underneath her body, providing more contact with the horse.

If you want to learn to ride in the dressage discipline, you need a dressage saddle. You can learn dressage in an all-purpose hunt-seat saddle, but this difficult discipline is made easier by using a saddle that’s specifically designed for it.

A drawing of a dressage saddle appears in the following figure. The parts of the dressage saddle are identical to the parts of a hunt-seat saddle. The only differences are the nuances of the design of those parts.

dressage saddle The dressage saddle is similar to a hunt-seat saddle.

Show saddle

The show saddle is primarily used in American saddle-seat riding to show off flashy, high-stepping horses. Show saddles are designed to keep the rider’s weight off the horse’s front end, so the animal can produce a lot of action in his forelegs. Consequently, the rider sits farther back on the horse with his or her legs farther out in front than with a hunt-seat or dressage saddle.

If you ride an American-bred gaited horse, such as an American Saddlebred, Tennessee Walking Horse, or Racking Horse, and if you plan to show in gaited classes, you need a show saddle. You can also ride on the trail with a show saddle, although this activity is not the show saddle’s primary purpose.

To get an idea of what a show saddle looks like and how it differs from other English saddles, see the following figure. The parts of the show saddle are the same as those of a hunt-seat and dressage saddles, except that the show saddle doesn’t have a knee roll. The knee roll is the section at the front of the flap that supports the rider’s knee.

show saddles The show saddle is similar to a hunt-seat saddle but lacks a knee roll.

Western saddle

The western saddle was created out of sheer necessity in the old American West. This quintessential working saddle hasn’t changed very much in design during the past 100 years.

If you plan to compete in western events with your horse, or if you’re simply attracted to western riding and want to participate in this discipline strictly for enjoyment, a western saddle is what you need.

The western saddle is designed to give you a secure, comfortable ride. The deep seat, high pommel, and high cantle help keep the rider in the saddle when the horse makes sudden maneuvers, making it the saddle of choice for calf roping, reining, cutting, and other western working sports. The long stirrups are meant for greater comfort during long hours in the saddle (see the following figure for parts of the western saddle).

Western saddle A western saddle provides a safe, comfortable ride.

Endurance saddle

If you plan to spend long hours on the trail, consider an endurance saddle. A cross between an English saddle and a western saddle, endurance saddles combine the best of both worlds. They are light and easy to lift like an English saddle, and thus give the horse less weight to carry around. The seat is deep and comfortable like a western saddle, and some have high pommels and even saddle horns for extra security. These saddles also have more D-rings to secure the kinds of items you need on a long trail ride, such as a water bottle, saddle pack, and lead rope.

Endurance saddles come in a variety of designs for a variety of tastes. The following figure shows a typical endurance saddle.

endurance saddle The endurance saddle combines the best features of an English saddle and a western saddle.

Saddle pads

Saddle pads protect the horse’s back from rubbing and chafing, and they protect the saddle from sweat. Regardless of whether you’re riding English or western, you need to buy a good saddle pad or two to place underneath your saddle when you ride. Two popular types are:
  • English pads: The type of pad you need depends on the style of English riding you plan to do. Hunt-seat riders typically use white synthetic fleece pads underneath their saddles. Dressage riders usually use white square-quilted cotton pads called dressage pads, and saddle-seat riders typically use either no pad at all or a thin cotton pad.
  • Western pads: For a western saddle, you need a western pad. Most western pads are made from inch-thick (or thicker) synthetic fleece or felt. Many of these pads come in decorative designs. You can also get just a plain white-foam western pad and put a thin Navajo-style blanket on top of it.
Whatever type of pad you use, keep it clean by washing it regularly, either in a washing machine or by hand (don’t put it in the dryer unless you want it to shrink). If not kept clean, a dirty pad not only starts to smell bad, but it also is likely to irritate your horse’s back.

Buying a saddle the smart way

A saddle is a big-ticket item — at least as far as horse equipment goes. That’s why you need to do some homework before you buy. Here’s our advice on buying a saddle:

  • Be certain that you’re comfortable with the discipline you choose before you invest in a saddle. Take some lessons in that type of saddle first to be sure that you like how it feels.
  • Take an experienced horse person with you when you go saddle shopping. You need that person’s expertise to help you make a good decision.
  • Buy your saddle only after you buy or lease your horse, because the saddle needs to fit the horse you’re riding.
  • Buy the best saddle you can afford, because you’re making a long-term investment. Spending money on a quality saddle now pays off later.
  • Research the brand names of saddles made for your discipline. Contact the manufacturers and ask them about the features of their products. Survey other riders in your discipline to see which brands they prefer.
  • Purchase a saddle with a return policy. You need time to try the saddle on your horse before you commit to keeping it (see the following section for more information on fitting a saddle). This practice goes for used saddles and new ones.
  • Have a trainer or independent saddlemaker inspect the saddletree during your trial period whenever you’re buying a used saddle to make sure the frame is not broken.
  • Make sure the saddle fits your rear end. The seats of saddles come in different sizes, measured in inches (a woman of average size and weight typically fits in a 15- to 16-inch seat on a Western saddle, and a 17-inch seat on an English model). Try sitting in the saddle before you take it home (see the next section for more information).
  • Consider having a saddle custom-made whenever you can’t find a saddle that fits both you and your horse. Although you’ll spend more than if you buy a saddle off the rack, it’s worth the money. Contact a local tack store for a referral to a saddlemaker in your area.

English saddles do not include the stirrup leathers, stirrup irons, and girths. You need to purchase these items separately. The purchase of a western saddle always includes stirrups and usually includes cinches; however, you may want to upgrade to a better cinch if the one that comes with your saddle isn’t of high quality.

Ensure your saddle fits horse and rider

Saddle shopping is more than just finding a nice-looking saddle in your price range. You have to make sure that the saddle fits you and your horse before you commit to buying it.

Fitting the horse

As far as the horse is concerned, a saddle that doesn’t fit correctly can result in sore back muscles, and a corresponding bad attitude to go with it.

Finding a saddle that fits your horse takes some work. Even though saddle manufacturers make saddletrees in different sizes (wide, medium, and narrow), each horse is an individual and may not fit into a saddle that corresponds to the apparent width of the horse’s back.

For that reason, when you buy a saddle, take it on a trial basis so you can be sure that it fits. During that trial period, follow the steps outlined in the sections that follow to determine the saddle’s fit and enlist an experienced horse person to help you determine the fit of the saddle. Saddle fitting can be tricky, even for the most experienced riders.

The true test of whether a saddle really fits your horse is time and usage. Ride the horse in the saddle over a period of time, and periodically check his back for soreness. You do this by using your fingertips to apply medium pressure along the horse’s back as you move your hand along the muscles on either side of the spine. If your horse flinches under the pressure, he may have soreness from the saddle. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian or an equine chiropractor to check him out.

English saddles

To determine whether an English saddle fits your horse, follow these steps:
  1. Put the saddle on the horse without using a saddle pad. Tighten the girth so that the saddle is comfortably secure.
  2. Have someone sit in the saddle with his or her feet in the stirrups.
  3. Using a flat hand, slide your fingers underneath the pommel, near the horse’s withers (the rise as the base of neck, where it joins the back). Your fingers should fit comfortably between the horse and saddle. Be certain that you can place at least three fingers between the horse’s withers and the arch below the pommel.
  4. Have a helper lift the horse’s left foreleg and pull it forward while your fingers are in between the top of the horse’s shoulder blade and the pommel. As the horse’s shoulder moves, make sure the saddle doesn’t impede shoulder movement. Perform the same test on the horse’s right side.
  5. Stand behind the horse and look through the saddle (between the underside of the saddle and the horse’s back). If the saddle fits, you should see a tunnel of light shining through. If you don’t see any light, the saddle is too snug. You likewise need to make sure that the saddle isn’t too long for the horse. The seat panel shouldn’t reach past the main part of the horse’s back onto the loins.

Western saddles

To make sure that a western saddle fits correctly, follow these steps:
  1. Place the saddle on the horse’s back with a one-inch thick (or so) saddle pad underneath it. Tighten the cinch so that it’s snug but comfortable.

    When you try to tighten the cinch, you may find that it’s too short for the horse’s barrel. Don’t reject the saddle simply because the cinch is too short. If you really like the saddle and it fits, you can always buy a longer, replacement cinch. Meanwhile, borrow a cinch that fits so you can continue to try out the saddle.

  2. Have a rider sit in the saddle with his or her feet in the stirrups. Be sure that you can fit at least three fingers between the arch of the pommel and the horse’s withers.
  3. Examine the width of the saddletree, or frame, as it sits on the horse and compare it with the shape of the horse’s back. On a horse with a wide back and lower withers, the tree needs to be wide. On a narrower back with higher withers, the tree shouldn’t be too wide. Place your fingers sideways (on a flat hand) between the saddle and the top of the horse’s shoulder to help determine the width of the tree. If the fit is so tight that you can’t squeeze your fingers between the saddle and the top of the horse’s shoulder, the tree is too wide for your horse. If you can put your entire hand between the saddle and the top of the horse’s shoulder, the tree is too narrow.

Fitting the rider

The saddle has to fit the horse, sure, but it also needs to fit you. Otherwise, you’ll be miserable when you ride. The good news is that finding a saddle that suits you is much easier than finding one that suits your horse.

The seats of English and western saddles are measured in inches. If you’re taking lessons, or using a friend’s saddle and you like the feel of it, find out the measurement of the seat. Armed with this information, you can rule out saddles that don’t have the same seat measurement. You can also try sitting in different saddles in a tack shop and take note of which size suits you best.

English saddles

To determine whether an English saddle fits you, try it out in the store or on the horse, whichever is easier. We think you need try several saddles in the store first so that you don’t find one that fits your horse perfectly but doesn’t work for you.

Sit in the seat with your stirrups at the length you prefer and gauge how comfortable the saddle feels. You need to have about four inches of saddle in front of your body and four inches behind it.

If you like the way the saddle feels and you take it home to try on your horse, check the fit on the horse’s back first. If it fits your horse, then put a pad under the saddle and take it for a spin to see how it feels. Ask a trainer or other person experienced in English riding to watch you and point out any problems with the saddle that he or she may see.

Western saddles

Western saddles usually are easy to try out in the store, because they’re often displayed on wooden sawhorses. If for some reason you can’t try the saddle on a sawhorse, take it home and try it on your real horse. Make sure that it fits your horse’s back first.

Adjust your stirrups to the proper length. Sit in the saddle with your feet in the stirrups, and judge the comfort of the saddle. You need to have about four inches in between the front of your body and the pommel. Your derriere needs to rest against the base of the cantle but not be squashed against the rise of the cantle.

If the saddle appears to fit you and your horse upon initial inspection, get on, and ride in it. After half an hour of riding, it still should feel comfortable.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an awardwinning freelance writer specializing in equine subjects. She has authored articles on various equine topics in a number of horse publications, including Western Horseman, Horses USA, Thoroughbred Times, Appaloosa Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Veterinary Product News, and USDF Connection magazines. She has written five horse books besides Horse Health & Nutrition For Dummies, including Horses For Dummies, 2nd Edition (Wiley), Horseback Riding For Dummies (Wiley), and Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House).
In addition to her experience as an equine writer, she’s also a former Managing Editor of Dog Fancy magazine and a former Senior Editor of the American Kennel Club Gazette. She has authored more than 100 articles on the subject of animals and has written several books on various kinds of pets.
Audrey has been involved with horses since the age of 9. She has owned and cared for horses throughout her life, and has trained in both Western and English disciplines. She currently participates in competitive trail riding. Audrey resides in Norco, California.

Kate Gentry-Running, DVM, CVA, is a practicing veterinarian with 27 years of experience and an emphasis in equine integrative medicine. She has a particular passion for educating horse owners.
Dr. Running received her veterinary degree in 1980 from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. She was certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2001 and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine at the Chi Institute in Gainesville, Florida.
Dr. Running breeds and trains cutting horses at her ranch in Tolar, Texas.

Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of seven books about horses, she has also contributed to Thoroughbred Times, Horse & Rider, and many other animal magazines.

Janice Posnikoff, DVM, is a highly respected equine veterinarian with over 20 years experience. She is a graduate of the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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