Monday, February 7, 2011

Back to Basics - Saddle Types

I was ambling through the blog the other day, making a list of what I've covered and what still needs doing, and I realized that I haven't touched on any real basics (for my more beginner readers) in a long time.  Apologies for that; I sometimes get so entrenched in geeking about the minutiae of saddle fit and construction that I forget that not everyone is as experienced (or as into this!) as I.  So I'm going to give myself a firm shake and address one of the most basic issues with saddles:  what are the basic types of English saddles, and what are their form and function?

In the English saddle world, there are basically four types of saddles:  dressage, close contact (aka forward seat or jumping saddles), all-purpose and trail saddles.  Which saddle you choose will depend on the discipline you'll be riding.

Since some people want a "do it all" saddle, and some aren't sure what discipline they want to pursue, all-purpose saddles are fairly popular, especially with beginners.  Most a/p saddles should be ridden with a moderately bent leg (think of the front of your thigh lying parallel to the front of the flap), which will allow you to do a little jumping (small fences), a little dressage (lower level) and flat work; they're comfortable and secure enough for a trail ride.  They often feature a deepish seat, a moderately forward flap, and a round cantle.  Some, like this Black Country Summit, have a straighter (or VSD/dressage focus) flap:

And some, like this Black Country Wexford, offer a more forward (VSS/jump focus) flap:


In spite of being what some wits refer to as a "no purpose" saddle, a/p saddles are popular with folks doing hunter paces, low-level eventing and foxhunting (in the field or hilltopping rather than first or second flight or staff) who want the security of a deeper seat while still being able to negotiate lower fences. 

Some people look at trail or endurance saddles as an offshoot of all-purpose saddles, though by rights they're something of their own category.  They usually have a fairly straight flap and a moderate to deep seat and lots of dee rings for carrying your equipment.  The focus on these saddles is good balance and weight distribution, and superior comfort for long rides.  This is a Black Country Equiniox, which has a very dressage-y flap (but which, interestingly, doesn't show the dee rings!):

And this is a Frank Baines Enduro LDR, which has a slightly more forward flap and deeper seat (and does show the dees):

These saddles also often have a crupper bar attachment in case a crupper is needed to help stabilize the saddle.

Some trail saddles have extended panels, which means that the panels extend (obviously) quite far to the rear.  This does maximize the weight bearing area, but can be problematic on shorter-backed horses like Arabs (which, ironically, are the most popular breed for endurance and competitive trail).

Next, let's look at the close contact/jump/"hunt seat" saddle.  It has a flatter seat, a square cantle and usually a more forward flap; you will ride in it with quite a lot of bend in your leg (again, imagine the parallel between the flap and your thigh), since the focus of these saddles is jumping and riding in your two-point rather than sitting. 

Now, to confuse things further, there are "sub-categories" with jumping saddles.  Let me start explaining this by explaining some basic differences in the jumping disciplines.  

#1)  Jumpers.  Think of going as fast as you can in an arena over a course of big fences without knocking rails down.  Jumper riders ride with a very bent, "short" leg (the rule of thumb being "the higher the fence the shorter the stirrup").  There are few rules regarding attire and turn-out in the jumper ring - you can ride in a polo shirt, your saddle can be a monoflap with external blocks, your horse doesn't need to be braided and can wear ear nets and protective/supportive boots.  What counts is how quickly you can navigate the course of jumps without "faults" (knocking down rails).  Jumps are often big, colorful and fall down pretty easily.

#2)  Hunters/equitation.  This discipline is modeled on the ideal for the hunt field, and is very formal and traditional.  Riders must be in proper attire (jackets and stock ties or rat catchers), the saddle must be a traditional square cantled two flap saddle (no monoflaps or external blocks in the hunt ring), horses must have the manes and tails braided and cannot wear boots or leg wraps.  You're judged on your equitation and your horse's form and ability over fences (which rarely exceed 3'6" and are supposed to look "natural" - like what you'd encounter in the hunt field).

#3)  Eventers.  These people do jumpers - explained above - AND cross country ("x-c"); they also share the jumpers' acceptance of non-traditional looks in tack and apparel.  X-C involves galloping (cross-country, obviously) at a set pace of so many meters per minute (which usually translates to pretty damn fast) and jumping large, immovable fences made from fallen trees, telephone poles, picnic tables, parked cars, giant wooden ducks ... think of anything you'd find out in the woods or fields, or along a country road; if you dose it with steroids and set it in cement, you'll have a good x-c fence.  Ditches and banks and scary drop fences into ditches and water will be included as well. 

Now that I've covered that, here are examples of saddles for each.  This Black Country Quantum is a jump focus saddle:

The flap is set quite forward and the seat, while a bit deeper than you'll find on some jump saddles, is open enough so that it won't hinder the rider when they have to get out of it to clear a jump.

An equitation or hunter focus saddle has a straighter flap, since people who ride this focus are negotiating smaller fences at lower speeds and don't need to ride with as short a leg.  They want a saddle that will allow them to maintain proper form over fences and fit into the parameters of correct traditional-looking equipment.  This County Stabilizer is a great example of this type of saddle:

A cross-country saddle has an extremely forward flap to allow a short "galloping length" leg, a shallow seat and a swept-back cantle so the rider can get back when coming down off a drop fence.  This Black Country Tex Eventer has all those features:

The final type of English saddle is the dressage saddle.  These have a long, very straight flap and can range from a pretty flat seat, such as this Black Country Eden has:

Another open seat on this Passier GG (my saddle):

To a deeper seat on this County Fusion:

To a very deep seat, as on this Frank Baines Omni high-head:

Since a dressage rider gives the bulk of the aids via the seat and legs, the dressage saddle is designed to bring the rider as close as possible to the horse, help them maintain balance and position, and not "get in the way". 

Saddle design has changed considerably for both horse and rider.  Just for fun, here are a couple older saddles.  You'll note that they're much more basic and "plain Jane"; the seats are shallower and there's a lot less padding all around!  (I had to find these on the 'Net, since we don't have any of these venerable types here in the shop).  First is an old Pariani close contact:

And this is an older Stubben Tristan, probably German-made:

These old saddles didn't offer much in the way of luxury and cushiness; the leather was usually quite slick and the knee rolls/thigh blocks were usually tiny or totally non-existent.   You weren't helped to stay aboard with big blocks or deep seats or soft, grippy leather ...

(As we fade to black, the old dinosaur saddle fitter is waxing nostalgic, remembering with fondness and a tear in her eye the longe-line lessons with which she tortured her students, and their feeble cries of protest when she made them drop their irons ...)


jess said...

Ah, funny about your "old dinosaur" moment! I was between saddles several months ago and was borrowing an old AP saddle from my barn. It was like riding a 2 x 4! Ironically, it fit my mare FANTASTICALLY and she moved like a dream, but it was so hard I couldn't use my seat without being sore later. It sure made the saddle I finally bought (a Crosby Wembley II) seem a LOT more comfortable :)

Anonymous said...

I just looked at your blog for the first time. I have to say, I thought saddle fitting would be a fairly boring topic but you make it interesting! Lots of pictures and simple exlanations for people like me who have no clue. Well done!

Grey Horse Matters said...

I recently ordered a Black Country saddle for my hard to fit horse Dusty. It should be in this week. Can't wait to see how it fits and feels. Thanks for an interesting post.

Barefoot Basics said...

Hi, not sure if you have covered this and I have missed it but what sort of saddle (eg style not brand) do you find works best for an arab? I used to have one that was very short backed, with a long sloping wither who was also very wide across the wither. It was a nightmare to get a saddle to fit and also remain stable, if they were wide enough in the front they lifted in the back.


Maria N said...

Thank you--this was the most through, clear and helpful description I found on the differences btween different English saddle types.

I am a saddle Maker student / assistant now, and soaking up all the information...

Would you answer a question for me? I was wondering how you see saddle making as a business, and as a profession--today? Is there a future for saddle makers?

My email:

Thank you again,

-Maria N

saddlefitter said...

Maria, thanks for the kind words - glad you found the info useful.

I think there will always be work for saddle makers. While some companies are going the high-tech route and using computers and lasers to cut the components, someone still has to come up with the designs and put them together. And of course, there are still companies that do it all by hand. I think the most important thing a saddle maker can do is to be aware of how the saddles are fitting, and to listen to input from the fitters who're working with their saddles.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is a very helpful article with great visuals. We have been navigating the sea of saddle choices for my daughter recently and altho I rode as a youth, the myriad of English options was not always clear. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

saddlefitter said...

Anon, you're very welcome - I'm glad you found the info helpful. I'll also recommend working with a good independent fitter, or a shop that has an in-house fitter and a large inventory. That will give you and your daughter the best chance of finding a suitable saddle for her and her horse. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me - I'm happy to help out.