Try A Synthetic. We Bet You`ll Like It

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While the thought of a non-leather saddle can conjure up some pretty unappealing images for those who haven’t experienced one — and while there is no substitute in our minds for fine leather — our results with synthetic saddles were positive. When you consider the durability, care, comfort, fit, price and even the looks, they have a lot to offer. In fact, in some ways, we found they had advantages over leather.

The most obvious difference between leather and synthetic is price. They average half price or less of a mid-quality leather saddle. Your shipping costs will likely be lower, too, if you buy this way. They are quite lightweight — the English SynTack Fleetwood weighed just seven pounds. The lightest Western saddle weighed as little as a typical English leather saddle — the 17-pound Abetta Ultimate Trail Rider.

We used our synthetic saddles for eventing, jumping, dressage, hunter/jumper shows, Western shows, clinics, trails, mounted club meetings, and lessons.

Our test horses included Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, Morgans, POAs, warmbloods and mixes. Our riders covered the range, too, from a bouncy nine-year-old to middle-aged adults of more substantial build.

The Looks
Everyone loved the looks of these saddles. Today’s synthetic saddles have almost the look and feel of genuine leather — soft, fine leather at that. We believe they look good enough for any situation or competiton, including most show rings.

The Fit
With the exception of some fitting problems that are due to the basic cut of a few saddles, without exception they broke in and molded to fit the horse at least as well as any leather saddle. Synthetic saddles are comfortable from the first minute you sit in them, and the horses seemed to feel the same way.

An added bonus is that the saddle does not become permanently broken in for one rider or one horse. We could swap riders or horses with the same saddle with no problems.

Several horses that had been somewhat “cinchy” with their well-broken-in and correctly fitted leather saddles were reported to lose this behavior with the synthetics, which everyone felt was due to better molding and a flexible fit.

At first the synthetic saddles appeared to “perch” on the horse, with a good four-inch space between the withers and saddle, in many cases. However, within three to 10 days, the saddles settled down to a comfortable, close fit.

The Western saddles use the same width guidelines as do leather saddles with semi or full Quarter Horse bars. The English saddles are generally available in regular or wide. In most cases, we’d reserve the wide for a really wide horse who normally has trouble with saddle fit in this department. The regulars settled down well, even on our test horses who were ample through the upper shoulder and back, or carrying more fat in this area than they should.

Durability
Although these saddles can look as pretty as the leathers, they are a whole lot tougher. No more worries about getting caught in the rain. Without exception, our test saddles held up to moderate-to-heavy use, sometimes performing double duty on more than one horse, any given day, under trail, indoor- and outdoor-ring conditions and still looked great — without the hours spent on care, conditioning and maintenance.

Care And Cleaning
Cleaning these saddles couldn’t be easier — a few swipes with a damp rag and they’re done. If they really got dirty and muddy — something you’d cringe at with a leather saddle — the solution is equally simple. You just hose them off and let them air dry.

Creatures of habit that we were, several testers couldn’t resist trying some other things on the saddles. We tried Armor All, the vinyl cleaner, but that caused streaking and made the materials far too slippery. Another group tried saddle soap, but that also caused some streaking.

Not only are cleaners and conditioners unnecessary, they shouldn’t be used. These products have the potential to damage the synthetic materials. It was difficult to just wipe or hose the saddles and walk away at first — but everyone quickly got used to it.

Rider Comfort and Feel
Every test saddle got high marks in comfort and feel. A large part of this is due to the excellent fit on the horses. The saddles conform so well you can’t help doing the same.

An added bonus on many of the English models is the suede-like seat or knee panels. These gripped like chaps and felt secure. Many testers also felt even the smooth synthetic materials offered better grip than leather. The same superior softness that makes them mold so well also results in a comfortable seat, definitely more comfortable over prolonged periods than leather saddles. Models with gel in the seat or the suede-like material were even more comfortable — the equivalent of an orthopedic pad for your rear end.

Versatility
We asked manufacturers for saddles representative of an all-purpose type. While you might want something more specific for dressage or roping, the saddles we tested were comfortable and suitable for a wide range of activities. An added bonus on some of the English models is an adjustable knee roll under the flap. These are hook-and-loop-secured and can be moved to wherever you prefer the placement to suit a variety of thigh lengths.

Hook-and-loop attachments remained secure throughout our trial. If you prefer really close contact when jumping, as one of our testers did, the solution is simple: Take the knee rolls out entirely.

WESTERN SADDLES

Abetta Sport 20518
Weight: 17 lbs.
Colors: Black, brown.
Sizes: 14”, 15”, 16”, 17”.
Cantle: 4”.
Tree: Solid ralide, semi QH bars, five-year warranty.

Description: Nylon/leather halfbreed double D rigging, stainless steel Ds, Cordura nylon laminated shell over closed-cell foam for shock absorption. Acu-suede seat. A leather-covered 3 1/4” horn. Comes with front cinch (rear also available). Silver-plated conchos. Stirrup leathers with two-prong roller buckles that are a snap to adjust.

Contact: Action Company 800/937-3700.

MSRP: $410.

Comments: Very attractive saddle, comfortable and the semi QH bars fit a wide variety of horses. Seat was wide, ultracomfortable and very secure with the Acu-suede. Definitely a close-contact saddle as Western saddles go, great for trail or endurance. Rider secured in a balanced position. Good choice for cross-training saddle and for horses who work primarily in English tack but whose backs and withers can use a break with a wider fitting saddle.

Big Horn Cordura Trail #194
Weight: 20 lbs.
Colors: Black, brown.
Sizes: 15”, 16”.
Cantle: 3”.
Tree: Fiberglass-covered wood, 10-year warranty.

Description: Leather seat, horn, cantle and jockey with Cordura quilt-stitched skirts, fenders and housing. Full size, traditional Western saddle. Ralide stirrups with laced foot pads. Very roomy, full seat. Quarter horse bars.

Contact: Big Horn 800/282-7867.

MSRP: $425.

Comments: We felt this was the most attractive and traditional-looking saddle in the trial. Quarter horse bars make for a good fit on wide variety of horses.

Dr. J Cordura Pleasure
Weight: 23 lbs.
Colors: Brown, black.
Sizes: 15” and 16”.
Cantle: 5”.
Tree: Poly-form, flexible tree with five-year warranty.

Description: Leather cantle, swell and horn with a rough-out leather seat. Cordura skirt, housing and fenders. Traditional look.

Contact: Jeffers 800/533-3377.

MSRP: $309.95/324.95, depending on size.

Comments: Not the fanciest saddle in the test, but we used it heavily and the looks held up well. The only thing that needed replacing was the band over the stirrups. The rough suede seat had just enough grip for a secure feeling, while the seat was roomy and comfortable. Clearance at the withers may not be enough for narrow, high-withered horses but it otherwise fit a wide range of animals well.

Syntack Western
Weight: 20 lbs.
Colors: Black, brown.
Sizes: 14”, 15”, 16”, 17”.
Cantle: N/A.
Tree: Injection molded polypropylene, lifetime warranty.

Description: Smooth synthetic leather fenders and skirts, suede seat, silver conchas, fleece-lined panels, full square cut. Conventional double D rigging with cinch included. Leather horn and leather covered stirrups. Blevins buckles.

Contact: Miller’s 800/526-6310.

MSRP: $425.

Comments: Fairly attractive and definitely a well-made/finished saddle with suede seat for extra ride comfort and security. We found it was a tight fit at the withers and as a result the saddle had a tendency to sit a little pitched forward. Stirrups were hard to adjust due to holes being too small.

Wintec Weatherbeeta Western
Weight: 19 lbs.
Colors: Black.
Sizes: 14”, 15”, 16”, 17”.
Cantle: 4”.
Tree: Fiberglass. Semi QH bars. Five-year warranty.

Description: Traditional style with double fenders, square skirt and machine patterned, extremely well-padded seat covered with Equisuede. Fleece-lined side panels. Attractive conchos. Quick-adjust Blevins buckles. Double rigging. Cheyenne roll style cantle.

Contact: Weatherbeeta USA 732/650-0025 or Partrade 800/223-2102.

MSRP: $379.

Comments: Traditional good looks in a well-made synthetic saddle. Roomy and extremely soft seat, softest ride in the trial. Our main problem was fit. Like the Syntack, it’s a little too narrow at the front for many horses. Make sure you get it on trial to check fit first. The buckle holes are tight.

ENGLISH SADDLES

Dover Pro-Ride AP
Weight: 11 lbs.
Colors: Brown.
Sizes: 17”, 17.5”, 18”.
Pommel/seat: High pommel and cantle for a moderately deep seat, encouraging correct body position and long, relaxed leg.
Tree: Steel-reinforced tree, five-year warranty.

Description: A truly leather-look saddle, heightened by the pigskin-look grain. ProLite Gel seat and knee pads. Moveable Velcro secured knee rolls. Traditional wool-stuffed panels.

Contact: Dover Saddlery 800/989-1500.

MSRP: $399.

Comments: By far the most cushioned seat of all the synthetics. Wider through the seat and twist than most, especially appealing to men and cross-training riders. The pigskin-grain look also added to the “like-leather” look, and riders found it offered more grip and security than smooth leather surfaces.

Syntack Fairfax
Weight: 8 lbs.
Colors: Black.
Sizes: 15”, 16”, 17”, 17.5”.
Tree: Injection-molded polypropylene with flexible points, lifetime warranty, regular or wide.

Description: Synthetic leather with Sure Grip, suede-like secure seat, padded flaps with Pro-Lite insertion for shock absorption. Moveable, Velcro-secured knee rolls. Short, nonstretch billets. All-purpose saddle with balanced, medium-depth seat.

Contact: Miller’s 800/526-6310.

MSRP: $425.

Comments: An extremely comfortable saddle with a good close-contact feel, despite the deeper seat than found on most close-contact saddles. Rider settles in securely behind the generous pommel, and once molded to the horse, the fit across withers drops and spreads, again leading to a more close-contact feel.

Syntack Fleetwood
Weight: 7 lbs.
Colors: Black.
Sizes: 15”, 16”, 17”, 17.5”, 18”.
Pommel/seat: High, cutback pommel. Average to deep seat. The more prominent panels on this saddle compared to the Syntack Fairfax, resulting in a somewhat deeper seat.
Tree: Injection-molded polypropylene with flexible points, lifetime warranty, regular or wide.

Description: Synthetic leather with fabric seat and flaps, foam-padded seat, flocked panels with four access points for restuffing, Velcro moveable knee rolls.

Contact: Miller’s 800/526-6310.

MSRP: $325.

Comments: We found the prominent panels on this synthetic saddle meant some sacrifice in the close-contact feel, but we also found it gave more comfort and a broader weight distribution for the horse. The seat was among the deepest feeling of the group, while the combination of narrow twist and high, cutback pommel locked the rider in position securely, which was great if it suited the rider’s anatomy. The balance of this saddle was truly all-purpose. The cutback pommel and quality workmanship make it a great first saddle and terrific choice for riding schools.

Thorowgood Griffin
Weight: 12 lbs.
Colors: Black.
Pommel/seat: Encourages a correct and balanced seat, slightly more comfortable when riding with a little longer leg than would be customary for a full forward seat. The seat is generous.
Sizes: 17”, 17.5”, 18”.
Tree: Plastic Sima-tree, wide or regular. Designed with flexible points. 10-year guarantee.

Description: Balanced, somewhat deep, foam seat with narrow twist. Leather-look nylon/neoprene with suede-like, extra-grip, Nubuck-effect knee pads. Nonstretch girth straps. Moveable Velcro-based knee rolls. Traditional stuffed panels with restuffing slots.

Contact: Thorowgood (England) 44-0-1922-711676.

MSRP: $299.

Comments: This saddle encourages a correct and balanced seat and is slightly more comfortable when riding with a little longer leg than would be customary for a full forward seat. At the time we began our field test, this synthetic saddle was readily available from a U.S. distributor. However, it is now only available through the contact in England — and shipped directly from England.

Wintec 500 AP
Weight: 11 lbs.
Colors: Black, brown.
Sizes: 16.5”, 17”, 17.5”, 18”.
Pommel/Seat: Pommel moderate height, seat fairly deep. The result was a secure, well-balanced seat that encouraged good upper body position and hip angle.
Tree: EquiFlex molded spring tree, lifetime warranty.

Description: Traditional, leather-like good looks. Wool-flocked, wide panels for good weight distribution.

Contact: Weatherbeeta USA 732/650-0025.

MSRP: $379.

Comments: Even this “economy” version of the synthetic Wintecs had the terrific leather-like looks of a traditional saddle. The foam seat was comfortable and the overall balance of the saddle was truly all-purpose, just as comfortable with a long, as a shorter, forward leg. This saddle conformed extremely well to our test horses with different builds after a break-in, and the horses moved more freely in it. A unique feature of this saddle is the Easy Change Gullet system (see sidebar below).

Bottom Line
We have little to complain about in any of these saddles. And, while we have favorites, we strongly urge you to carefully read the descriptions and comments regarding each saddle for the best match in the features you want.

It was a close contest for our favorite Western saddle. There was no ignoring the quality, traditional good looks and feel of the Big Horn saddle. Die-hard Western fans will likely prefer this saddle, although the mix of leather and Cordura made it a little more of a chore to maintain.

Overall, our test riders were most impressed with the Abetta Sport saddle. It offered a solid Western design with the most comfortable seat and lightest weight. It allowed the best feel of the horse, making it a favorite for cross-training and trail riding. The Acu-Suede seat grips well and, together with the light weight, also makes it a fantastic choice for kids.

For Best Buy, the well-priced Dr. J Cordura from Jeffers is it. Although lacking some of the detail found on other saddles, the Dr. J has a traditional Western look and was a hit with our riders for durability, comfort and security.

Each of the English saddles tested had something just a little different to offer. The Dover Pro-Ride AP was by far the most cushioned ride and offered the most generous seat and twist. We appreciated the wool-stuffed panels and truly leather-like look. This saddle is an excellent choice at a fair price.

However, our riders found the Wintec 500 and the Syntack Fairfax both more all-purpose saddles, being just as comfortable with a short or long stirrup and offering good knee support.

Both saddles fit a wide variety of horses, but we preferred the more hand-in-glove fit achieved with the Syntack Fairfax, making it our top pick. Testers were able to take it off one horse and put it right onto another of a different build with no sacrifice in fit or feel and no need for a gullet change. For those on a budget, our Best Buy is the Wintec 500.

Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Why Buy Synthetic'”
Click here to view ”Typical Questions And Answers.”
Click here to view "Western Fitting Tip."
Click here to view "Wintec Easy Change Gullet System."