Common-Sense Saddle Shopping

Whether it's western, English, or an alternative-type saddle you seek-new or used, synthetic or leather-consult these great buyer tips to prepare for your purchase.
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Whether it's western, English, or an alternative-type saddle you seek-new or used, synthetic or leather-consult these great buyer tips to prepare for your purchase.
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Buying a saddle is probably the most important equine-related purchase you'll make, second only to selecting the right horse. A saddle is, after all, a substantial monetary investment, as well the main piece of equipment that sits between you and your horse. The right saddle has to fit your horse, your rear end, and your budget.

"I compare buying a saddle to buying a car," says Sandy Klein, owner of Bits & Pieces, a tack store in Bend, Oregon. "There are lots of brands to choose from in many price ranges! It just depends on your needs, your taste, and your budget. Some people prefer fancy Italian-made cars, some want a good used Japanese-made car, and some can only afford an old beater that gets them to and from work!"

And, like car shopping, researching before you buy is the best way to make an educated decision. With Sandy's help, we'll get you started.

Decide Your Discipline
English or western, right? Not quite. Within each of the main styles of riding, you'll find a saddle designed for just about any sport you'd want to do with your horse. Choose a sport, and you might end up with even more options.

Western Options
Training saddle. A high-quality training saddle has the same balance and comfort as its more elaborately decorated show counterpart. Working saddles are great for riders who enjoy their horses on the trails.

Buckaroo saddle. Modern buckaroo saddles are as much art pieces as they are working tack. Usually made in custom shops, buckaroo saddles are hand built, hand tooled, and fitted to your exact specifications. They feature deep seats, large horns, and even traditional tapaderos, which cover the stirrups.

Trail saddle. Trail saddles are designed for riders and horses that spend hours covering ground. They are durable, comfortable, and lightweight, usually with less skirting than other saddles to limit extra pounds. They also have ample rings and latigos for tying on saddle bags and rain slickers.

Barrel saddle. A barrel saddle's small, single skirt keeps it lightweight for timed events. The high cantle gives riders added security in quick turns and hard starts and stops. The tree design also allows riders to sit close to the horse's center of balance.

Roping saddle. Roping saddles are built on trees designed to take the abuse of holding a calf. The wide gullet also alleviates stress to the horse's back as he performs his job, while the shallow seat and low cantle allow for a cowboy's quick dismount during either ranch work or competition. Overall, roping saddles tend to weigh more than other options, making them a better choice for roping than recreational riding.

Reining saddle. The reining saddle's close-contact design allows riders to communicate with their mounts while performing complicated maneuvers during a reining pattern. The deep pocket of the reining saddle's seat, combined with the saddle's overall balance, also makes it a good choice for everyday riding at home.

Show saddle. Show saddles feature silver and crystals, ranging from the lightly adorned to highly elaborate. Modern show saddles are mostly built on an all-around tree suitable for the horses and riders competing in horsemanship, trail, western riding, and pleasure. Show saddles aren't great for everyday riding, because the silver decoration is heavy as well as expensive.

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English options
Dressage saddle. Dressage saddles aren't just for the show ring. They also make an excellent, comfortable choice for English riders who choose not to jump. The deep seat of the dressage saddle, combined with thigh or knee rolls, makes it secure for both training and recreational riding.

All-purpose saddle. As the name implies, all-purpose saddles are good, general-use saddles. They are built forward, meaning they're designed for going over jumps and galloping.

Hunter/jumper saddle. Jumping saddles are balanced forward, putting a rider in the perfect position for going over big, technical jumps. They're also great for galloping. However, if you plan to spend hours in the saddle at a time, you may find these saddles less comfortable than other options.

Lane fox saddle. Lane fox saddles are used for saddle-seat riding on park-type horses, including Saddlebreds, Morgans, Tennessee Walkers, and Arabians, among others. These saddles are designed to allow for a free shoulder and fancy action up front. You'll rarely see one outside of the show.

Alternative saddles
While English and western saddles are the most common in the United States, alternative saddles are quickly gaining popularity.

"People like Australian saddles because they are lightweight, yet offer the security of a western saddle," Sandy says. "They also work well for gaited horses that need room to move their shoulders. Endurance saddles are popular with people who like to do lots of trail riding because, obviously, they are designed for people who spend many hours and miles in the saddle. I also sell treeless saddles, which are also lightweight and tend to be popular with owners of hard-to-fit horses."

Fitting You and Your Horse
Speaking of hard-to-fit horses, poor saddle fit is the number one cause of back pain in horses, Sandy notes. An ill-fitting saddle can slide around, hit your horse's withers and spine, and pinch his shoulders. Ouch! This pain, as you can imagine, easily translates into training and behavioral problems, resulting in a sour and unwilling horse.

As a rule of thumb, a well-fitted saddle should fit your horse without any pressure points. The saddle should balance level on your horse's back, without tipping forward or back, and the pocket of the seat (where you'll place your derriere) should be the lowest point. (For more in-depth information about saddle fitting, please see "A Hands-On Approach to Saddle Fit" in the April 2008 issue of Perfect Horse.)

Off-the-shelf saddles are usually built on narrow, medium, or wide trees, and your average horse more than likely fits into one of these categories. If not, a custom-made saddle built on a tree specifically fit to your horse might be your best-or only-option. Or you could try an adjustable English saddle.

"More and more saddle companies are designing saddles to have adjustable gullet systems, shimming capabilities, or moveable panels for a more customizable fit for every horse," Sandy points out.

For your own comfort as a rider, you'll want a saddle that fits and works for you, too. Try every saddle you can, whether it belongs to your friends, trainer, or the tack store. Sitting in different saddles will give you an idea of what you do and don't like. Maybe you're a western rider who finds out you're more comfortable in an all-purpose English saddle. Or maybe you find that the thigh rolls on a dressage saddle put you in a better position on your horse's back.

You'll want a seat that keeps you secure but gives you freedom to move when you want. Traditionally, saddles sold in the United States are measured in inches. A 16-inch seat is pretty standard in a western saddle; however a 15- or 15½-inch saddle fits a more petite rider. English saddles measure differently than their western counterparts. A 17- or 17½-inch all-purpose or jumping saddle is pretty standard for an average-sized adult woman rider. Dressage riders often like a little more room to maneuver in their saddles, with the same average-sized female riding in a 17½- or 18-inch saddle.

In addition to seat size, you'll also want to consider the twist of the saddle. The twist is the narrowest part of the saddle's seat behind the pommel. Based on the differences between the male and female pelvis, men usually prefer a narrower twist, while a wide twist works for women. This is just a rule of thumb, though, and totally depends on your own conformation.

Once you find a seat and twist that are comfortable, you'll want to look at how the stirrups hang off the saddle. Ideally, the stirrups will drop your leg comfortably and directly underneath your hip. Avoid a saddle that puts your leg too far forward or behind you.

Shopping Options

You have lots of options for finding the right saddle for you and your horse. Check out:

1. Your local tack shop. Visit your local tack store to talk with experts in person and sit in a range of saddles on the stand.
2. Catalogs-online or otherwise. Browse through a wide variety of saddle options.
3. Tack classifieds. Look for used-saddle deals on horse-centric sites, such as tacktrader.com or equine.com.
4. General classified advertisements. Flip through your newspaper or browse online.
5. Company direct. Contact the saddle maker directly for a custom experience.

Pick Your Price Point
By now, you probably have an idea of what kind of saddle you want and what size you and your horse need. Now, you'll need to set a budget to help you shop. Going back to Sandy's car-shopping analogy, you'll want to set a realistic budget based on what kind of saddle you expect to get. "Being a little flexible with your budget helps, too," says Sandy.

In general, the dollar weakening against the euro has made saddles made in Europe considerably more expensive than they were even just a couple of years ago. Buying American saddles, even when shopping for English-style saddles, may give you more bang for your buck. But just because it's an American company doesn't mean the saddle was actually made in the States, especially if you're looking at a mass-manufactured saddle.

"While most reputable saddle companies supply quality materials-such as French, European, or Australian leather, stainless steel, and so on-the actual factories that put the materials together are in places like Vietnam, Argentina, India, and China," Sandy explains. "I was told by one of my biggest saddle distributors that if their saddles weren't made in Asia, no one could afford to buy them. Many of the mid-range saddles from American companies have their saddles manufactured in Argentina. The lower-end saddles are usually made in India, and the quality of the leather can be poor, although in the last few years, I've seen this improving."

And, even if you're on a tight budget, beware of cheap no-name saddles, says Sandy. "Any decent-quality saddle will have a mark or a label somewhere on it that will say who the manufacturer is and where it's made," she says.

Leather vs. Synthetic
Selecting a saddle made of synthetic material instead of leather is one way to save money. Examples are those made by Wintec, Abetta, and Tucker Saddlery. Synthetic saddles are easy to care for. "You can just hose them down after a dusty trail ride," Sandy says. Synthetic saddles are also more lightweight than their leather counterparts and are an excellent choice for recreational riders.

"A decent synthetic saddle can last up to 15 years if cared for properly," Sandy says. "On the other hand, a good leather saddle can last forever."

If you're looking at resale down the road, synthetic saddles don't hold their value as well as leather saddles. "I would, however, choose a good-quality synthetic saddle over a poor-quality leather saddle any day," Sandy says.

New vs. Used
Buying a new saddle has its benefits, much like buying a new car. Obviously, when buying new you can pick the exact saddle brand, seat size, tree size, and special options you want. On most brands, you'll get some sort of warranty, either on the tree or the entire saddle. Also, unless the saddle you're looking for is back-ordered, you can get it quickly, without much hassle or wait. And, a new saddle is just that: new, beautiful, and free of wear, tear, and flaws.

With a used saddle, however, marks and surface scratches are common. But, just like buying a used car, you can find some great deals on used saddles, especially for bargain shoppers. It just might take some patience on your part.

Know What You're Getting

Custom: A saddle made specifically to fit a certain horse and is built in a small workshop by an individual craftsman.

Semi-custom: A saddle that is mass produced but can be adjusted to the needs of a specific horse and/or rider.

Off-the-shelf: A saddle that is mass produced and comes in set tree widths and seat sizes.

Before you buy used, inspect the leather for cracks or mold, both of which damage the integrity of the saddle. "Carefully inspect all of the stitching, especially on a saddle that appears to be over-oiled," says Sandy. "Some leather oils can cause stitching and leather to rot if overused. Also check the seams along the seat, the bottom of the flap, the skirting on a western saddle, and the stitching on the billets of any saddle."

When shopping for a used western saddle, check the fleece on the underside of the saddle for wear. On an English saddle, inspect the stuffing in the panels of the saddle. Both wool and foam can break down over time, giving the panels a flat appearance, Sandy explains.

You'll also want to make sure the saddle tree is sound. If you're buying from a private party, you might want to have an expert check the tree-either a trainer, saddle fitter, or tack shop sales person.

To check the tree on a western saddle, set the saddle on the ground with the pommel down. Press down hard on the cantle and look for bending, which is an indication of a broken or cracked tree.

"To check the tree on an English saddle, squeeze the front of the saddle where the stirrup bars are like you are trying to fold the saddle in the middle," Sandy explains. "There should be no movement at all in that area.?Saddles usually either have wooden or synthetic trees, and both are designed to have a certain amount of give to them. Sandy says, "I set the saddle down on a saddle rack, place?one hand in the center of the seat and push down with that hand while pulling up on the cantle of the saddle. The seat should bend no more than a half inch to an inch, there should be no popping' sounds, and the seat should feel firm and have no wrinkles in the leather. If I have any question, I run my fingers between the panel and the tree to feel for any unusual lumps or sharp points.""

Buyer Beware
In the end, you want to feel comfortable with your purchase, and you want you and your horse to both be comfortable in your purchase. By researching and making an informed decision, you can achieve your goals.