Once you have purchased your horse, probably the single most expensive piece of equipment that you will buy is a saddle. That fact alone is reason enough to choose carefully when selecting a saddle, although it's not the only reason, as you'll see later.
This article is not meant to tell you which saddle to buy, but to point out some of the factors you should consider when making your own decision.
The first thing to decide is which style of saddle you need. Often the sport in which you participate will dictate your choice of saddle. Dressage, show jumping, western pleasure and saddleseat classes all require very distinctive styles of saddle.
In my Saddle Facts article, you'll find information about the different styles of both english and western saddles and the activities for which they are best suited.
However, the choice may not always be so simple. For example, riders who enjoy riding their horses around the trails may do so in either a general purpose english saddle or a western trail saddle. In cases like this, you have to consider what else you like to do. If you mainly trail ride, but like to feel the exhilaration of jumping over fallen logs you meet on the way, you might decide to choose a general purpose english saddle.
When selecting a saddle for my Percheron mare I ended up choosing a western trail saddle, even though I usually ride english. The reasons I selected this saddle included the fact that I don't foresee jumping with this mare, and that Frank has stated he wouldn't be seen dead in an english saddle. Add the fact that I was able to find a western saddle with a extra-wide gullet to fit this draft mare and the choice was made.
Other choices not mentioned above are Australian saddles, which come in a western-type with a horn and also a version without a horn. They are popular with pleasure and endurance riders. Speaking of endurance riders, there are specially designed endurance saddles available, built for comfort on long-distance rides.
Leather or Synthetic?
Horse owners are almost spoiled for choice these days. When synthetic saddles were first introduced, they were covered in a nylon fabric and often came in bright colors which meant that they weren't acceptable for showing. Now they are made of synthetic leather and suede materials and look like traditional saddles. Other advantages to synthetic saddles are that they are very lightweight and also easy to clean. They are available in a wide choice of styles, both english and western. You can still get synthetic saddles in snazzy colors if you wish.
Leather is the traditional material from which saddles are made. However, not all leather is created equal and the saddle that might seem like a bargain may turn out to be made of poor quality, imported materials. Always look for good quality leather and pay attention to the finish, the stitching and the fittings such as billet straps. Buy the best quality you can afford, look after it well and it will last for many years.
Fit the Horse, Fit the Rider
A saddle that doesn't fit your horse properly can give rise to all sorts of training and health problems. A saddle that doesn't fit you properly will be uncomfortable to ride in and will throw you out of position.
The main feature of the saddle which dictates whether it will fit your horse or not is the width of the gullet. All horses' backs are not created equal, ranging from the prominent withers of the Thoroughbred to the rounded, mutton withers often seen in Arabians and Quarter Horses. If the saddle you choose has a gullet that is too wide, the saddle will press down on the withers. If the gullet is too narrow, the saddle will pinch.
Other points to consider are the balance of the saddle when it is on the horse, are the pommel and cantle level, or does the saddle tip backward or forward. A saddle that doesn't sit level will create uncomfortable pressure for your horse, as well as making it difficult for you to maintain your position.
As well as fitting the horse, it's important that the saddle fit the rider. A saddle that is too small will cause discomfort as you bump against the pommel at every stride (believe me, I've been there) A saddle that is too large will have you swimming around trying to maintain your position. Ideally you should be able to place your flat hand between you and the cantle when seated in the lowest part of the seat.
New or Used?
If you are just getting started in the horse world, and trying to keep expenses down, you might wish to consider a used saddle. Used saddles have the advantage of not needing a "break-in" period and the leather, provided it has been well maintained, will already be soft, supple and ready for use.
Many tack stores take used saddles on consignment and sell them at very reasonable prices. As explained in this article by Tim Raisbeck, price and fit are not the only considerations when selecting a used saddle. You also need to check the condition of the tree, the key stress points and the condition of the leather.