Whether you ride English or Western, the saddle is designed for comfort and security. However, Western and English saddles, while both offering these same functions, look very different from one another.
The Western saddle was designed for cowboys who spent long days riding the range, driving and working cattle. Leather Western saddles are much heavier than English saddles but the weight of both saddle and rider is spread over a larger area of the horse's back, which makes it less tiring for the horse. The contoured cantle, the fenders and stirrups keep the rider secure and comfortable in the saddle. The most obvious feature is the horn which, contrary to many beginning riders' belief, is not for their benefit but is used by the rider when working cattle.
Western saddles are built on either wooden trees covered in fiberglass or rawhide, or a material called ralide which is a polyethelene. Most are covered with leather, although there are now lighter weight synthetic saddles available. The seat is often covered with split leather, or suede. The lining, or underneath of the saddle can be sheepskin, wool or acrylic. Many western saddles are decorated with ornate carving in the leather and often are decorated with silver.
To the uninitiated, (and I have to admit I am one of these - but I'm learning!) all Western saddles look alike, but there are specialty saddles available for pleasure or trail, roping, reining etc. all of which have slightly different features (such as a more or less pronounced horn, different balance etc.) making them more suited to a particular activity. This is not to say that you cannot go for a trail ride in a roping saddle, just that some saddles are designed to be more practical for certain things.
English saddles offer a closer contact with the horse's back than does the Western saddle. They
are considerably lighter than Western saddles and the synthetic ones are even lighter. English saddles are built on either a laminated wooden tree reinforced with steel or a synthetic tree. The saddles are covered with unadorned leather or in the case of synthetic saddles, they are covered with either a leather-look or fabric covering. Many years ago the panels of English saddles were stuffed with horse hair or kapok. Nowadays most English saddles are stuffed with either closed cell or other type of foam or a mixture of wool and acrylic fibers, depending on the style of the saddle.
Like Western saddles, there are different designs of English saddle, each suited to a different activity. The longer, straighter flaps and deep seat of the Dressage saddle place the rider in a more upright position which is desirable in dressage and place the legs close to the horse's sides to enable the rider to give subtle aids. Close contact jumping saddles have a shallower seat and more forward flaps, allowing the rider to easily take up their jumping position and giving them security over fences. Some have added design elements to make them more stable while jumping. For riders that like to do both dressage and jumping, the saddle of choice is the General Purpose, or All-Purpose saddle. These saddles offer a deeper seat than close contact jumping saddles, though not as deep as dressage saddles. The flaps are somewhere between those of a dressage or jumping saddle, giving comfort and security to the rider whether they are riding on the flat or if they choose to jump. These saddles are often used by lower level eventers, who compete in all three aspects of eventing, but who are not ready for the financial outlay of purchasing separate saddles for the dressage and jumping phases.
There is another style of riding which demands yet another design of saddle - Saddleseat Equitation for which the Lane Fox saddle is used. Designed with straight flaps, a flat seat and no knee rolls for the rider, the Lane Fox is designed to show off the shoulders and the action of horses shown in Saddleseat classes, such as Morgan, Tennessee Walkers and Saddlebreds.