Riding aside begins with finding the right saddle. As with any saddle, improper construction or fit can result in injury to you or your horse. Sidesaddles on the market today vary wildly in age, style, quality, function, and condition. Many of us have a stereotypical image of the sidesaddle rider in formal hunt attire, galloping through the countryside. Although much activity is English, there is also growing interest Western and period (historical) sidesaddle riding.
Sidesaddles come in endless varieties, much like cross-saddles. To confuse the matter, at first glance, it may even be difficult to tell what sort of saddle you're looking at. English, Western, and period sidesaddles all have the same basic shape-because, as they say, "Form follows function."
The surest way to determine what sort of sidesaddle you're looking at is to examine the tree, and how the saddle is kept on the horse. An English saddle will be fairly plain on the outside. Under the flaps you find the typical three billets of any English saddle. Most often there is a fourth, in front of the three girth billets, mounted lower. This is for the balance girth. On either side, you should find "points," or vertical elongations near the front of the tree. On the nearside, they are in the area of the balance girth billet, while on the offside they are shorter. They are leather-covered, and usually in what almost looks like their own pockets.
Western sidesaddles often have a "rim" about the edge, mirroring the higher cantle of an astride Western saddle. Most have at least a small amount of ornamentation, and some are richly decorated with silver and tooling. Lift up the flap, and there is the normal rigging for a Western saddle. Sometimes it is center-fire, though the saddle will be more stable if it has double rigging, or built to accommodate a balance girth.
Not every 'gussied-up' saddle is Western, though. A large number of saddles, or reproductions of them, in circulation today predate an "English" and "Western" distinction. Different groups call these saddles different things: "plantation," "English pleasure," and the eBay favorite, "lovely old ladies' antique." None of these is incorrect, but I prefer the term "period," as these saddles are most often used for historical costumes in some way. They may have from one to three pommels; tooled, stamped, stitched, or painted designs; velvet and tapestry seats; a rail around the offside; attached girths or saddlecloths; large flaps, and so on. Most only have one or two billets, and no balance strap. Often in need of restoration, they are the most beautiful--but also most difficult to fit and ride--of sidesaddles.
What to look for when purchasing any sidesaddle:
1) The tree. Is it solid (as it should be), or does it flex? Most English sidesaddles have "points" extending from the tree, with the one on the left being longer. These stabilize the saddle, helping to prevent it from rolling while further distributing its weight. Western sidesaddles have wide bars, like astride saddles. Do these give when squeezed together, or are they firm enough to hold the saddle in place?
2) The seat. The bars of the tree should be straight, not twisted or skewed in any way. Though the rider has both legs on one side of the horse, your derriere is kept square to the horse's back. A saddle with a crooked tree or that forces you into a twisted position is likely to hurt your horse's back, if not yours. The seat should also be level. If you have a feeling that you are sitting uphill, downhill, to the left or right, first check the padding. The problem might be solved with re-stuffing. However, many older saddles were built to "cradle" the rider's seat, raising her right leg. Finally, the seat should be smooth, with no bumps or ridges pressing into your leg.
3) Leaping head. The fixed head is the upright, immobile pommel the right leg is hooked around. In contrast, a leaping head curves over the left thigh and is screwed into the saddle. It was developed for jumping, or leaping as it used to be called. Though not a necessary part of a saddle, the beginning or very active rider will find a leaping head invaluable for security.
4) Balance strap and girth or double rigging. The balance strap is a long billet hanging from the offside of the saddle, near the cantle. One end of the balance girth attaches to it, the other to a billet in front of the nearside girth billets. It also helps hold the saddle in place. The rear cinch of a Western sidesaddle fills the same function.
5) Measurements. In the US, the length of a sidesaddle's seat is measured from the front of the fixed (upright) pommel to the center of the cantle edge. This distance corresponds to the distance from the back of your knee to the edge of your derriere when seated on a level surface. Another common measurement is the width of the area the right thigh rests on. Don't worry if the measurements don't exactly match yours. The only way you'll know for certain if a saddle fits you is to sit in it.
6) Return policy. If this saddle doesn't fit you or your horse, can you return it? Most reputable saddlers allow a short trial period. Have the terms and conditions of return in writing, or you may find yourself literally saddled with a costly mistake.
There are, of course, an infinite variety of saddles. Some, designed for flat riding at shows, do not have balance straps. Many older saddles do not have leaping heads or level seats. Some have multiple sockets for the leaping head. A few sidesaddles were built to be ridden on the offside, or are even reversible. Depending on your needs, any of these may work for you.
Remember, price is not always a guarantee of quality! Neither is country of origin. High-priced beautiful looking sidesaddles are available - used and new, foreign and domestic - but poorly built or cared for. Cheap, poorly-made Pakistani and Indian saddles abound. They may have fixed pommels angled to dig into the right thigh, billets too far back, rivets and nails barely covered by leather. However, there are some good ones available made in these countries. Yet there are many good saddles available. At least two companies have prototypes out for production of new models. The internet makes finding used saddles ever simpler. The best advice of all is the oldest - Caveat Emptor! Do some research, ask questions, know the return policy. Would you buy an astride saddle any other way? Finding the right sidesaddle may take perseverance, but you are investing in your horse's safety and comfort - and yours.