Friday, 2 January 2015

All About Saddles

Following my recent blogs on Bridles, Bits & Martingales today I wanted to cover saddles, the other important element for riding!  As I ride 'English style' I will concentrate on the saddles I am familiar with as I have very little understanding of western riding!  

Parts of a saddle


  • The Pommel is the front of the saddle, above the withers 
  • The Seat is the part where the rider sits 
  • The Twist (or Waist) is the narrowest part of the seat 
  • The Cantle is the rear part of the seat 
  • The Skirt is the flap which covers the Stirrup Bar 
  • The Knee Rolls are padded and give support to the riders knee. 
  • The Saddle flaps cover the side panels and girth straps. 
  • The Stirrup bars are made of metal, positioned on each side of the saddle these are where the stirrup leathers are attached. These often have latches which must be down when riding but can be put up (closed)for lunging or leading to ensure the stirrups stay in place.

Open Stirrup Bar

Closed Stirrup Bar

Underside of the Saddle

  •  The Panels are the part of the saddle in contact with the horse's back and sides.  The lined parts (on the horse's back) are usually stuffed with wool or felt. The parts on the horses sides are usually thin to allow a rider's legs to have closer contact with the horse.  
  • The Girth Straps (just seen on the picture above) are connected to the saddle by webbing strips.  There are usually 3 straps but some saddles have just 2. 
  • These straps usually have a Buckle Guard to prevent the girth buckles from damaging the saddle flaps.

  • The Lining is usually made of leather.

There are an huge range of synthetic saddles available which in some ways are easier to clean and are considerably cheaper.

Checking a Saddle's Condition

To ensure that a saddle is safe it should be inspected regularly, it is a good idea to do this when you clean your tack!  Check for any splits, cracks or holes but also that the girth straps are still safely attached and that the webbing to which the straps are attached is not worn.  Obviously, if there is any damage to the girth straps or webbing a saddle should not be used.

Check that the underneath panels do not have any lumps, bumps or hard areas that may cause a horse discomfort or may rub.  Also check the side panels for damage or cracks.  Don't forget to check your girth too.

Checking that the tree is not broken is also important.  The tree is the central part of a saddle (unseen) and if damaged can cause at least discomfort to the horse and at the worse serious damage to the back!  If a saddle is dropped or trodden on, or rolled on it is likely to be damaged.  To check if the tree is broken you should hold the pommel to your stomach and then using your hands pull the cantle in towards you.  There should be a SLIGHT movement, but if the saddle bends, there is a noise or there is more than a slight movement then the tree is broken.  The saddle must not be used.

To check that the pommel is not broken rest the saddle on your knee, hold both sides and flex the pommel inwards and outwards.  Any movement or noise is likely to indicate that the arch is broken.

Putting on a Saddle
  • Ensure your horse is secured with a headcollar and rope which is tied correctly. 
  • Check the stirrups are run up safely and correctly so that they will not bang on the horse's sides. 
  • Either remove the girth or ensure it is fastened to the off-side straps and folded over the saddle securely.  If removing the girth place it over your shoulder. 
  • Standing on the near-side, with the saddle on your arm.  Stroke the horse's back to let them know you are there. 
  • Lift the saddle with 2 hands (pommel in your left) and gently lower it onto the horses back, high up by the withers, put it slightly further forward than needed then gently slide it back in to place.  This will ensure that the horse's hair is smoothed into the right direction. 
  • Do not slide the saddle too far back as the area directly behind the saddle is sensitive. 
  • Walk around the front of the horse and either lower the girth or attach it to the off-side. 
  • Check that the buckle guard and panel is lying flat. 
  • Return to the near-side and gently lean over to reach the girth under the horse's belly (talk to the horse). 
  • Checking that the girth is not twisted or bent gently and slowly put it up to the girth straps.  Again, slowly attach the girth using the straps, not too tightly to begin with as some horses are sensitive.  
  • When attaching the girth ensure that you use the same 2 straps as those used on the off-side, ideally the first and third but never the second and third (these are attached to the same webbing).   Also, ensure that the straps are of equal length each side ie: it should be attached on the same (or next) holes on both sides of the horse. 
  • Once the horse has relaxed for a few moments you should be able to do the girth up another hole. Some horses breathe out when you put the saddle on and so you are unable to tighten the girth - Basil does this! 
  • The ideal tightness is when you can just fit the flat of your hand between the horse and the girth.  Always recheck your girth once on the horse and then after a few minutes riding. 
  • Girths should not be used  when fastened on the bottom or top holes on both sides - a more suitably sized girth should be chosen!
Please have a look at my 'Tacking Up' vlog which went live this week.

Checking the fit of a Saddle

This must always be done without a numnah or saddle pad.  Initially you can just stand back and see if the saddle looks too small or too large for the horse. 

A saddle which is too large is likely to be sitting too far back on the horse's back and therefore will be on the sensitive loin area.  The saddle flaps will be too far onto the horse's shoulders and may restrict movement.  If the saddle is too small it will concentrate the rider's weigh onto a smaller area which may cause saddle sores.

Also, check that the cantle is slightly higher than the pommel (not too much as the rider will be tipped out of position).  If the cantle is lower then the saddle is likely to be too flat for that horse and the rider will sit too far back and the gullet may press on the spine! 

Following this initial look you should then check that the pommel is 4 fingers width above the withers (without a rider).  This will ensure that when a rider mounts the pommel will not press on the withers causing a sore.  Also, check the gullet just behind the pommel as this is often closer to the spine! 

Check that you can just fit your fingers between the panels and the horse (at the top of the horse's shoulders) this ensures the saddle is not pinching the skin.  If it is too wide then the saddle will also be low on the horse's back. 

To check the movement of the saddle you can hold the cantle and gently lift it.  When the girth is secured there should only be a slight movement if the saddle fits correctly.  A saddle which is too large will move too much and cause discomfort for the horse.

Carefully, standing behind the horse (talk to him) look to ensure you can see all the way along the gullet of the saddle.  If at any point there is not clear space then the saddle does not fit, it will cause rubs, sores and bruising!  Also, check from the back that the saddle is straight and level, ensuring an even distribution of the rider's weight.

Once you are happy with the saddle you can ask someone to mount up so that you can check it when in use.  You should check that there is still some space between the pommel and the withers and the gullet and the horse's spine.

Once the horse is moving you should check that there is not too much movement side to side or up and down when in rising trot.

Why is the fit of a saddle so important?

Badly fitting saddles can case long term problems.  The saddle sits very close to the horse's spine, any pressure on this can cause bruising, galls, misalignment of the vertebrae and life long pain.  Horses can develop a 'cold back' from a badly fitting saddle, they may become difficult to tack up and difficult or dangerous to mount.  

The fit of the saddle is of primary importance to the horses well-being but also will influence his movement and the comfort and position of the rider.

There are various saddle designs each intended for different disciplines; dressage saddles, jumping saddles, side saddles, long distance, western and racing saddles.  There is also a general purpose saddle which has been designed to allow riders to participate in several of the disciplines without having to purchase several saddles.

General Purpose Saddle

This type of saddle has a medium cut flap (compare it to the 2 pictures following) which allows the rider to sit in the correct position for flat work and jumping.

The Jumping Saddle

This saddle has forward cut flaps which allow the rider to have a bent knee suitable for jumping.  The knee (and sometimes thigh) rolls help keep the rider's leg in place.  The seat is relatively flat to allow the rider to fold into jumping postion.

The Dressage Saddle

This is designed solely for flat work and has a straight cut flap.  This allows the leg to be in closer contact with the horse's side and encourages the leg to be in the correct position for flat work.  Some dressage saddles also have longer girth straps which allow the special dressage girths to be used.  These buckle further under the horses belly to ensure even closer leg contact through the flaps.  The seat is also deeper.


Saddles are secured to a horse using a girth, there are a wide variety of girths available, both leather, PVC and synthetic.  Some are even fleece lined!

They can be elasticated on one or both ends to give the girth a little more 'give' and perhaps make it more comfortable for the horse.  Sometimes the elastic makes it more difficult to judge if the girth is tight enough or too tight though!

Atherstone girths (above) are shaped for comfort, the narrower sections are designed to fit behind the horse's elbows. 

Dressage girths tend to be shorter, to go with the longer girth straps mentioned above on Dressage saddles. 

Some horses need breastplates to help prevent the saddle slipping backwards (due to their conformation) these are also useful when hunting or eventing.  They are, in many ways, similar to a martingale but they do not have the straps which attach to the reins or nosebands.  They have 2 small straps which attach to the 'D' rings on the front of the saddle too.

This should fit so that there is a hand's width between the horse's chest and the neck strap and 4 fingers width between the withers and the strap!  The straps which attach it to the saddle should be the right length to prevent the saddle slipping back but for the breastplate to sit correctly.  

Numnahs and Saddle Cloths


Numnah's are cut following the shape of a saddle whereas saddle cloths are usually oblong.  Numnah's should be slightly larger than the saddle to fit correctly.  

A numnah or saddle cloth is not necessary with a correctly fitting saddle, however, they may be used for one of the following reasons.
  • They help keep the saddle clean 
  • They are warmer on a horse's back than the leather 
  • If the horse has a 'soft' back ie: if he has not been in work for some time and not worn a saddle 
  • If the horse's shape has changed ie: he has put on or lost weight and the saddle pad is a temporary measure until the horse's normal shape has returned 
  • As a temporary measure if the saddle does not fit correctly or needs re-stuffing 
  • For learner or novice riders that do not sit quietly in the saddle 
  • In long distance riding 
  • For a 'cold' backed horse
There are many different styles available and some come in different thicknesses like the Polypad.

Different shaped horses suit different types, I had a Polypad for a previous horse but find that if used on Basil it always pulls tight across his high withers. 

Numnah's or saddle cloth's can be put on the horses back separately or attached to the saddle first.  If it is attached to the saddle beforehand you have to do little 'messing' around once the saddle is on!  In this instance you must ensure that the numnah/saddle cloth is not wrinkled or folded when you put the saddle onto the horse's back.

If putting on separately you should first place the numnah/saddle cloth high up on the withers and then slide it back into place.  Gently place the saddle on the numnah/saddle cloth and pull the front well up into the pommel of the saddle.  Attach the front numnah/saddle cloth strap by placing it under the first girth strap and attaching it to the second (this is much easier if you have velcro straps).  Repeat this on the other side of the horse.  Pick the numnah/saddle cloth up with the saddle and reposition by placing them high on the withers and gently sliding back into place, thus ensuring the hair is lying in the right direction.  Then attach the girth on the off-side by passing it through the girth strap on the numnah/saddle cloth and repeating on the near-side.

Taking the saddle off (Untacking)
  • Ensure your horse is secured with a headcollar and rope which is tied correctly. 
  • Secure the stirrups by sliding them up the back stirrup leather and looping through (see Polypad picture above) 
  • Unfasten any attachments eg: breastplate straps 
  • Unfasten the girth on the near side and if a martingale or breastplate is attached ensure the girth is freed from the loop.  Do not drop the girth as it may bang on the horse's leg. 
  • Go around the front of the horse and either undo the girth on the off-side and place girth over saddle or leave attached and fold the girth over the seat of the saddle.  This ensures it does not drag on the ground or scrape over the horse's back as you remove the saddle. 
  • Return to the near-side and take hold of the pommel in your left hand and cantle in your right (include numnah or saddle cloth if attached). 
  • Sliding the saddle slightly backwards (to ensure hair left flat) lift the saddle up and cleanly off the horse's back.  DO NOT bang the panels on the horse or drag the saddle over the spine!  
  • Put the saddle on your arm and give the horse's back a pat to help restore circulation. 
  • Put the saddle away.
I just have a General Purpose saddle for Basil and have only ridden on a Dressage saddles a few times?  Which do you prefer?

Have a look at my Tacking Up 'How to ....' vlog on You Tube.  Horse Life and Love
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Until next time!

1 comment:

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