Saddle Construction

General purpose saddleEver wondered how an English saddle is constructed? This is a guide to the parts of a saddle and the different types available.

The frame around which a saddle is built is called the tree and this determines the shape of saddle and its suitability for different styles of riding.

Trees are usually made of laminated beechwood strengthened with steel, although synthetic materials are becoming more common. The tree consists of an arch at the fronted the saddle (the pommel), attached to a loop which forms the seat. The sides of the loop lie either side of the spine and, to avoid touching the spine at the back of the saddle, the loop arches up to form the cantle. The ends of the front arch (which extend below the loop) are called the points.

Saddle gullet The width of the arch defines the fitting - narrow, medium or wide. No matter how much padding is subsequently added, if the tree is the wrong width there will be pressure on the withers or spine. The channel which runs down the underside of the saddle is called the gullet which should be at least 2 inches (5 cm) wide to avoid pressure on the spine.

Most modern saddles have a spring tree. The spring is a light band of metal attached from each side of the pommel to the sides of the cantle. This allows a small degree of flexibility, making the rider more comfortable and the horse more responsive to seat aids.

Stirrup safety bar The stirrup bars are attached to each side of the tree arch. For strength, they are usually made of forged steel and stamped as such. Most bars have a safety catch which was originally intended to be closed when riding, as stirrup leathers easily slipped off. However, this is unlikely to happen with modern saddles and it is far safer to leave the safety catch open. If your foot is caught in the stirrup during a fall the leather should then slip off and save you from being dragged. It is also quite easy to catch the stirrup on a gate latch as you go through a narrow gateway – it is much better for the stirrup leather to pull off than to have a horse panicking because he finds himself trapped in a gateway.

Girth straps The dip of the seat is created by stretching webbing across the tree, and from pommel to cantle. Before being covered with leather, three girth straps are attached. Two are attached to a piece of web which passes over the waist (the narrowest part of the saddle) and the other is attached to a web either wound round two sides of the tree or fastened over it. Using two straps on separate webbing means that, should the web break, the girth is still partly attached. Dressage saddles have just two long straps.

The panels extend down on either side to protect the horse from the girth buckle. On older saddles the stuffing extended to the bottom of the panel but nowadays the desire for closer contact with the horse has reduced the side stuffing to just a knee and thigh roll to help keep the rider's leg in position. In practice, the thigh roll has little effect (although it does prevent the girth slipping back) but the size and shape of the knee roll is quite significant. As the stirrups are shortened the rider's knee moves further forward. If the knee then rests on padding the rider loses some contact with the horse. On the other hand, when the stirrups are long the knee roll may be so far in front of the knee that it gives no support at all. Different types of saddle are made by altering the angle (or cut) of the front of the panel.

The remaining parts of the saddle prevent the rider's leg being rubbed by buckles. The saddle flap protects the leg from the girth buckles and is itself protected by the girth guard. The skirt is the flap which covers the stirrup leather buckle.

Types of saddle

The general purpose (GP) saddle, also called an eventing saddle, is suitable for a range of activities and is the most popular style. There is a considerable range of cuts but usually the angle of the pommel is about 45 degrees. This means that the stirrup bar is positioned for riding with either a long or short stirrup.

Although perfectly satisfactory for the general rider, the GP saddle is really a compromise. The leg is positioned too far forward to be ideal for dressage and when jumping the knee may be on the knee roll.

lf you intend to jump higher than about 1 metre a showjumping saddle is preferable. The pommel and panels are angled forwards to give more room behind the knee roll. This provides a secure leg position and closer contact with the horse. However, care must be taken with fitting to ensure that the panel doesn't interfere with the horse's shoulder movement.

A dressage saddle has the pommel and panels almost vertical in order to position the stirrup bar further back. This means that when the rider's leg is correctly positioned the stirrup leathers hang vertically. The girth straps extend below the saddle flap to allow closer contact with the horse and are secured with a short belly girth. The dip of the seat is usually deep. Unfortunately even some expensive dressage saddles are badly designed and have the stirrup bar too far forward or an exaggerated dip which pushes the rider forward.

Showing saddles have a near vertical panel and a shallow seat. This is not to help the rider but to show off the horse's shoulder and back. Some also have a half panel to reduce the bulk under the rider’s leg. They are designed for the look, not the comfort of the rider.

For endurance riding comfort is essential. When the sport first became popular the saddles were based on the military (or Western) style. The tree consists of a high arch at both pommel and cantle, joined by a bar on either side of the horse’s spine. This is comfortable for the horse and rider but not suitable for riding with shortened stirrups. As some riders like to take the weight off the horse’s back while trotting and cantering, endurance saddles are now being designed around the general purpose tree to allow this.

Whatever type of saddle you have it is improtant that it fits correctly. Find out more in our Saddle Fitting article.

Find out more

Posted on 5 July, 2011

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