Choosing the right saddle that fits both rider and horse is not difficult but there are a few points to keep in mind. This article aims at helping novice horse owners choose their first saddle.
The first question that needs answered is what you intend to do on horseback. Saddles are made for many different disciplines and a dressage saddle is not the same as a jumping saddle, which is different again from a normal saddle for general hacking. A novice horse owner need not necessarily be a novice rider. Sharing a horse or riding out on another person’s animal is quite common so the rider may have experience riding and wish to compete, even at amateur levels, on their newly acquired mount. Obviously if you wish to do dressage, then a dressage saddle is best and likewise if you wish to show jump then a jumping saddle will suit better and so forth. These saddles are purpose made according to the way you sit for each discipline and if you buy a specific saddle it will be next to impossible to do any other activity correctly, so be sure you want to participate only in one field before spending money on a distinctive type of saddle. On the other hand if you just want “to ride”, be that hacking, going on forest or beach rides and general stuff, or wish to do a bit of everything, then a general purpose saddle is best. These are made to fit just about any purpose and will let you do all manner of disciplines in comfort.
The saddle must fit the rider as they need to sit snugly and comfortable in it without slipping around. The seat has to be big enough to fit your “seat” and let you settle in the middle, or lowest part. The thigh length should be such that your leg fits onto the saddle flap correctly – your knee slots into the knee roll in the curve, or your leg sits properly on the panel.
A good saddle is well balanced and has an even surface underneath where it touches the horse’s back. The front pommel, (the arched part that sits over the withers), should be wide enough so it does not squeeze the withers but not so wide it sits low on top of the withers. As a rough guide you should be able to fit two fingers vertically into the space when the saddle is on the horse. The saddle should not sit on the horse’s spine and when a rider is in the saddle with their weight on it, there should be space all the way up the gullet, (the channel running the full length of the saddle from front to back).Keep your saddle clean – this is not only about appearance but also safety and comfort. Supple leather is less prone to cracking and breaking and will rub, nip and annoy both horse and rider much less than hard, dry leather.
It is a good idea to buy good quality stirrup leathers, not only from a safety point of view, (bad quality tends to stretch, break and the holes get enlarged), but also from a comfort perspective. Your leg will spend the whole time in close contact with this part of the saddle and if the stirrup leather is soft and supple it will not pinch and chafe if it is kept well oiled.
There are plain stirrups and safety stirrups. The safety ones have either a curve on the outside or an elastic band; both aiming to help your foot slip quickly out of the stirrup in case of a fall and so avoid the risk of the rider being dragged. The curved safety stirrups will probably last longer than the saddle while the elastic ones may need the elastic replaced before the saddle gets too old to use. The elastic band relies on pressure being put on in a certain direction before it is pushed off the hooks holding it in place, and really does not look great. So, although it does generally come free when a rider falls off and gets his foot caught, the curved side stirrup lets the foot slip out from just about every conceivable angle, looks better and does not need replacement parts. The place where the stirrup is attached to the saddle also has a safety feature called a safety bar and this springs open releasing the stirrup and leather if the rider is pulled backwards. Many people prefer the look of the plain stirrup as “the lines are cleaner”, but really as this is about safety and not appearance, (unless you intend to do dressage or show).Stirrup treads are a good idea and widely used. There are made of rubber and slot into the opening in the middle of stirrups. They provide the rider’s foot with better grip and stability.
This little piece of fabric or leather is what keeps the saddle on the horse’s back. It attaches to the saddle on both sides and sits about 4” behind the horses forelegs. It should be tight enough to keep the saddle in place but not so tight as to give the horse discomfort or pain. Once tightened you should be able to place your middle three fingers between the girth and the horse. Much more space than this and you risk the saddle slipping round under the horse’s stomach; less space and it is too tight for the horse’s good. Some girths have elastic ends supposedly allowing the horse greater freedom, but as riders tend to tighten elastic girths more in order to get greater stability, this cancels out the “freedom” and can even make matters worse for the horse. Elastic also does not have a long life as a good working material and tends to lose some of its elasticity in quite a short time.Girths are generally padded material or leather and each have advantages and disadvantages. Material absorbs sweat and is softer for the horse while leather girths breathe but do not absorb.Keeping a girth clean is vital as even the smallest piece of grit on the inside will hurt the horse, so do check your girth before putting it on, or each time you remove it. The main problem with a leather girth is sweat – as this is not absorbed into the girth it builds up on the leather and even one day of use is enough to cause hardened sweat to form on the girth which can then chafe and cause a girth gall. Leather girths can be cleaned with ten minutes of saddle soaping whereas material girths need washed and subsequently dried. Having a spare material girth overcomes this problem quickly and easily and is not a bad idea anyway – no girth, no saddle. When fitting and doing up a girth make sure the skin between the horses legs and the girth is not pinched.
A Numnah is a pad made to go under a saddle that has a couple of functions; it absorbs sweat and provides extra padding and comfort to the horse. These are usually made of real or synthetic sheepskin or cotton and are saddle shape but slightly larger or a rectangular shape. These are said to save the horse’s back when jumping because as horses jumps they form a bascule with their backs, or rounded curve shape, and without a numnah there is a risk of their spine touching the saddle and thus causing loss of concentration. When using a numnah it should be lifted up at the front so the part covering the withers fits into the gullet of the saddle and does not press on the withers.