The ultimate design or shape of the saddle depends almost entirely on the tree and specifically on the angle of the pommel or head. Old-fashioned English hunting saddles, used for generations in the hunting field, had a vertical head and a flattish seat (‘the plate’) with a low cantle. The rider’s position employed moderately long stirrups, and when this saddle was first produced and widely used, no one had heard of the ‘forward seat’ or the ‘jumping position’. Riders were taught to lean forwards when taking off at a jump, but then to lean right backwards with the feet stuck forwards as the horse landed.
Consequently there was no need for the now almost universal forward-cut flap to accommodate the shorter stirrup and, therefore, forward-protruding knee and knee rolls had never been dreamed of.
Nowadays, none but the most inveterate die-hards would equally never dream of trying to cross a country in one of the unforgiving, grossly unhelpful and very uncomfortable old English hunting saddles, which positively encouraged the rider to lean backwards.
General purpose / event saddle
The saddle which is most widely used for general riding is the general purpose saddle, now often called the event saddle. The head of the tree is sloped backwards at about 45° which enables a moderately forward-cut panel and flap to be fitted to the saddle. Knee rolls – a stuffed leather pad stitched to the front of each panel – certainly help rider security when landing over a jump or riding over tricky country (or on a ‘stopper’), but forward-cut panels and flaps with their accompanying knee rolls make it even more important that a saddle fits the rider and not solely the horse.
For example if you have short legs you may well find that on some saddles your knee does not make contact with the bulk of the roll at all when your stirrups are comfortably adjusted, so you derive no benefit from them. It is therefore equally important to try a saddle in the shop yourself, if at all possible, as well as on your horse.
Some saddles also boast thigh rolls, a vertical line of stuffed leather down the back edge of each panel under the flap. In most cases these are quite unhelpful, and certainly don’t keep the thigh in any sort of position. More recently, angled rolls have been introduced (that is, angled ostensibly to support the underside of the thigh) but these are rather cumbersome if large enough to affect the position of the leg and if they don’t, they really serve no purpose at all.
A well balanced, modern, dipped tree will have the deepest part of its seat mid-way between pommel and cantle, the cantle will not be too high, and the rider will find that thigh rolls of any kind are largely superfluous, the fairly deep, central seat doing all that is necessary to keep him comfortably and without effort in the correct position. The deepest part of the tree should be over the horse’s centre of balance, just behind the withers where the back is strongest and best able to bear the rider’s weight with the least energy consumption. If the deepest part is too far back, the rider will find that his seat is also constantly slipping too far back, and he will need to keep making disturbing and annoying readjustments to his (or her) position. And if the deepest part of the seat is too far forward, the rider will slide towards the pommel which is obviously very uncomfortable.
The general purpose or event saddle is cut to accommodate a stirrup length which is short enough (depending on the rider’s leg length) to allow for correct use of today’s forward jumping or cross-country seat, where the knee should be firmly on the flap and not in front of it as often happened when, in days gone by (though not that long ago!) riders tried to use the ‘new’ jumping position on old-fashioned hunting saddles. There will still be ‘enough leg below the knee’ (as an instructor once put it to me) to give some security in the event of problems, but the rider can adjust his balance to stay more forward with the horse at faster paces, or in the more general upright position for slower paces.
As their name implies, these saddles are very good for general, all-purpose riding: jumping, schooling on the flat, hacking out and so on; and offering, as they do, a versatile seat, they are deservedly popular.
The showjumping saddle
The saddle devised purely for show jumping (arena or stadium jumping) has a more sloped-back head to allow for a more forward-cut panel and flap, so accommodating the more forward knee resulting from the use of shorter stirrups
as used by some riders (although not many nowadays use the rather exaggeratedly short stirrup seen in earlier days, even for show jumping). These saddles are very specialised and are based on an initial design by Italian Major Piero Santini, a pupil of the ‘inventor’ of the forward seat and the ‘natural’ riding system in its entirety, Federico Caprilli. They are uncomfortable for general riding and hacking as the leg is not correctly positioned on the flap when the stirrups are lengthened, which for greater comfort and practicality they would be for such purposes; and as many have very narrow waists or twists (the narrowest part of the saddle and the area on which the rider’s weight may be mostly borne) they tend to dig in where it hurts! They are superb for periods of short duration such as when schooling or competing over fences when the seat may not, in any case, be much in contact with the saddle; but they are neither suitable nor intended for sitting and riding in for longer periods. Saddles of any type with excessively narrow waists also cause the problem of concentrating the rider’s weight onto a smaller bearing surface of the saddle, which means that the weight is being borne by a smaller area of the horse’s back.
If you press a sharp needle into your hand it will hurt, but if you press a blunt pencil into your hand with the same pressure it does not hurt at all. This is because with the needle, the weight is concentrated into a much smaller area (the needle point), whilst with a blunt pencil lead it is more spread out and is therefore easier to bear. The same principle applies to the horse’s back: the wider the waist and the greater the bearing surface, the more easily the horse can bear your weight. An excessively wide waist, however, forces the thighs apart and the rider up in the saddle and this can be equally uncomfortable; unless, as sometimes happens, the saddle is carefully made to permit closer contact with the horse’s back by skilful panel design and stuffing. Most modern saddles, whether general purpose or jumping, do in fact have rather narrow waists, particularly the latter design as we have seen, and this is a point to be watched for in saddle fitting. Fortunately, there now seem to be enough designs on the market to enable purchasers to avoid over-narrow waists.
The dressage saddle
Dressage saddles have probably been victim to more misunderstood theories than any others. Like the old English hunting saddles, they have a vertical or just slightly sloping head to permit the straighter panel and flap used to accommodate the longer stirrup length typical of the dressage seat but there the similarity ends. A dressage saddle is intended to place the rider in a more upright position with the weight on the seatbones, which should settle in the deepest part of the saddle Without conscious effort on the part of the rider. To this end, some of them have ridiculously high cantles which in fact push the rider forward too far, onto the pommel. Others have off-centre seats (usually too far forward) and some are specifically stuffed, it seems, to tilt the saddle backwards on the horse’s back to compensate for a dip which is too far forward. In a correctly designed and comfortable dressage saddle the cantle should be very little higher than the pommel, and with a dip which can be seen to be central when viewed from the side.
The seat of a dressage saddle is usually gusseted to allow for a flatter bearing surface and greater stability on the horse’s back (it also helps spread the pressure), and particular effort is made to keep stuffing to a practical minimum to allow for close-contact riding. Recessed stirrup bars – fixed to the underside of the tree rather than the top – are virtually universal in all saddles now, and are employed on dressage saddles to avoid the sometimes actually painful bulk of stirrup leather and buckle being right under the thigh. Some saddles may have thigh rolls on top of the flap itself, and there are knee rolls on the panel positioned to accommodate the longer stirrup length used for dressage and to help the rider maintain his position and stability in the saddle. The whole design is intended to keep the rider in the correct basic position without him consciously having to think about it, thus leaving him (or her) free to concentrate his/her energy on going with the horse and giving the appropriate aids.
It has been usual for dressage saddles to have long girth straps in which case only two will be present to permit the use of a short belly girth; the girth buckles will then be down below the panel (depending on the precise length of the girth) and so out of the way of the rider’s leg, removing another undesirable bulky obstruction between rider and horse. However, some dressage saddles now have conventional short girth straps, since not everyone feels that belly girths and their buckling arrangements are necessary, and then three will be present, allowing for finer positioning on the horse’s back as described earlier. It is all a matter of personal preference.
Saddles for endurance riding
Endurance riding is now firmly established as a specific competitive discipline requiring its own specialised tack. Horses are often under saddle for many hours in endurance riding and an exact, comfortable fit is essential. In their early stages of development most endurance saddles were based on the old military saddle similar in concept to the Western saddle, which in turn stemmed from the high-front-and-back medieval saddle. The military saddle has well padded bars (rather than a conventionally shaped tree) joined by front and rear arches, and these extend further back on the horse, spreading the weight and allowing for small pack attachments and other accoutrements.
The seat is, to put it very simply, rather like a leather hammock slung between the arches, and is supremely comfortable for the rider whilst allowing free air circulation down the horse’s back. Some endurance saddles are made on this principle, but others are now being designed and produced on more conventional trees; they have special ‘therapeutic’ qualities and specialised synthetic materials and stuffings aimed at increasing resilience and spreading weight as the horse moves to create a constantly even pressure. Small ‘massage balls’ are built in to some saddles, on the same principle as the car seat covers designed to massage the thighs, seats and backs of, initially, long-distance and taxi drivers; in fact these are now used regularly by many people who spend any length of time in their cars. Of unlikely benefit in theory to the uninitiated, in practice they work beautifully, and saddles made on this principle are currently finding favour with horses and riders alike.
The head of an endurance saddle made on a conventional-type tree is vertical or, in a few designs, very slightly sloping, depending on preference and the country of origin. Many endurance riders outside America like Western or Australian stock saddles which are similar in concept and, of course, specifically designed for working riders who would spend most of their daylight hours in the saddle.
Many endurance riders like to adopt a semi-forward position and keep their seat off their horse’s back in trot and canter; also, to relieve their own muscles and to change the ‘feel’ they give to their horse, they like to be able to alter their stirrup leathers up or down a hole or two and ride at different lengths. Modern endurance saddles make this a comfortable possibility by not favouring an extreme long-in-the-leg seat as does a Western saddle though if the rider wants to ride this way he can. Of course, his weight is still transmitted to the horse’s back via the stirrup bars and is no less, even with an off-the-back position; but its distribution is changed, particularly if the stirrup bars are placed correspondingly a little further forward, being more closely concentrated around the strongest part of the back and over the centre of balance instead of perhaps a little behind it. Moreover when the rider’s seat is fully in the saddle the horse feels every slight shift and bump, in a way that he does not when the seat is held just above it; and whilst this position does need an obviously fit rider to maintain it for significant distances, it does seem to be preferred by many horses who, in fact, learn to recognise it as a signal that the miles are there to be eaten up!
About thirty years ago, along with many other ‘out-moded’ aspects of the horse world, side-saddle riding as a technique and an art form was destined to disappear. Despite its elegance and precise sartorial etiquette, and its role as an attraction at major shows, and the fact that many intrepid ladies for generations had hunted fearlessly side saddle, it could not compete as a technique in the evolving fields of horse trials (eventing), show jumping and (a moot point this) dressage.
Now, however, it has its own organising body, The Sidesaddle Association, and has made a significant comeback not only as a showing class but as a technique in its own right. It is particularly suitable for those (gentlemen and ladies) who have had to give up riding because of arthritic hips, many of whom find they can ride quite comfortably and effectively side saddle. The numbers of teachers of the art are increasing, and show classes are now quite well established.
Many who would like to practise riding side saddle experience problems in finding suitable saddles, however. Despite the fact that new side saddles are now being made, most in current use are pre-World War II. They can be expensive, and are difficult to obtain as they do not come on to the market very often. In addition, side saddles were always made to measure for a particular animal and rider. Years of neglect, coupled with the fact that the old wooden trees are very fragile compared with the modern laminated wood ones, have resulted in many good old saddles being irretrievably damaged. However, the increasing interest in side-saddle riding is encouraging production of new side saddles, so enthusiasts can still pursue the sport today.
Nearly all side saddles are nearside ones, that is, the lady sits with her legs on the near side of the horse. Offside saddles are seen, but are very rare.
The tree is made of wood, reinforced with metal, usually cast iron. The newer laminated wood trees are lighter than the older ones, and stronger. The head is cut back, and the top pommel, or fixed head, over which the rider’s right leg is placed, is fixed on the left. The lower pommel or leaping (jumping) head is screwed into the tree (rather than being part of it like the fixed head), and can be adjusted to suit the width of the rider’s thigh, or to accommodate either flatwork or jumping.
Sometimes a saddle will have two screw-in sockets for the leaping head so that adjustments can be made easily. The thread on leaping-head sockets should always be a left-hand one, as this is stronger.
The seat of a side saddle should be quite fiat, and covered with doeskin or some sort of suede leather for security and to help stop the rider sliding down to the left. Some experts say that the offside of the seat should be built up slightly to prevent the rider’s seat sliding over, but the opposite problem is the more common and most saddles will be, or need to be, built up on the near-side to prevent this. Imbalance in the rider is a very bad fault which can easily give the horse a sore back and stiff muscles as he tries to counteract his . lopsided rider.
As with any other saddle, the gullet must leave a clear channel of air down the horse’s back as spine pressure is so damaging. The tree POiUtS must not interfere with shoulder movement nor must there be any pressure on the IOIHS
at the back. If the shoulders are interfered with this can cause the saddle to move, and possibly slip back on to the loins.
The best saddles are lined with linen, but serge can also be used. These are not so easy to clean as, of course, they cannot be removed easily, but they should be given a good brushing with a stiff brush when dry. They can be cleaned to some extent by damp sponging and brushing, but actually to wet them can be bad for the stuffing and they will then take a long time to dry, Newer saddles have a leather lining, but this material can cause a sore back due to the increased pressure from a side saddle and the fact that it is less absorbent than fabric.
The nearside saddle flap must be large enough to keep the rider’s right leg off the horse’s shoulder, so is cut well forward and sometimes has padding underneath the front part. There is usually a flap or belly strap stitched to the bottom edge of the nearside Hap which fastens with a hook and eye to the smaller offside saddle flap, the object being to keep the fiaps down and secure.
Normally a Fitzwilliam, or an Atherstone type or a three-fold baghide girth is used and, unlike astride saddles, the girth is fastened first to the nearside girth tabs or straps. There are two main girth straps plus a very important third one – the point strap which is angled backwards at 15° from the vertical. This is attached at the top to the point of the tree and a strap called the balance strap is buckled to it. The balance strap is stitched to the rear part of the saddle on the offside and passed obliquely below the horse’s belly before being buckled to the nearside point strap.
Another arrangement, though not considered safe for strenuous work but which is neater for showing, is to have the balance strap stitched to the girth (rather than the saddle) on the offside. This obviously does not keep the saddle so steady as the former arrangement. The balance strap has a buckle and keeper at each end, one end buckling to the nearside point strap, as described, and the other to the short length stitched to the offside rear of the saddle, or to the girth if this method is preferred. Sometimes the balance strap will be stitched directly to the girth on the offside. When girthing up on the offside, the front girth buckle is fastened to the offside point strap to help keep the saddle in place.
There are several variants in side saddles according to who made/makes them, and the stirrup leather attachments are perhaps more diverse than any other aspect. Basically, whatever patented pattern appears on the saddle, it must have a quick-release mechanism which is kept well oiled, and the user must practise using it, as they all differ. Side-saddle stirrup irons must have larger eyes than other stirrups to accommodate the adjustment hook which is an integral part of these stirrups and leathers. According to make, there will be a fitting at the top end of the leather to take its ‘mate’ on the saddle, with a metal hook at the other end which threads through the eye and back on itself, being adjusted according to the required length by means of holes in the leather near the stirrup itself. A little leather cover or sleeve protects the saddle flap and the rider’s boot.
The saddle flaps usually cover the girth tabs, but there are now saddles on which the offside girth attachments are visible on the outside of the fiap. These are used mainly for showing and the girths used with such saddles have high quality buckles and keepers for elegance with, very often, the balance strap stitched to the girth.
Most horses take well to being ridden side saddle with its lack of an offside leg aid (the whip is used for guidance) and different weight distribution. It should always be remembered, though, that the horse can easily develop a sore back in the early days of adjusting to side-saddle equitation. His stints under saddle should be short at first to help his skin and muscles get used to it.
The rider has a leg-up and it is recommended nowadays that she (or he) sits astride in the normal way at first, absolutely straight in the saddle, and then brings the right leg over the fixed head. From behind, the rider must appear to sit as straight as on an astride saddle, but with the offside leg missing. In this position he or she will be balanced securely, and the Weight distributed as comfortably as possible for the horse. The tendency to raise the left heel and grip with the left leg must be avoided (except possibly when jumping, or for momentary security in an emergency) as this encourages the rider to sit to the left which is bad for the horse’s back.
The saddle should be carried with the right hand holding the fixed head, and the lining down the hip and thigh, the seat under the right arm. The girth and balance strap can be attached on the nearside and held, with the flap strap if there is one, in the left hand. The saddle is placed carefully on the horse’s back a little too far forward and slid back, as with an ordinary saddle. The balance strap is buckled to the point strap, and the girth to the first two girth straps.
Next fasten the girth on the offside, from which all adjustments are made. The balance strap lies on top of the girth and must not be tighter than the girth. The flap strap should, likewise, be fastened no tighter than the girth and balance strap. If the horse wears a martingale, the girth, balance and fiap straps all pass through its girth loop.
Ideally two people should saddle up the horse: one to hold the saddle in place, and the other to move around the horse carrying out the various steps involved in fitting the saddle. The girth and balance strap are finally adjusted on the offside once the rider is mounted. It is important not to have the balance strap too far back or too tight, as some horses will buck against it.
General care of the saddle
The leather part of the saddle is cleaned in the usual way, and the doeskin or suede seat brushed. Care must be taken not to drop or misuse the saddle because of the comparatively fragile nature of most side-saddle trees. If it has to be put on the ground (it will not balance conveniently over a stable door like an astride saddle) put it down pommel first, resting on the girth. Do not leave it on the horse’s back if the girths are undone. Take care not to bang the pommels against door jambs and so on, and if you are transporting the saddle in a vehicle with the horse, keep it well stacked away from the animal, and protected by other equipment so it cannot fall about. Do not place the girths over its seat, as with other saddles, as this can leave a mark. It is well worthwhile seeking out a saddler experienced with side saddles for a yearly check, and The Society of Master Saddlers or The Sidesaddle Association should be able to help here.