There are many hunt seat saddles on the market today in all different shapes and sizes and there are many features of each saddle that need to be considered. This article will help you choose which saddle will be the right fit for you and your horse.
The primary goal is to find a saddle that helps the rider to relax into the correct position while allowing the horse to move fluidly and comfortably while he is working. It must be the right size AND shape for both you and your horse for your rides to be happy, fun, and productive.
Let’s start by making sure the leather on the saddle is quality leather properly tanned. A soft, pliable, and grippy feel will allow the rider to sink into place and stay there without having to squeeze her legs to hold on to a hard, slippery surface. The proper feel to the leather promotes relaxation and confidence in the rider. When the rider sits on the saddle (on a secure saddle rack) she should sit directly in the middle of the seat right behind the pommel and place four fingers between the back of her seat and the back most part of the saddle. This will determine the correct size of seat for this rider. Buying a saddle slightly bigger for a child to grow into is ok, but it will offer less stability for the rider and might upset the balance if the rider does not easily stay in the correct place on the seat. The width of the saddle directly under the rider is called the twist and this is personal preference as to whether the rider fits better on a wide or narrow twist. The flaps will usually be set forward in a jumping saddle to allow for a bent knee, so the rider’s knee should reach the knee pad of the saddle when in the stirrup. A longer flap is sometimes needed for a very long leg.
Underneath the leather seen on the outside of the saddle is a hard structure called the tree that holds the saddle in it’s shape. The size of the tree determines the width of the saddle across the horse’s back and the size of seat the rider sits on. A lot of horses like Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses fit in a medium tree but the broader breeds such as the popular warmbloods are wider in the back and shoulders and need a wide tree to work in comfort. The shape of the tree is just as important as the width because it must match the horse’s shape of withers and shoulders. When the horse is crosstied place the saddle on his back with no pads so the saddle will sit with it’s pommel (front-top part) over the horse’s withers and the lower part of the tree reaches down on either side to support it on the back. The shape should not be so narrow at the base that it digs into the horse’s flesh at the shoulder, but it should support the saddle so that it sits above the horse’s withers so that you can easily slide two fingers in between the withers and the pommel. If it is too narrow at the top and touches the sides of the withers it will cause the horse alot of discomfort and he will not be able to do his job well so you must make sure there is room for the withers underneath and on either side of the front of the saddle.
The next criteria is the shape and thickness of the padding under the tree called the flocking. Most flocking was made of wool but there is now very high quality foams produced that give excellent support and hold their shape well. The purpose of the flocking is to give some flexibility to the structure of the saddle on the horse’s back to allow for freedom of movement. Also remember even though you will be placing the saddle on top of your horse’s back while he is standing still, when you ride the saddle will be tight against his back when you tighten the girth and then there will be more pressure when you sit on it. A medium thickness of flocking is a good rule of thumb because thin flocking doesn’t allow the horse as much movement of the muscles in his back and thick flocking (more than an inch under the pommel and more than two under the cantle) may squeeze the horse and/or lift the saddle too far above the horse. The term “close contact saddle” is used to describe a saddle built to sit in the shape of the back allowing the rider to feel her horse better.
Now we come to a very important part of the correct fit of a saddle and that is balance. Neither the pommel or cantle of the saddle should be too high or too low when you place it on your horse. The lowest part of the seat should be in the middle so that that is where the center of balance is. This will enable the rider to sit neither too far forward or too far back. The flocking should be the shape of your horse’s back so that the center of balance remains stable and you cannot rock the saddle forward and back on your horse. A well built saddle will have a gradual slope of flocking on the underside sloping towards the backbone with a wide channel so as not to pinch the spine or the row of muscles on either side of it. When you are placing the saddle on your horse’s back to fit it, stand behind the horse, making sure he knows you’re there and keeping your hand on him, look to make sure you can see daylight from the back of the saddle through to the front so there is no part of the saddle touching near his spine or squeezing his muscles around it.
You should always ride in your saddle to determine it’s comfort for horse and rider. Does your horse have a happy expression and is willing to go forward readily with this saddle on? Does his back feel soft or can you feel his muscles tighten under your seat? Is his head down to stretch his spine or is he carrying it up to shorten and tighten his back? Now, is it easy to keep your legs still while riding or do you feel like the saddle doesn’t provide a natural place for them to be? Do you feel like you are throwing your body forward to be able to post with your horse, which means the saddle is pushing your balance too far back, and can you easily carry your body in two-point position or do you struggle to stay in place? Remember the saddle is there to help you ride correctly in a stable, balanced position and to provide your horse with comfort and ease of motion for happy, fun, and productive rides!