Understanding Saddles and How to Choose One

by Charles Morrish

Walk into a well stocked saddlers shop, or browse through one of the mail order catalogues, and you will become aware of the vast selection of saddle types. The differences in shape, style and cosmetic appearance will be immediately apparent. But why should such an array exist? And whilst descriptions such as Jumping Saddle and Dressage Saddle are self-explanatory, what does a term such as VSD mean to the ordinary rider? What constitutes a specialist saddle and what should the pleasure rider consider to allow them to tackle a bit of all sorts?

It is worth standing back from the commercial presentation and the aesthetic appeal that first meets the eye. Undoubtedly this has its place in the overall scheme of things, as do build, quality and price. However, if you go back to elementary considerations of the purpose of a saddle, much will be revealed about what each saddle can do for you, the rider. Seek also the advice of a good saddler to find out about the suitability of each saddle for your horse. Bear in mind that it will only be possible to give a definitive answer by conducting a saddle-fitting visit. Experienced saddlers will know their stock well enough to give meaningful comments if reasonably accurate information is supplied about the horse.

A 17 inch flat seated saddle with forward out flaps suited to shorter stirrup leather length

A saddle is required to enhance the comfort of the rider and promote balance. By doing this effectively, the rider will feel safer, gain in confidence, and achieve a higher standard of horsemanship. Meanwhile, underneath the rider is an animal that is expected to show athleticism whilst carrying a burden of significant weight. To do this, the rider's weight must be loaded in such a manner that the horse is least impeded. The saddle is required to distribute the load to the most suitable areas of the horse's anatomy, and to eliminate, as effectively as possible, any pressure spots. This article will concentrate on the rider's viewpoint.

The discipline of dressage and jumping represent opposite ends of the spectrum regarding riding position, and hence saddle design.

Much of the essential features of saddle design are covered by contrasting saddles for these two disciplines. The dressage saddle is designed to promote the straight leg, long stirrup leather length and upright posture. The following features help to achieve this:


A short, deep seat, the profile of which, when viewed from the side, often resembles more of a V shape than a flat bottomed U. The effect is to restrict the rider to the centre of the saddle.

An 18 inch dressage saddle (right) clearly showing the deep seat and straight flaps.


The stirrup leathers hang, relatively speaking, further back on the saddle than for most other types of saddle. The rider's feet are therefore tucked under the seat, helping the upright position.

The stirrup leathers hang nearer to the middle of the saddle on dressage saddles


Since many riders find difficulty maintaining the upright dressage position, large knee rolls are often provided. These limit the space available for the leg to move forward. Thigh rolls may be present behind the leg for similar reasons.

Strategically placed knee and thigh blocks for jumping

4. The straight leg riding position dictates that the saddle flaps be straighter and usually narrower and longer than on general purpose saddles.
5. To allow maximum communication between horse and rider, the saddles are usually designed to eliminate, as far as possible, any bulkiness under the rider's leg. The narrowest part of the seat (the waist) is often proportionally reduced compared to other saddles, and subtle changes in the girthing arrangement keep the girth straps and buckles out of the way of the rider's leg.

The height clearance of the saddle over the wither may often be less than for other disciplines because flatwork makes less demands than jumping. This in turn keeps the rider closer to the horse.

Note that this last feature is very dependent on the conformation of the horse. The saddle fitter will advise whether your horse can accept a close fitting saddle.

7. Riders who have tried a number of different saddles will be aware of the effect of different leathers on their comfort and support. Generally, soft, supple leathers with a soft foam seat and pad filling will mould easily around the contours of the supportive features (seat shape, knee rolls). This allows the maximum benefit from them. Some people have a preference for suede over the seat and pads on the basis that this provides excellent grip, enhancing stability.


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