Close contact is the latest trend in dressage-saddle design. Saddle makers have long pondered why riders continue to jack up the back of their saddles with wedge pads and have responded with slightly flatter panels, shallower seats and simpler flaps.
The fat, gusseted panels, high cantles and deep seats of the earlier generation have not been the perfect solution. Riders and trainers realized that a high cantle can accentuate the horse’s motion, like a small ship being tossed in a heavy sea, adding a whole new dynamic to the sitting trot.
The fundamental theory in this new generation of close-contact dressage saddles is to bring down the center of gravity, with the lowest point of the seat slightly more forward, without jacking up the cantle.
We applaud the industry’s creative efforts, but the bottom line is, and always will be, individual fit. A saddle can’t be all things to all people, and riding style, body type, horse, and saddle are all pieces of a complex puzzle. When it all fits together, the result is beautiful.
We tested 10 saddles with list prices over $1,500. (As always, we urge consumers to shop around, as prices can vary widely among retailers.) We expect high-quality tack in this price bracket, so our evaluation leans toward the design features and the dynamics of fit for individual body types, both human and equine. Our comments should help consumers evaluate and choose a saddle to fit their needs and their horses’ builds, helping lock the puzzle pieces together to make that great picture.
Be An Individual
The right saddle for your friend or trainer may not be the right saddle for you or your horse. In the individual saddle critique, certain factors may be a plus for some riders, a negative for others. Evaluate your own needs, riding style and body type honestly for a practical interpretation of this saddle review.
Size: The saddle’s seat size does not necessarily equate to the size of the rider’s “seat.” Are you relatively long from hip to knee’ If so, you may need to go up a size.
Drop: Everyone wants a classic position, which is shoulder, hip and heel in a vertical line. A saddle’s drop is the leg position relevant to the deepest part of the seat. A straight, or severe drop, means the flap, knee and thigh blocks are designed for a rider with a long stirrup, low knee and open hip angle. It takes a supple back and limber hip to maintain this ideal position. Be honest with yourself. Are you a lithe athlete or a creaky middle-aged rider with a bad back’ You may be working toward that ideal position, but a saddle with a more moderate drop may be best for you.
Blocks And Pads: Leg-block positions are more a matter of preference than saddle function, but they help define the drop. For example, if the drop is too straight and the blocking too thin, the rider’s leg will try to “climb” the block instead of nestling into it. By cushioning the hollow spot just above the knee, thigh blocks can enhance whole-leg contact. Experiment with stirrup lengths and go with what feels right. Many of the saddles in this article can be customized in this regard.
Twist: The twist is the narrowest part of the seat. A saddle’s twist is a relative term, and our descriptions are based on our testing, not necessarily on manufacturer’s claims. Gender may play a role here. Men generally prefer a narrow twist, but some women are more comfortable in a medium or wide. In women, if chafing up front is a problem, try a saddle with a wider twist. On the other hand, sore hips could mean the twist is too wide.
Billets: Most dressage saddles have extended billets, which means adjusting the girth while mounted is difficult. Some offer universal billets, with holes high and low for either short or long girth. (Try it both ways, and if you can’t feel a difference, cut the billets and use the more convenient long girth.) Point billets are V-shaped, designed to enhance stability (the cantle can’t bounce up) and eliminate the need for a foregirth. If you never use a foregirth, and the saddle fits well, you may not need point billets. Point billets generally can’t be cut for a long girth.
Panels: Saddle fitters will tell you flocking is best, because the fit can be altered by adding or subtracting stuffing. Look at your saddle’s panels. Are they over-stuffed, rounded sausages’ Does your saddle shift or rock’ What happens when the horse is working in a round frame, with his back up’ Should the saddle “bridge” slightly when the horse is standing on the cross-ties to fit well while working’ These are critical questions, and there are no easy answers. We can only make recommendations based on our testing, and we were surprised to find that our horses were generally happiest under the saddles with flat, soft foam panels. Be advised that all foam is not created equally, just as all “rubber” tennis shoes are not equal in quality.
Sweat Flaps: The sweat flap is the lower flap, and there are basically two types: 1) those that are an extension of the panels, and 2) independent sweat flaps, attached above the panels. We found little difference in feel or function, except that the independent flaps were more difficult to break in.
Bars: Riders have been asking designers to nudge the stirrup bars farther back to help combat the “chair-seat” syndrome. The response has been mixed. Some riders add or double wrap D-savers, which push the leather rearward about 1/8” to 1/4”. D-savers are actually intended for breastplate connection but also provide secure docking for a saddle strap. Some trainers resort to double wrapping the leathers, but this is dangerous because the leather can slide off easily.
Two of our test models, the Tad Coffin CCD and the Brunet-Pineau Chantilly, are equipped with “Australian” bars, so termed because we first saw them on Australian saddles. These bars are popular with jumper riders, because the leathers won’t pop off easily over a big fence. Because Coffin’s and Brunet-Pineau’s primary market is jumping saddles, the trees are made with Australian bars. Coffin says his bars are customized to curve with the shape of his tree. We recommend safety irons with them.
Performance Saddlery Albion Style SL
Albion’s Style SL ($2,195) offers a soft, padded, grained leather seat of moderate depth. Of all the Albion models, this one is classified as a narrow twist, but we disagreed and ranked it widest in this test.
With a prominent, slightly cut-back pommel, this saddle was appealing to our testers with Western roots. The gusseted panels help boost a fairly high cantle rise, but the generous, padded seat invites the rider to sit up front. The wide, softly cushioned flaps embrace a sharply contoured block below, allowing slightly more room for longer-legged riders, with a moderate drop. The flocked panels on our model were narrow waisted but flatter and less convex from front to back, allowing a more stable fit even before break-in. With fat, wide front branches, we found this panel configuration most successful on horses with wide backs but prominent withers.
The sweat flap may look synthetic, but Jan Jacobson of Performance Saddlery assures us it is leather. The three billets confused us, with two from the center and one from the front. The design is made so you can figure out which two to use and cut the third one off. We would prefer the two center ones as “universal” billets; but the nylon webbing extends to the end of the sweat flap. Recommended.
Otto Schumacher Profi Exclusiv
The Otto Schumacher Profi Exclusiv saddle ($1,850) has a high cantle, but it descends sharply to a generous seat with a low center of gravity and wide twist. The feel is quite firm but not uncomfortable. The sharply contoured blocks allow a spot for longer knees to rest but are supportive of shorter legs also. Our testers liked th e saddle better with D-savers around the bars, as in the bar-placement design discussed earlier.
We like the flocked, gusseted panels, which are soft, wide, and not overly stuffed. The rear billet is attached to a V-web, but we had trouble matching holes and found the holes on the right especially uneven. The billets were too short, with too-few (six) holes. Another pet peeve: This model, as with many dressage saddles, places the stirrup leather keeper too low. Even average-height riders have little leather left over after adjusting for dressage-length irons, so we need the keepers closer to the bars. Recommended.
Passier Grand Gilbert
The Passier Grand Gilbert ($2,335) has the same well-balanced, moderate-depth seat that has been the Passier trademark for decades but responds to market demands for cushioned flaps, thigh blocks and point billets.
Our saddle was the standard model, without gussets, and we found the flocked panels tough to break in. The right side was slightly thicker in the center, which caused some pressure and hair shearing on several of our test horses. Dirk Kannemeier, Passier sales director, recommends the gusseted panels over the standard model.
We found the seat hard but not uncomfortable, with a medium twist. The seat puts you right up front, which we like, but combined with very straight flaps, we rated the drop the most severe in this group. Riders with less-than-ideal positions, or those built long from hip to knee, experienced a tendency to “climb” onto and ahead of the soft, wedge block.
The leather keeper placement (eight inches from the bar) is better than average. Beautifully constructed and nearly impossible to wear out, this saddle is a long-term investment. Recommended.
Whitman Rembrandt O/S
The “O/S” in the Whitman Rembrandt ($1,595) used to stand for “one size,” as the saddle was only offered with a 17.5” seat and #2 flexible tree, which was the model we tested. Now, however, the saddle is available in 16.5”, 17.5” and 18.5” seats and tree sizes 2, 3, 4, 5. The original design concept stemmed from short tree points and deep panels. We had no complaints about the short points, but the deep panels, although they may indeed provide a wide range of fit, contrast with the goal of our close-contact evaluation.
This saddle has a moderate-depth seat with a medium twist that is padded and comfortable. The bars were set forward, pinched at the panel branch, making it difficult to seat or adjust the leathers. The softer leather of the knee cushion extends behind the bars, which may invite early wear under the leathers. We were disappointed in the manufacturer’s plate above the left bar, which stuck out sharply, and the ill-fitting square of leather trim between the D-ring and bar on the right that was held in place with two unanchored brads. Add in the uneven and too-few billet holes, and we were disappointed in the construction of an otherwise comfortable saddle.
Tony Slatter Saddlery KL Millenium
KL Millenium, by Tony Slatter Saddlery ($2,195), has the bars set farther toward the rear, which we like, but this is offset by what we describe as a long rise to a prominent pommel. Dorothea Carters of KL Select disagrees, however, stating that the pommel is half cutback and not prominent when the saddle is properly fit to the horse. We found the seat well-cushioned with a moderate twist, but the deepest point is too far to the rear. Short points and high blocks provided a nice all-purpose flap, with a moderate drop. While we found the billets too short on our test saddle, Carters said they are now 2” longer, eliminating the problem.
The benchmark of the Eisers Dominus ($1,495) is its seat design: a shallow seat, with the lowest point forward. We found the twist moderately wide and liked the overall balance. The heavy, stiff skirt leather and tight bars conspire for difficulty seating and adjusting the leathers. A huge thigh block dwarfs a small, independent sweat flap, covered by a rigid molded knee pad. If a rider’s leg fits the flap perfectly, it is comfortable, but there is no room for error.
With a straight drop, this rigid flap design does not allow the freedom to raise the irons a hole or two and go for a hack. The slightly convex flocked panels offer a uniform gullet gap front to rear, but we were not pleased with the naked screw heads at the panel attachment at both ends on our test saddle (Eisers said these are now covered with felt). The moderately spaced point billets are good quality and a generous length, but the holes are too small. Forcing the buckle tongue can cause cracking. We would prefer the leather keeper higher, and the two stitches on the butted loop are positioned over the edge of the indented sweat flap, risking an early repair. We prefer a simple flap slot or a leather loop tapered, glued and stitched. Recommended as a true close-contact dressage saddle, with a slant toward riders looking for a shallower seat.
Tad Coffin CCD
The Tad Coffin CCD ($2,860) is an acronym for “close contact dressage,” and it lives up to its name. The shallow seat evokes hunt-seat equitation. But add foam panels and a simple flap with a straight drop, and you have the latest in close-contact dressage.
The seat is firm and flat with a narrow twist, which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but these high-tech, carefully engineered foam panels fit an extremely wide range of horses comfortably. The tree is wide, and buyers are issued a leather-covered Rebound pad to augment narrow backs. For the busy professional with multiple horses, this range of fit is a bonus. We are not wild about the Australian bars but have no complaints on the saddle’s overall construction. Even the billets (long, short, or universal, not point) measure up to our scrutiny, and the leather is top drawer. Recommended, appealing to eventers and riders with hunter/equitation roots.
Crosby SofRide Prix St. Georges
Crosby’s SofRide Prix St. Georges ($1,450) has a comfortable, well-padded seat of moderate depth and medium twist. The foam panels fit a wide range of horses, and the universal billets are adaptable for any preference, which we like. We found the flap strap unnecessary, but it can be easily removed. We had two major complaints with this model: the polyurethane-coated leather is stiff and slippery, and the flaps are flat and hard, with minimal blocking. We want a saddle to enhance the rider’s leg, and this model fell short.
Libertyville Gold Medal
The Libertyville Gold Medal ($1,750) offers traditional styling, with a high cantle and moderate twist. Taller riders will appreciate the long flaps, and the moderate drop framed by a sharply contoured block allows plenty of comfortable space for long legs. The long, slightly “V” billets could be punched and cut for a long girth, and we appreciate the option. The billet holes are generously sized but are not matched and leveled. The softer knee-pad leather extends behind the bars, raising doubts about early wear under the stirrup leather. We would prefer the bars farther back. These pinch tightly into panels that are a bit loaded up front, causing difficulty seating and adjusting leathers. Even on a narrow horse, the front-loaded panels tipped the balance backward. Break-in time will help, but buyers between widths should order a size-wider tree.This saddle’s niche is for the long-legged rider. With long flaps and blocks, and extended panel branches, this model offers a nice “valley” for a low knee. Recommended.
The Brunet-Pineau Chantilly ($3,300) is a French import with a unique single-flap design, made of fine-grained leather that is doubled and laminated for strength. The result is a soft, broken-in feel, although there may be a trade-off in longevity.
The seat merges the best of traditional and close-contact designs. With a low center of gravity over low foam panels, the seat still of fers enough shape to support and stabilize without compromising feel. Although the flap demands a serious drop, the soft knee pads provide smooth docking for any length leg, and the extended foam panel branches “breathe” through three branch anchors. The result is a saddle that feels custom made for nearly any body style.
The rugged dual billets are sewn onto the edge of the single flap. No point or V-billet system is needed because the saddle sits like glue on a wide range of horses. The overall stability and lack of squeaking, rocking or shifting rated high marks, and the horses voted it a winner with their performance underneath.
We questioned the laminated surface of this saddle, afraid we couldn’t oil it. But we were told to oil it by the manufacturer and its soft leather swallowed the oil. In fact, the saddle is easier to keep clean because the flesh side of the leather is unexposed.
As with the Coffin saddle, the Australian bars are not our favorites, and these are too short to add D-savers. The single-flap design leaves no place to hook a pad loop, but pads don’t seem to shift under this saddle anyway. Recommended.
We love the Brunet-Pineau Chantilly dressage saddle. This saddle’s compromise between traditional and close-contact design is unique and impressive, and its performance on a horse is a home run. Riders, too, found it immediately comfortable. But we stumble over $3,300 for a soft-leather saddle. While instant and profound comfort is a tempting trade-off, in our opinion, soft leather tends to show wear and tear earlier than its “tougher” cousins. Buyers need to balance their immediate desires with long-term needs.
For more conservative spenders, we recommend Libertyville Saddle Shop’s Gold Medal dressage saddle as our Best Buy, with the Schumacher Profi Exclusiv a very close runner-up.
Honorable mention goes to Eisers Dominus, which addresses the close-contact philosophy we want at a reasonable price, but we would like to see the saddle offer a more forgiving fit.
Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Close-Contact Dressage Saddle Sizes And Options.”
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or:
420 Sheffield Road
Ithaca, NY 14580
Schumacher Profi Exclusiv
75 Fernstaff Court #23
Concord, ON, Canada L4K 3R4
Passier Grand Gilbert
German Equestrian Mfg.
34131 DePortola Rd.
Temecula, CA 92592
Whitman Saddle Mfg.
5272 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49006
KL Select Tack
PO Box 812
Waterford, CT 06385
PO Box T
Hazleton, PA 18201
Tad Coffin CCD
Tad Coffin Performance Saddles
1151 Dairy Road
Ruckersville, VA 22968
Crosby SofRide Prix St. Georges
235 Murray Hill Parkway
East Rutherford, NJ 07073
Libertyville Saddle Shop
PO Box M
Libertyville, IL 60048
1033 Twin Silo Lane
Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006