The Evolution of English Saddles

Whether for jumping or dressage, English saddles have undergone changes that give riders more options.

Take a minute to think about the innovations that have occurred over the past 25 years: CDs, the Internet, and … saddles? English horse saddles have undergone major and minor changes since the 1970s and 1980s. While some English riders may embrace modern saddle technologies, others still believe their tried-and-true horse saddles are worth their weight in gold.

Design Over the Decades
Although the appearance of an English saddle has changed over the years, its original purpose still holds true, says Rita O’Shea, owner of Blarney Stone Tack Shop in Lubbock, Texas. Saddles are still designed to keep riders off of their horses’ backs and distribute weight evenly.

The basic English saddle design has moved in a pendulum arc from the 1960s to today. During the 1960s, most saddles were crafted in a full-seat design with lots of padding for the rider, says Susan Maxey, owner of Equusports tack shop in Lubbock, Texas. Later, during the 1970s and 1980s, English saddle design changed to a flatter, close-contact type of saddle.

“Twenty years ago, the predominant saddle was a descendant of a race exercise saddle,” says Ron Friedson, a Connecticut-based saddle designer for Cynron Saddlery.

Most dressage and hunter-jumper saddles during the 1970s and 1980s were designed with flatter seats, had minimal knee rolls, and were light and flexible. Saddle design has come full circle within the last decade or so, with a movement back to deeper seats and more padding.

“Probably the main difference I see is the amount of padding for the rider,” says Master Saddler Marji McFadden, proprietor of a saddle-fitting business at “The saddles have gone from being quite flat and minimalist to being quite padded and comfortable for the rider.”

Maxey agrees. “It’s evolved into these French saddles with a slightly deeper cantle. Everything about them is improved: You have more support and the close-contact feel like you used to.”

Beginning in the 1970s, most saddles were constructed with stabilizing foam-rubber panels on a lightweight tree and a foam-rubber seat, Friedson says. About 80% of saddles are still built in this basic design.

Today’s saddlers use a variety of materials. Twenty-five years ago, saddle trees were primarily made of wood or steel. Now, saddlers have the option of using fiberglass, polymers, plastics, other materials – or no tree at all.

Some saddles are designed with interchangeable gullets, created to help riders fit a greater variety of horses in the withers. Flexible polymer trees, like those used at Cynron Saddlery, allow horses to feel and comprehend subtle cues from their riders, says Cindy McCully, president of Cynron Saddlery. These flexible trees can move laterally and front-to-back and even follow the conformation of the horse’s back during bending, Friedson says.

Saddle panels have also undergone significant improvements. Over the years, saddlers have progressed from only using wool for stuffing to incorporating foam, felt, and more modern technologies, including advanced polymer materials and air.

Cynron Saddlery, based in Frederick, Md., developed a unique saddle panel material called CIRP technology – short for conforming to shape, impact resistance, regulation and response to temperature, and protective polymers. The panels are composed of two layers: a solid polymer and a layer of Styrofoam-type beads that prevent pressure points and provide support. A foam and wool mixture on top of the two layers helps provide adjustability and a more traditional appearance, McCully says. The CIRP material absorbs impact and heat, transfers energy laterally, and conforms to the individual horse and rider. Its unique properties prevent the material from becoming denser with use, one of the causes of pressure points.

Additionally, leather is no longer the only covering for a saddle. The development and rise of synthetic materials in saddle construction, particularly in the last 10 years, has provided more choices.

“Synthetic saddles have made English riding more accessible to the average rider,” says Paul Wahl, editor of Tack n’ Togs magazine. “Today you can get good-quality saddles for very reasonable prices, and if you find you don’t enjoy the English disciplines, you’re not out of your life’s savings.”

McFadden agrees with the effect synthetic saddles have had in getting more riders started in English riding.

“On the low end, there are synthetics which offer entry-level riders an easy way to get started with a saddle with little maintenance,” McFadden says.

Modern English saddles are also evolving from using traditional cowhide leather to incorporating specialty leathers, including buffalo hide and elephant print. These leathers are often strong, durable, and virtually waterproof, McCully says.

“Saddle technology in the last five years has had a larger increase than in the last 15 years before that.”

Industry Influence
Quite often, changes in equipment reflect changes in the industry itself. During the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of English-riding horses in the United States were Thoroughbreds, and there were few crossbreds, Friedson says. As the number of warmbloods and crossbred horses increased, the issue of saddle fit and construction became much more important.

“Saddles were designed to fit the breed,” McCully says. “Now it’s not unusual to walk into a barn and hear that there are four different breeds in a horse. There’s a big gap in the ability to be able to fit these horses.”

Horse industry trends have also spawned greater variety in types of English saddles , O’Shea notes. Originally, most English saddles were designed for jumping. As industry-based interest in other sub-disciplines grew, saddlers began designing event-specific saddles. Today, there are saddles specifically designed for jumpers, hunters, fox hunting, eventing, dressage, and other English events.

“We have tried to accommodate these different disciplines with different configurations of saddles,” O’Shea says.

McFadden and Wahl attributed some saddle-design changes to the current population of aging riders. Twenty years ago, riders were told that they should be good enough to ride in any type of saddle, McFadden says. Now, the industry is creating more comfortable English saddles in order to keep aging riders in the saddle.

“I know a number of older riders who like the idea of the lightweight properties of an English saddle,” Wahl says. “The average rider in the U.S. is getting older, so that’s probably a trend we’ll see for a while.”

Impact on Horse and Rider
Many modern saddles offer more support than their 1970s counterparts, McFadden says. Some saddle companies even allow riders to customize their saddles to their conformation by offering long, short, and forward flaps.

McCully says modern saddle improvements help protect horses and riders, increase their longevity, and allow them to work longer. Although riders today have many technologies available to them, saddles still need to accomplish two objectives.

“It’s a piece of sporting equipment that is an interface between two living things,” she says. “It needs to communicate cues between horse and rider and protect them.”

Wahl points out that riders are a driving influence in saddle improvements and other industry advancements. “As with almost any equine product, demand from consumers drives most of the changes,” he says. “Consumers are always looking for the next greatest thing in a saddle and are more and more willing to pay the price.”

Saddle-Hunting Tips

If you find a treasured old saddle in your tack room or decide to purchase a used saddle, you should evaluate its condition before putting it back to work.

• Billets should be in good shape and not stressed.
• Panels should not be cracked or show excessive wear.
• Look for abnormal wear on the saddle, especially where repair is difficult.
• Leather should be supple.
• Stitching should be intact, especially in high-stress areas.
• The tree should be sound and not broken.
• The saddle should fit the horse and rider.

If you are in the market for a saddle, do your homework and determine what type of saddle you want to purchase and how much you’re willing to spend, Rita O’Shea suggests. Remain open-minded during your saddle search and remember that every person has his own opinion, Cindy McCully says. “What’s comfortable for your best friend is not necessarily the most comfortable for you.”

People who are different shapes, sizes, and ride different horses need different saddles, Ron Friedson says. You and your horse are the best indicators of correct saddle fit and comfort. “Listen to what your horse is telling you and what your body is telling you,” McCully says. “If the two of you are happy in the saddle you chose, don’t listen to anyone else.”

McCully says testing a new saddle is comparable to trying on jeans at the store. To find the best-fitting and most comfortable one, you need to try them on, walk around, look in the mirror, and make sure it looks good and fits comfortably.

Friedson, McCully, O’Shea, Marji McFadden, and Paul Wahl all agree that saddle fit should not be compromised when buying a saddle. Riders should be prepared to spend extra money to get their saddle fitted correctly, McFadden says.

“Never buy a saddle that doesn’t fit your horse,” Wahl says. “You’ll live to regret it.”

All in all, horse and rider need to be comfortable, balanced and happy with the saddle they ultimately purchase. Regardless of new saddles or used saddles, quality should outrank the saddle’s price, Wahl says.

“Buy the best quality your pocketbook can afford, but remember that the most expensive saddles aren’t always the best quality,” Wahl says.

Prices on the Rise
Like most consumer products, the price of saddles has increased over the past 20 years. During the 1970s and 1980s, a top-of-the-line saddle cost less than $1,000, O’Shea says. Similar upper-end saddles today can sell for more than $4,000.

Many saddles are made abroad, and several factors in today’s marketplace have influenced saddle prices, McCully says. Manufacturing, transportation, and leather costs have increased, and those increases can drive up the cost of the finished product. Dollar-to-pound price conversions can also increase the price of British-made saddles.

Additionally, new technologies incorporated into saddles can drive up the final price. “Those materials are incredibly expensive,” McCully says.

One of the relatively recent trends in the saddle industry is the development of moderately priced saddles, designed to fill gaps in the current market. “Now for $1,000, you can buy a decently made saddle that’s balanced and, engineering-wise, comparable to a $1,500 saddle,” Friedson says.

O’Shea stresses that riders should not use the price of a saddle to gauge its quality or effectiveness. “If it doesn’t fit, it’s not worth anything,” she says. “Price should not be the determining factor.”

Fit for a King
One of the most prominent changes in the world of English saddles is the importance of saddle fit. This has occurred due to the influx of new breeds and mixed-bred horses and from advancements within the industry itself.

In the past, “saddle fit wasn’t really an issue for the horse or rider,” McFadden says. People simply looked at the type of horse they had and bought a saddle that was comfortable for them in the size designed for the breed.

“Fitting has become such a buzzword in the last 10 years because of the type of horses,” McCully says. “Now, the type of saddle you have available has changed too.”

New technologies incorporated into today’s saddles, including more variety in tree and gullet sizes, provide an increased ability to fit more horses with the correct saddle, O’Shea says.

O’Shea likened a poor-fitting saddle to wearing a blouse that is too tight. When you wear a blouse that doesn’t fit, you have a restricted range of movement. The same is true when a horse, or rider, is placed in an incorrectly fitted saddle.

McFadden says the most common saddle-fitting problem she sees in her business is incorrect saddle placement. She notes that hunter-jumper riders tend to place the saddle too far forward on their horses’ withers. This can have a negative impact on the horse and rider’s performance.

“If the saddle is not placed correctly, everything else is thrown out of kilter,” she says.

Correct saddle placement involves placing the saddle on the withers and sliding it back until it ceases to move easily. The middle of the saddle should have a spot that is parallel to the ground – this is the saddle’s “sweet spot,” or the location where the rider’s weight should be kept, O’Shea says. The saddle’s cantle should be one to three inches higher than the saddle’s pommel, and the saddle should be free of the horse’s shoulders.

One of the most difficult types of horses to fit is a high-withered horse that has a substantial drop to the back, McFadden says. “If you fit the tree to the withers, the cantle is inches too low. If you fit the saddle to balance, the tree is too wide.”

Often, riders incorrectly assume that most horses need a wide channel or gullet, Friedson says. While some horses may need additional room across the back, other horses – like some very fit Thoroughbreds – may develop ailments or lameness because the saddle displaces weight too far over the ribcage.

“It’s not just the tree width at the front; it’s the way the saddle panels follow the contours of the horse front to back,” Friedson emphasizes.

Another problem McFadden notes is owner reluctance to purchase a correctly fitting saddle for individual horses. But the fact is, sometimes one saddle cannot be used on two different horses, she points out.

“You can’t expect a horse to perform if it’s being hindered by what’s on its back,” O’Shea says.

Ideally, saddles should fit snugly and provide support to the horse and rider, Friedson says. He correlates this idea to what would be needed by mountain climbers. “I always tell people that you wouldn’t want to climb a mountain in your bedroom slippers,” he says.

Aside from the fit of the saddle to the horse, riders must consider the fit of the saddle to themselves. Friedson and McCully say incorrect saddle-seat size is one of the biggest problems they see.

10 Points of Correct Saddle Fitting

Without a doubt, the art of saddle fitting has evolved in the past two decades. The Master Saddlers Association has developed a 10-point guide to help riders make sure their saddles fit their horses correctly.

1. Find the saddle’s correct placement. Place your saddle on the horse’s back and, using pressure from your hand on the saddle’s pommel, slide the saddle backward until it comes to rest. Repeat until the saddle rests in the same location consistently, placed well behind the shoulders. Master Saddler Marji McFadden says incorrect saddle placement is one of the most common fitting problems she sees, and notes that hunter-jumper riders tend to place their saddles too far forward on their horses’ withers.
2. Evaluate the saddle’s points. Have an assistant lift the saddle’s flaps while you evaluate the saddle from the front of the horse. The points should lie parallel to the horse’s withers, within 10 degrees of the heaviest-muscled side.
3. Evaluate the saddle’s panels. While pressing down on the saddle’s seat for stabilization, run your free hand underneath the front panels to feel for even pressure under the points. Then, run your hand under the entire panel from front-to-back, feeling for even pressure.
4. Evaluate the pommel and cantle. In a correctly fitted and placed saddle, the saddle’s cantle should be one to three inches higher than its pommel, depending on the depth of seat.
5. Evaluate the seat: The deepest part of the saddle’s seat should rest parallel to the ground for correct rider placement.
6. Evaluate the wither clearance. With the rider sitting in the saddle, there should be two to three fingers of clearance between the horse’s withers and the top of the pommel.
7. Evaluate the gullet width. Estimate the width of the horse’s spine with your fingers and ensure that the saddle’s gullet will completely clear this width.
8. Evaluate saddle stability. Your saddle should not shift excessively from front to back or side to side.
9. Evaluate the seat length. The saddle should not extend past the horse’s 18th thoracic vertebrae, which corresponds with its last rib.
10. Evaluate your horse’s response. Your horse’s ear movements and body language may help indicate a correct or poorly fitted saddle.

“Twenty years ago, people were more willing to put themselves in a larger seat size,” McCully says. “Today, due to marketing, everyone wants to be in a 16.5. People don’t want to hear that they belong in a larger-size saddle. The deeper the seat sits, the larger it needs to be for you to work in it.”

One of the conditions leading to incorrect seat size is the lack of larger-sized saddles offered in catalogs, Friedson says. During the 1980s, 17-inch to 20-inch saddles were routinely offered by saddle manufacturers. Today, most saddles are made in the 16-inch to 18-inch range.

O’Shea also notes the lack of correctly fitted saddles amongst young riders. “Too many children ride in saddles that don’t fit them,” she says. “Children need to ride in children’s saddles.”

To find a correctly fitting saddle for the rider, Friedson says to sit relaxed in the saddle. Riders should be able to feel their seat bones, and there should be about four inches of saddle behind your seat. A too-small saddle seat will drive the rear saddle panels into the horse’s back and can cause you to ride stronger with one side of your body.

O’Shea suggests riders fit the saddle to their leg before fitting it to their seat. By having a correct length of saddle flap, riders’ leg cues are not inhibited.

McFadden fits a lot of dressage riders with a forward flap, a relatively new innovation in dressage saddles. “I fit about 50% of my riders with the forward flap because of the angle their legs come out of their hips,” she says.

Friedson and O’Shea agree that saddles should be evaluated with a rider sitting in the saddle while it is on the horse in order to get the most accurate fit.

Paying attention to signs from you and your horse can help identify incorrectly fitting saddles. Bucking, kicking, aggressive behavior, sores, and rubs can result from ill-fitting tack, O’Shea and McCully say. Cool, dry marks under the saddle after a workout can also mean the saddle is not making contact with the horse in that area, McCully says.

Poor performance from the horse and rider can indicate an incorrectly fitting piece of tack. “Anytime a horse seems to have training issues or attitude problems, it’s important to look at reasons for that problem, including saddle fit,” McFadden says.

Correct-fitting tack is a quality of good horsemanship, O’Shea says. “Good riders are cognizant that not every saddle fits every horse,” she says. “If you want the most out of your horse, you need a correctly fitting saddle.”

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!