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Types of Riding Saddles

English Saddle, Western Saddle and Side Saddle


The saddles known as English Saddles (as opposed to Western Saddles) are used throughout the world, not just in England or English-speaking countries.

The term English Saddle encompasses several types, including those used for show jumping and hunt seat, dressage, Saddle Seat, horse racing and polo. To non-horsemen, the major distinguishing feature of an English saddle is its lack of a horn. (However, some Western saddles, such as those used in Endurance riding, lack a horn as well).

The other major characteristic which defines an English saddle is that it has panels: these are a pair of pads attached to the underside of the seat and filled with wool, foam, or air. Thus the English saddle contains its own padding and, if correctly fitted, does not require the use of a separate saddle blanket to protect the horse's back as does the Western saddle.

Although some modern saddlers have developed alternative models, the English saddle is usually constructed on a framework known as a tree. The tree is made of wood, spring steel, or composite, and it supports the rider on a sling of webbing between the firm pommel (front of the saddle) and cantle (back of the saddle). On either side of the tree, a steel hook known as the "stirrup bar" is affixed. It is upon this hook that the rider hangs the stirrup leather, which is a very strong leather or nylon loop supporting the stirrup. At the bottom of the tree are several more very strong leather or nylon straps known as billets, to which will eventually buckle the girth--the beltlike strap which holds the saddle onto the horse.

The tree and its various parts are upholstered with a covering made of leather, nylon or microfiber and shaped to form the seat above and the panels below.

In addition to the seat and panels, English saddles feature a leather flap on either side called, appropriately, the flap. The flap sits between the rider's leg and the horse's side and protects the horse from being pinched by the stirrup leather. On some saddles it is also specially padded to protect or support the rider's knee.

The differences between the styles of English saddle are small but significant. The most important distinctions are the location of the seat, and the flap length and shape. A saddle used for a discipline where the rider sits more upright with a longer leg, such as in dressage, has a flap that is longer to accommodate the leg, and less inclined forward (as the knee doe not need to go forward). The seat will also be closer to the withers, to keep the rider's center of gravity in the correct spot. However, in disciplines where the rider needs shorter stirrups for extra support, such as in the jumping disciplines, the saddle flap is moved proportionately forward and shortened, and the seat is moved further back. A jumping saddle will have a shorter and more forward flap than a dressage saddle, with the seat slightly more towards the cantle. If the flap was not inclined forward, the rider’s knee would hang over the flap. If the seat was not moved rearward, the rider would be forced ahead of the saddle over a fence. A racing saddle, where jockeys ride with incredibly short stirrups, will have an extremely forward and short saddle flap (almost more horizontal than vertical), and the seat will be extended very far back from the pommel to keep the rider’s center of gravity correctly situated.

Padding is also considered when developing a saddle. While a polo saddle is constructed with a minimum of padding so as to allow the polo player great freedom to twist and reach for his shot, a saddle used for jumping or eventing may have more padding to help give the rider support over fences.

The Park or Saddle-Seat saddle has a low, flat seat which places the rider toward the rear of the horse, as is traditional in their show ring.

English saddles are made in many places around the world, although many people feel that the very best quality are indeed made in Walsall, England. Other countries that produce fine English saddles are Germany, Switzerland and the United States. Argentina produces a large number of saddles, particularly for the polo market, and some have found their quality to be quite good.

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A Western Saddle
A Western Saddle

Western Saddles are saddles used in--or based on the ones used in--cattle ranching in the United States. They are the "cowboy saddles" familiar to movie viewers, rodeo fans, and those who have gone on tourist trail rides.

The design of the Western saddle derives from the saddles of the Spanish vaqueros, the early cattle and sheep herders of Mexico and the Southwest. It was developed from a combination of the saddles used in the two main styles of horseback riding then practiced in Spain--"la jineta" or Moorish style and "la estradiota" or jousting style--with the addition of a very functional item: the saddle "horn". The horn allowed vaqueros to rope and control cattle. Today, many Western riders have never worked a cow, but their saddles still feature this historical element. (Some newer Western saddles, such as those used in Endurance riding and those made for the rapidly growing European market, do not have horns.) Another element which contributed to the design of the Western saddle was the McClellan saddle of the American cavalry.

The Western saddle is unlike the English Saddle in that it has no padding of its own. The weight-bearing area of the saddle is large and usually covered with soft sheepskin, but it must be padded with a saddle blanket in order to provide a comfortable fit for the horse.

Other differences between the Western and English saddles include: Stirrups. those of the Western saddle are not built to detach from the saddle in case of emergency, but instead are spacious and sturdy; the rider's high-heeled cowboy boots prevent his feet from slipping through and exposing him to the danger of being dragged. Method of securing the saddle to the horse: rather than buckling on as does the English girth, the Western girth, known as a cinch, is tied on with a strap of leather.

There are many types of Western saddle available. Some are general-purpose models while others are specialized for the various Western horse sports such as cutting, reining, roping, and show.

Many people feel that the Western saddle is more comfortable than the English Saddle. This is doubtless because of its history and purpose --as a working tool for a cowboy who spends all day, every day, on horseback.

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The sidesaddle is a type of saddle on which the rider sits aside rather than astride the mount.

The sidesaddle was designed for use by women as it was considered unbecoming for a lady to straddle a horse whilst riding. It was also practical, since dresses were the popular fashion.

Modern sidesaddle may be seen in dressage, show-jumping and hunting. The two main types of sidesaddle in use are the Western and English sidesaddles.

The sidesaddle fell out of general use for several decades, but the sport enjoyed a revival in the 1970s. Sidesaddles were long regarded as a quaint anachronism by many in the horse world, but modern riders are finding new applications in the show ring, in historical rides and re-enactments, and in parades. In addition, the sidesaddle is a staple in many theraputic riding programs, because the design of the saddle provides extra security to the rider.

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A saddle blanket is the woven blanket, usually made of wool, which is folded and inserted under the Western Saddle in order to absorb sweat, cushion the saddle, and help it conform to the horse's back.

Saddle pads, a similar item, are often used under the English Saddle but in this case, their purpose is not to help the saddle conform to the horse's back; the panels of the English saddle take care of that. The original purpose of the English saddle pad was to protect the saddle from dirt and sweat.



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