This article will give you enough information to be able to purchase a good saddle that not only fits the horse, but fits you as well.
One thing I like to stress, when looking for a saddle, the cheaper they are the worse they fit. Cheap saddles do not last due to the lack of quality in almost every area: leather, stitching, tree and fleece.
They often use plastic (cheap) and staples. Quality saddles use nails and screws, rawhide, fiberglass and flex trees.
Quality Means Better Fit
If you cannot afford new, it’s best to look for a used quality saddle. These are a few of my favorite brands, and I own several of them: Billy Cook, Circle Y (especially the older models), Crates, Martin (Wade), Courts, Eamour and Tex Tan. Stay clear of any saddles coming from India or China.
The cinch does not need to be really tight on a good fitting saddle. A good quality saddle that fits properly will not slide back and forth.
Used saddles need to be checked for broken trees, worn sheepskin, cracked leather on vital parts, such as stirrup and fender areas and latigo straps. To check for a broken tree, tip the saddle upside down and press on both sides firmly. It should not give, and even most flex trees do not give more than 1/8 inch. Also grab the saddle horn and see if it moves. Never buy any saddle with a damaged tree.
Parts of a saddle you need to know
Tree: this is the most important part of the saddle as it is the foundation that distributes the weight evenly over the back. The traditional tree is made from a softer wood such as pine. It is covered in bull hide (tough) and dried until it is super-tight. This allows the tree a bit of ‘give’, keeping the horse more comfortable. Along the side are ‘bars’ that run front to back, and the angle, shape and size will determine fit (Reg. QH bars – gullet width 5 ¾, semi bars – 6”, full – 6 ¼ – 6 ½”, extra wide 6 ¾ – 7”, Arab bars 6 ¼ to 6 ¾”). The pommel or front varies according to the style of saddle, and has an ‘A’ shaped opening (gullet) to accommodate the wither, and a horn. At the back, the cantle rises and provides support for the rider, and varies from style to style.
Cinch: the wide strap that secures the saddle. This is where quality really counts. A bad cinch can lay up your horse from riding for months. Cinch’s vary from string to felt, hair and neoprene, but always remember to look for width (distributes pressure better) and thickness. Never use a thin string cinch as it will bind and pinch the skin under the elbows. Back rigging is a rear cinch that keeps the saddle from lifting up during quick stops and fast maneuvers, but most horses and riders do not need it. It will not keep the saddle from riding forward. Back rigging should always be attached to the front cinch by a small strap.
Front rigging position on the saddle comes in full, 7/8, 3/4 and center fire. When the cinch is up closer to the horses elbow (full), it can interfere with movement; many endurance riders prefer to use 5/8 or center fire rigging to allow the cinch to sit further back from the front legs. Most saddles are built with 7/8. Rigging can be built into the skirt (inskirt), or attached to the tree. Inskirt rigging can be less bulky for the rider’s leg.
This is the long vertical leather under the rider’s leg. Cheap saddles often use shorter fenders to save on leather. When buying used, check this area for cracks and damage, especially at the bottom end where the stirrup attaches. The leather can crack from water and dirt build-up, and you could lose your stirrup at an inconvenient moment.
Horn: the purpose of the saddle will dictate the horn style. I prefer to find one that fits my hand or at least three fingers, and the horn is not too small or large. Wiggle the horn and make sure it’s not broken or loose.
Seat: Get picky about the seat when looking for saddles. When I am using a saddle for training, I prefer a flatter seat that gives me more room to move (check out Crate’s Pleasure saddles). When showing, I like to use deeper seats that restrict excess movement. For pleasure I look for something in the middle. You want to have about 4 inches in the front and your seat should rest at the cantle, not be pressed into the back of it.