Take a Seat: A Look at English Saddles

Published in the February 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled
Copyright © 1996 Leslie Desmond, Diamond Lu Productions. All rights reserved.


When it comes to English saddles, their types and makers, the advantage of one over the other, quality differences and so forth, experience is the best teacher.

English saddles and guts

In the fifth grade my interest in saddles led me to collect three saddles with busted trees and dissect them for a science project instead of slicing up frogs. “What on earth is that padding under the seat?” I wondered aloud and often, until my project was finally approved. As my queasy classmates were snipping tendons and diagramming amphibious hearts and lungs, I ripped into those panels to find out.

One saddle had old gnarled-up wads of horsehair inside, another was stuffed with lanolin-rich wads of sheepswool. In both cases the pungent smell lingered on my hands for hours. My third saddle indicated times had changed and saddlers were using synthetic foam rubber to cushion the horse’s back from the rider’s bottom. In this saddle the cushion had deteriorated into a mealy, dark yellow powder that spilled to the ground through the knife-slit I carved into the panel.

In my notes from 1964 I described this stuffing as, "Don’t know, looks awful." I can’t help but think that in the intervening 32 years the technology of foam products has changed enough to improve their durability.

c776043d2dGrand Prix model dressage saddle by Charles Keiffer.         
dcec64d376All-purpose close-contact saddle by Blue Ribbon of England.         
4da1ffc60dA “flat-seated” show saddle by Fox-Lane. Thanks to Jim Naugle and Clievalle Ranch.    

The German lesson

My quest for better understanding of English-saddle construction was not over. Next stop: Hanover, Germany, in 1973. There was a generations-old saddle shop that specialized in jumping saddles.

My tour through the old shop--from the dank room filled with fresh beef and bacon hides to the show room with bright lights--gave me a new appreciation of the “trades.” As you might expect, most of the saddlemakers carried some age, but it also seemed the clock had stopped. Most of the workers had the white hair and wore the rimless spectacles. They all donned the medieval-looking three-quarter-length work tunic. They took their work very seriously.

I sensed a rift in the ranks at the Hanover shop. I believe that by then they had started to switch over to, or were experimenting with, synthetic trees. I sensed friction between the traditionalists and those experimenting with synthetic trees. I also sensed a clash between the morning and afternoon shop stewards about whether I should be allowed any information about their world famous Passier (French pronunciation: “pass-ee-ay”) jumping saddles.

Yet, each steward showed me how synthetic and wooden trees were made. I recall, quite vividly, that a truly huge man came over to me with a 17" wooden tree and--with his gigantic boots--demonstrated the tree’s strength by jumping on all parts of the tree. I was convinced of its strength. If I was forced to cast my vote for synthetic or wooden tree that day, I’d have joined the traditionalists.

gear3 4The 1976 Olympic model jumping saddle by Italian saddler Pariani.
gear3 5gear3 7These two views show an Argentine jumping saddle with padded knee rolls. This is a popular, less expensive model that is great for aspiring hunter/jumper riders.       

Form follows function

What I conclude about saddles is the same that I conclude about most every other thing... form follows function.

If you’re going to hunt or jump on a regular basis, get yourself a forward seat saddle and hike those stirrups up a bit.

If you’re going to jump part of the time, trail ride, show in hunt seat equitation or just hack around, you might like an all-purpose close-contact saddle with a slightly longer stirrup adjustment.

If your pleasure tends toward gaited horses, ring work or competitive performance, then saddle up with the flat saddle of your choice and lengthen your stirrups.

As for dressage, most saddles are more of a deep-seated, close contact arrangement that favors more hours at the sitting trot than a person could stand in other types of saddles. Although they do not position the rider to advantage for a jump, the exercise and practice of dressage fundamentals is - fortunately - a prerequisite in many places for work over cavaletti and low fences.

One last tip: Getting dragged by the foot can ruin an otherwise fine day. So, whatever, whenever and however you ride, remember, always, check your girth and go to the extra time, expense and trouble of rigging your English saddle with a quick-release safety stirrup. It’s also important to remember to leave the hinged stirrup-leather bar in the “open” position.    

gear3 6A quick-release safety stirrup for the right foot. Also called a “peacock” stirrup with a non-slip pad. The rubber band pops off when too much weight presses against it, releasing the foot.       
gear3 8This design, for the left foot, enables the foot to slip free instead of catch across the instep when a rider falls from the saddle.