Parts of a Saddle

Parts of a Saddle [complete horse saddle guide]

The saddle is a complex and precise piece of equipment, meant to ensure the safest and most comfortable interaction between horse and rider. Horseback riding is greatly enhanced with the addition of a good saddle so it is important to know the parts of a saddle.

The saddle has been around for hundreds of years. Different groups have adapted the basic design for their own use, but the principle remains the same.

How to Saddle Your Horse
How to Saddle Your Horse

The purpose of a horse saddle is to ensure a safe and comfortable riding experience. 

Horse Saddle Parts

Horse Saddle Parts
Horse Saddle Parts

If you are thinking about getting a horse or have questions and are just curious to learn more about saddles read on! You may be wondering…

How does a saddle actually work? How is it put together? How do you ensure that you have a proper fitting and well-made saddle?

How is a saddle supposed to be fitted for maximum safety and comfort? If you’ve ridden before, you’ve probably learned the basics of saddle fit but what are all these horse saddle parts?

If you are a new rider, or if you’re looking for a saddle for a specific purpose then knowing more about all the parts of this complex piece of equipment is important.

Saddle Types

Not all saddles are the same. If you’re looking for a new saddle, it helps to know what options are out there.

saddle types
Sadddle Types

While there are several small variations, there are really two main types of saddles.

English Saddle

The English saddle is an older style of saddle. There are several variations. However, all of them have key points that differentiate them from the Western saddle.

  • The absence of a pronounced saddle horn
  • The lighter weight and closer contouring

English style saddles are mainly used for competitions. The design is meant to help with the posture and comfort of both horse and rider.

English Saddle
English Saddle

They’re also meant to provide a close-contact seat for the rider.

Western Saddle

Western saddles were originally designed for cowboys working the range. As such, they have some features that are different from the English saddle

  • Heavier weight
  • Broader base/tree
  • Pronounced saddle horn

Historically, Western saddles are also more likely to be decorated with leather tooling or silver accents.

Western saddles were designed to provide you with solid support for spending several hours on your horse.

Western Saddle
Western Saddle

The wider base is meant to disperse the rider’s weight over a greater area for greater comfort.

These days they’re used for long-term or vigorous activities like trail riding and rodeo competitions.

Parts of a Saddle

When it comes to construction, English and Western saddles share many common features and parts. They also have a few differences you’ll want to be aware of.

Saddle Parts

  • Saddle Tree:

The saddle tree is the foundation of a saddle. This is the form around which the rest of the saddle is built.  It will determine how well the saddle sits on your horse’s back.

Saddle trees are usually constructed with a pommel, a cantle, and two saddle bars connecting the two. They determine how weight is distributed across the horse’s back.

  • Pommel:

The pommel is the front swell of the saddle. It should sit just below your horse’s withers. 

The pommel is meant to protect the horse’s withers and help keep a rider in place.

The pommel possesses a fork that can vary in width. This fork determines how well the saddle settles across your horse’s back. A fork that is not wide enough can lead to problems for you and your horse.

  • Cantle:

The cantle is the swell in the back. It’s designed to help keep weight off the horse’s spine. It’s also meant to help keep the rider in the seat.

Generally, it’s wider than the pommel. The height, however, depends somewhat on the type of saddle you’re using. 

  • Seat:

The seat is where the rider is meant to settle. Seats can be varying depths for different disciplines.

A seat should hold you securely and be comfortable.

  • Gullet/Channel:

The channel or gullet is the hollow below the pommel fork. This is what keeps the saddle clear of your horse’s spine.

Determining a proper width and height for your gullet and channel is critical for making sure you have a good fit for your horse. Otherwise, it can cause extreme pain.

The fit of your gullet should be determined by the height and width of your horse’s withers.

Saddle Parts
Saddle Parts
  • Saddle Skirt:

The saddle skirt is generally made of leather and sheepskin. The skirt goes between the saddle tree and the horse.

The main purpose is to keep the hard frame of the saddle tree from coming into contact with the horse’s back. It can also protect the horse and rider from being pinched by the buckles of the saddle.

  • Saddle Pad:

Saddle pads come in a variety of forms. They can be as simple as a blanket. Or have a much more complex design. Historically, saddle pads, or saddle blankets, have two uses.

To provide a measure of comfort and padding for the horse. The precision of saddle fitting today means this is a little less critical. 

Helps protect the saddle from horse sweat and horse hair. 

Saddle pads are not technically part of the main saddle. They are still important pieces of equipment and can help with adjusting saddle fit.

  • Stirrups:

Stirrups are the key component for allowing a rider to mount and stay in the saddle. While riding, they support the rider’s feet and legs.

Stirrups are usually shaped pieces of metal, attached to the saddle with adjustable leather straps. The shape of the stirrups depends on the shape of the saddle and the preference of the rider.

Parts of an English Saddle

Parts of an English Saddle
Parts of an English Saddle
  • Twist:

This is a section between the pommel and the seat on English saddles. Its width determines how the saddle fits the rider.

Different twists can be made for different disciplines or conformations.

Twists can be classified as narrow, medium, or wide.

  • Knee Roll:

This is a cushion that provides knee support for the rider. English saddles are sometimes made with molded knee rolls as part of their structure.

  • Knee and Thigh Block:

These are pads that are under the flap of an English saddle. Both knee and thigh blocks are meant to provide additional support for the rider.

Knee and thigh blocks on a saddle are optional.

If you’re considering an English saddle, you’ll want to try models with and without knee and thigh blocks to determine which is the most comfortable for you.

  • Saddle Flap:

This is a flap of leather that separates the rider’s legs from the sides of the saddle.

This keeps the rider from being pinched or irritated by the buckles for the girth and the stirrups.

  • Girth:

The girth is a strap that goes around the belly of the horse to hold the saddle in place. 

Girth straps are generally meant to be snug, without being too tight for comfort. They should allow the horse to breathe, without allowing slipping.

The girth is adjustable through a variety of means, to ensure proper fit and comfort for both horse and rider.

  • Girth Billet/Billet Keeper:

The girth billet is a length of leather used to help with saddle adjustments. 

The billet keeper stores the extra length. It also serves as a buckle guard. It keeps the buckle from damaging the saddle flaps or irritating the rider’s leg.

Grab Strap:

Saddle grab straps serve the same function on an English saddle as the saddlehorn does on a Western saddle. It is a device you can hang on to the saddle with.

  • Panels:

The underside of the channel. These are the pads that are in contact with the horse. You’ll want to make sure these are comfortable.

The pads are a critical component because they cushion the impact of the rider changing positions. 

  • Stirrup Bar:

The stirrup bar is a small bar under the leather at the pommel. This is where the stirrups are attached to the main body of the saddle.

Stirrup Leathers:

Stirrup Leathers are simply the long piece of leather that connects the stirrup to the upper portion of the saddle. You could say a stirrup leather looks similar to a leather belt.

  • Stirrup Leather Keeper:

This is where the excess strap for the stirrup is held. These are a necessity due to the adjustable nature of the stirrup. 

Some saddles have a simple slot cut into the leather. Others have a small leather loop or patch sewn in as the stirrup leather keeper.

Parts of a Western Saddle

Parts of a Western Saddle
Parts of a Western Saddle
  • Horn:

The horn serves a number of different purposes.

Competitors in certain contests require the use of the horn to secure their ropes.

It also provides extra support and safety for the rider.

  • Cinch and Latigo Keepers:

These serve the same purpose as a girth and a girth billet on an English saddle.

The cinch strap goes around the belly of the horse, like a girth.

A latigo keeper is attached to either side to facilitate adjustments. The cinch and latigo connect via a ‘cinch ring’.

Latigo keepers connect to the saddle via rigging dees in the front of the saddle.

  • Strings:

Strings are used to secure gear on long rides. If you’re looking to do a lot of trail riding, you may want to keep the strings as part of your saddle.

Strings are generally attached to the saddle through the use of small metal disks called conchos.

  • Seat Jockey:

Seat jockeys are pieces of leather that cover the exposed fittings and buckles. Their primary function is to protect the rider from the buckles.

It serves the same purpose as the saddle flap on an English saddle.

  • Billet Strap:

A strap on the back of the saddle for holding extra leather straps.

  • Front and Back Rigging Dee:

These are metal rings attached at the front and back of the saddle. Their primary function is to provide a place to connect the straps.

The most prominent is the front rigging dee, where the latigos attach.

The front rigging dee is also where you attach a breastplate or breast collar if you want or need one. 

A breast collar is designed to stop the saddle from sliding to the rear of the horse from the desired position.

  • Fenders:

Fenders are a wide flap of leather that connects the bottom of the saddle and the stirrup. Its purpose is to provide a barrier between horse and rider, for the comfort of both.

Stirrups are frequently secured to the bottom of the fender with an adjustable strap of heavy leather.

Saddle Construction

Early on, the major materials for saddle making were wood and leather. Recently, however, other materials have been used in construction.

Saddle Tree Construction:

The greatest change has been in the materials used in the saddle tree, according to Horsesaddlecomparison.com. Traditionally, these were wood.

You can also have saddle trees made of fiberglass, plastic, or ralide (synthetic material).

  • Fiberglass trees are more solid but prone to cracking.
  • Plastic makes for a very light saddle tree. However, it is also irreparable once it cracks. 
  • Ralide is very durable. However, it doesn’t allow for a lot of customization.
  • Trees are sometimes reinforced with steel across certain sections to increase lifespan.

Saddle Surfaces and Padding:

All saddles were originally made with tanned leather. The pads were usually sheepskin or stuffed with wool or cotton.

Today, other materials can be used, though leather is still favored for outer sections of the saddle.

  • Pads are made out of cushioning foam, memory foam, or even rubber.
  • These are meant to provide greater impact absorption/cushioning between horse and rider.
  •  Saddle seats can also be made out of felt, wool, or canvas

Different Saddle Uses

Within the two main types of saddles, there are different variations. Each of these different styles of saddles has a different use.

English Saddle Uses

  • Dressage

    Dressage is a way of training horses. A dressage saddle is specially made to the shape of the horse with the goal of enhancing the ability of the rider in the Art of Dressage
  • Jumping

    You usually see English saddles in horse jumping competitions.
  • Show Riding
  • Racing

Western Saddle Uses

  • Cattle Herding

    Herding cattle is rough work for a horse and the western saddle provides many features that are well suited for it.
  • Rodeo Riding

    Rodeos often feature cowboys roping cattle and then tying their rope the the saddle horn.
  • Trail Riding

    Western riding is often synonymous with the term trail riding.

These are just some of the specialty types of saddles you can find. However, if you’re a casual or beginning rider, you can choose a less specialized saddle. 

Both main types of saddles can be used for casual riding. Experts may recommend one style or another based on where, how often, or how long you ride.

How to Fit Saddle to Rider

Once you’ve chosen the proper saddle, how do you know it’s properly fitted to your horse? 

Fitting a saddle properly is part of choosing the proper saddle. If you don’t get a proper fit, even the best saddle will give you and your horse problems.

How to Fit Saddle to Rider
How to Fit Saddle to Rider

Professional saddle fitters can use a fitting chart or fitting tool to make sure the saddle is right for you and your horse.

Here are some ways to make sure your saddle fits you and your horse properly.

  • Space between withers and pommel:

There should be space to fit 3-4 fingers vertically between the withers and the pommel. Less and the saddle may rub your horse the wrong way.

  • Distance between your seat and the cantle:

When you’re sitting in the saddle, you should have almost a hand’s width between you and the cantle. This gives you room to move with the horse. Less indicates you may need a larger saddle.

  • Leg to leather:

In a properly fitted saddle, your leg should comfortably rest along the leather. You shouldn’t be touching the horse with anything other than your heels.

  • Comfortable forward movement:

If your horse seems reluctant to move forward while riding, you may need to check the saddle. A poor fit may cause your horse pain when they move.

  • Dry Spots:

After a vigorous workout, check for dry spots on the saddle pads. Dry spots may indicate an area where the saddle is pinching and causing your horse discomfort.

A poor-fitting saddle can leave both you and the horse uncomfortable. 

Long term, it can also cause much more serious problems, such as pinched nerves, muscle atrophy, or even skeletal damage.

Important Note About Saddle Fit 

Saddle fit needs to be checked and adjusted regularly. Experts agree that as your horse ages, its musculature may change. The saddle may also need to be adjusted if:

  • The rider is a younger individual who is growing
  • The horse gains or loses a significant amount of weight
  • Something changes the muscle conformity of the rider (accident, illness, recovering health)

If you aren’t certain about your saddle’s fit, consult an expert saddle fitter. A riding instructor or a professional saddler should be able to make sure everything is well-fit.

Related Saddle Questions

How Much Does a Good Saddle Cost?

A good saddle can cost $1000+ dollars. However, a high-quality saddle will also last a decade or more if well taken care of. Custom saddles can cost much more.

What Parts Can Be Replaced Without Replacing the Whole Saddle?

Stirrup and cinch leathers (or girth) are the easiest to replace, along with the rigging straps. Some of the panels can also be replaced, but the difficulty and expense may make it problematic.

How Do I Know if the Saddle Tree Breaks?

Apply gentle but firm pressure on the frame. If you feel an abnormal amount of ‘give’ or see warping, then it’s probably broken.

You should consult an expert if you think the saddle tree might be broken.

What is a Treeless Saddle?

A saddle with no ‘tree’ is a treeless saddle. Remember, as stated above, the ‘tree’ is like the foundation or frame that the rest of the saddle is built around. 

Basically, a treeless saddle is more like just a bareback riding pad for the back of the horse. Many say a treeless saddle is more comfortable for a horse but some experts disagree.

They say that the saddle tree actually helps distribute the pressure points on a horses’ back more evenly thus resulting in less potential injury to the horse over time.

What are Croup Straps?

Often referred to as a Crupper, croup straps go around the top of a horse’s tail to help keep the saddle from sliding forward.

Cruppers have been used for years but they are controversial for some.

What is a Barrel Saddle?

Barrel saddles are designed for barrel racing. Barrel racing is a horse event where horse and rider run as fast as possible between and around three barrels. 

Barrel racing saddles feature a deep seat so that the rider can grip the saddle better with their legs as they maneuver sharp fast turns around the barrels.

What is the Most Important Part of a Saddle?

Of course, everyone has their own opinion but to me, the most important part of a saddle is the girth strap! 

If it is not tightened properly your saddle can slip off the side of the horse dumping you on the ground.

Also, if not tighten correctly it can impede your horse’s breathing and be uncomfortable for them.

Conclusion

A saddle is a complex piece of equipment. It’s also the most important component of a rider’s tack. 

A properly made and fitted saddle can last for several years. Professional saddle makers put great pride into their work. You can see the love in their handicraft.

Parts of a Saddle

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