Archive for July, 2010

Rider’s guide to buying a saddle #5 SERVICE


When you purchase something as important  and as personal as a saddle, you want to be certain that the manufacturer and your local dealer will support you. After all, when you buy a car, you usually consider the reputation of the manufacturer and the local dealer where you will need to go for service.  You should have the same considerations when buying a saddle. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. How much will simple repairs cost? Almost everyone eventually needs to replace worn billets and adjust fit as their horse matures.
  2. How long will you be without your saddle when these repairs need to be made? A few days? A few weeks? Months?
  3. When you have a question, do you need to speak a foreign language? Do you work with an American representative?  Or can you deal directly with an American company?
  4. If you phone the manufacturer, do you immediately speak with a knowledgeable person? Or do you have to work your way through a maze of menu options?

Rider’s guide to buying a saddle #4 ATTENTION TO DETAILS

#4 Attention to Details

A top quality saddle is made by a craftsman with skill and care.  The design is carefully thought out and executed using the highest quality materials. Here are a few things to look for that indicate high quality.

  1. Linen webbing: The steel and wood tree of a traditional saddle is strained with linen webbing to form the seat. The webbing is stretched over the tree and tacked into the saddle tree.  Depending on how the webbing is stretched, the seat will be flat or deep. The working center of the seat can be placed in the correct position for each discipline. The linen web is a natural product produced with flax. Before it is used in a saddle, it is stretched several times so that it will not stretch and sag under the rider’s weight.  Linen webbing is becoming quite scarce and many saddle manufacturers are forced into using nylon web.  Nylon is very strong, but it will stretch.  If you examine the billets of a saddle, you will notice that they are stitched onto a piece of webbing. If the webbing is grayish tan and has a rough texture,  it is natural linen. If it is black or any other color and smooth textured, it is nylon.
  2. Recessed stirrup bars: A top quality saddle will have the stirrup bars attached under the tree.  This will reduce the amount of bulk under the rider’s legs. It will not press on the horse because of the thickness and resiliency of the panel stuffing.
  3. Concealed stitching:  The seat of a saddle is attached to the skirts and skirts are stitched to the tie downs. The tie downs are tacked to the saddle tree. Using a curved needle, a skilled saddler stitches the tie downs to the skirts with concealed stitches.  The thread is within the thickness of the leather. Because it is inside of the leather it will not wear out with the abrasion of the rider’s seat and legs.  This concealed stitching can sometimes be detected by a line of fine “dimples” along the top edge of the skirt.  The skirt and tie downs can be stitched together with a sewing machine.  A line of machine stitching along the top of the skirt is very common, but with use, those stitches will wear out.

Rider’s guide to buying a saddle #3 LEATHER

3. Leather

Saddles are traditionally made of leather.  But there are many kinds and qualities of leather.  How can you determine if a saddle is made with good leather?

Smell it.  Flex it.  Spit on it.  Well, not exactly spit on it, just moisten your fingertip with saliva and wet a small, discreet spot.  A good place is on the flap under the skirt near the stirrup bar.  Does the saliva cause the leather to darken?  If it does, then the leather is an open grain leather that will absorb oils and preservatives that you will be using on your saddle.  If nothing happens, then wait. Apply more saliva. Rub harder. Sometimes, with top quality leather that has a waxy coating, it will take a while to penetrate. But if still nothing happens, it is probably “dye impregnated”  or pigmented leather. Lots of different terms are used.  Whatever you call it, the surface is painted with a plastic coating that seals the leather and hides imperfections.  When the surface wears off, the inferior leather underneath will be exposed.

used saddle made with inferior "painted" leather

Some saddle makers skimp on leather quality by using inferior leathers and painting the surface to look like top quality leather. If you are buying a top quality saddle, you should be getting top quality leather. If you are purchasing an entry level saddle, then you may not mind if the leather is of inferior quality.  So, by using a little bit of spit, you have one more piece of information about the quality of a saddle.

Different kinds of open grain leather have different attributes.

  • Pigskin is very durable and is often used for seats. It always gives a very firm seat.  Used for seats and other areas subject to wear, such as beneath stirrup leathers.
  • French Calfskin is very luxurious and comfortable but is not durable. Used for seats, knee patches and panels of very expensive, stylish saddles.
  • Buffalo leather is deeply textured and very durable.  Depending on the tannage, it can be very flexible.  Used for flaps and skirts.
  • Buffalo calf leather is durable and yet very soft. Often used for seats, knee patches and panels.
  • Glove tanned cowhide is soft and moderately durable. Used for seats, knee patches and panels.
  • Pig print cowhide is thicker and stiffer and has a pigskin texture embossed into the surface for increased grip. Used for flaps and skirts.  Becomes softer with use.

As a rider/consumer you need to decide what is most important to you.  Comfort?  Durability? Style?  Then make sure that the saddle you select has the leather that will give you the qualities you want.

Rider’s guide to buying a saddle #2 SADDLE TREE

2. Saddle Tree

The saddle tree serves 3 purposes.

  1. It spreads the rider’s weight over a greater area of the horse’s back
  2. It keeps the rider’s weight off of sensitive parts of a horse’s back (withers, spine)
  3. It provides a form on which to shape the seat providing the rider with comfort and  support.

There are treeless saddles on the market and they are useful for riders who are using several different horses with different conformations.  One size indeed fits all.  But they are not good for long term, daily use. There is constant pressure on the withers and spine which will eventually hurt the horse.  Also, the lack of tree makes mounting tricky, as the saddle will tend to rotate around the horse unless an assistant pulls down the off side stirrup leather while you are mounting or you use a very tall mounting block.  Treeless saddles are good for balance training.

Saddle trees can be made of steel and wood (traditional) or  plastic resins.  Even high-tech carbon fiber. Sometimes you need to take a saddle apart before you know for sure, but here are a few hints so that you don’t need to do that.  Turn the saddle upside down and run your fingertips the length of the channel. Feel under the panels.

plastic saddle tree

If you feel an absolutely smooth surface beneath the leather, the saddle probably has a synthetic tree. (See photo at left)  It is stiff and rigid.  It’s often impossible to adjust the fit to allow for different conformations.  If your horse rolls on it, you usually throw the saddle away. A steel and wood tree can usually be repaired and may only need to be straightened without replacing parts.

steel and wood tree with linen webbing

If you feel lumps and bumps and ridges, then you are feeling a steel and wood tree.   On a spring tree saddle, you will feel the spring steel bars and the gaps between them and the underside of the strained web that forms the seat.

By using spring steel bars, the wood portions of the tree can be made thinner and therefore more flexible while the spring steel maintains the strength. This is what makes a “spring tree”,  a “spring tree”. It allows the saddle to flex ever so slightly with the movements of the horse and rider.

If you cannot tell what the tree is made of and it’s not described in literature about the saddle, contact the manufacturer or a reputable saddle fitter.

Some saddles have interchangeable gullet plates that you can change yourself.  These gullet plates  change only the shape of the pommel. There is a lot more to saddle fit than just the wither area. If your horse has high withers and well sprung ribs, then changing the gullet will not work. Does your horse need a wide channel for a wide spine? Is he sway backed? Is he flat backed?  Is he uphill? Downhill? A quality saddle can be adjusted in many ways and many times over the lifetime of the saddle.

Rider’s guide to buying a saddle #1 PANELS

1. Panels

The purpose of the panels is to be a cushion between the saddle tree and the horse’s back and provide some resilience and shock absorption.  Ideally, they should conform to the horse’s back shape.

How can you know what the panels are filled with?  You can sometimes tell by the presence of a gusset. In a saddle, a gusset is a wedge shaped piece of leather that allows extra volume within the panels. A gussetted panel is usually flock filled. This allows space for more flocking and increases the surface area of the panels.  If there is no gusset, then the panels are usually, but not always, filled with foam rubber.  (Some older saddles did not have a gusset but were flock stuffed.)  A non-gusseted, foam filled panel is easier for an unskilled saddler saddler to make.  He doesn’t need to have the skills to hand stuff evenly. He just covers a preformed molded shape with leather.  If the foam panels happen to be the same shape as your horse, great.  There is no problem until the foam becomes hard and crumbly with age, your horse changes shape, or you get a new horse. They are what they are. They cannot be changed.  Some saddles have a combination of flock and a thin layer of foam. The flock is for adjustability, the foam is for a smooth surface next to the horse.

Some saddles have air filled panels. Air is plentiful and no skill is required to inflate the panels. A piece of felt or foam is placed between the air filled plastic bladders and the leather covering. If the bladders are over inflated, you will get a very bouncy ride. Saddle fitters are unable to adjust air panels. If one of the air bladders is punctured, or leaks, it’s like having a flat tire. The saddle is unrideable. Not only is the rider left totally out of balance, but the horse is quickly injured by the full pressure of the rider’s weight on the unpadded tree.

We believe that the best panel stuffing is long staple virgin wool. It can be either white or gray. A well stuffed saddle panel is firm enough to support the saddle and rider, yet soft enough to allow some degree of self molding to your horse’s back.  But how can you tell when it’s all covered with leather? One way is to talk to a reputable saddle repairer or fitter.  Another is to contact the manufacturer. Or you can bring a small pair of blunt ended tweezers with you when you go saddle shopping.

First, you need to find the stuffing slots. There are usually 1 or 2 that are accessible. Lift up the flap and reach up between the sweat flap and the flap. Reach your fingers up under the seat feeling the top of the panel with your fingertips.  Somewhere, there will be some small slots, usually about 1/2″ to 3/4″ long.  You can actually feel the wool with your finger tips. Using the tweezers, reach in and pull out a small piece and examine it.  What color is it?  Are there small flecks of red, blue, green, etc.?  This means that it is “shoddy”.  Shoddy is real wool, but it is the floor sweepings after other wool products are made, such as carpeting.  If you are unable to obtain a small sample of stuffing, contact the manufacturer or a reputable saddle fitter.

If you are successful in obtaining a sample, smell it. Does it smell like wool? Unless you have a nose like a bloodhound, you may not be able to smell anything with such a small sample. It could be  synthetic flock. In a safe place,using a cigarette lighter or match,  set it on fire. Does it melt? or burn? Does it smell like burning hair? Or burning plastic?

For best value, be an informed consumer. If the saddle is foam and plastic, the price should reflect that.  Don’t be fooled by a piece of pretty leather and lots of expensive advertising and endorsements.