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English Saddles and their history

English saddles are used to ride horses in English riding disciplines throughout the world. The discipline is not limited to England, the United Kingdom in general or other English-speaking countries. This style of saddle is used in all of the Olympic and International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) equestrian disciplines, except for the newly approved FEI events of equestrian vaulting and reining. Most designs were specifically developed to allow the horse freedom of movement, whether jumping, running, or moving quickly across rugged, broken country with fences. Unlike the western saddle or Australian Stock Saddle, there is no horn or other design elements that stick out above the main tree of the saddle.

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Construction

The English saddle is based on a solid tree, over which webbing, leather and padding materials are added. Traditionally, the tree of an English saddle is built of laminated layers of high quality wood, reinforced with steel underneath the front arch, and around the rear underside of the tree from quarter to quarter. The sides of the tree that run horizontally along the horse’s back are known as bars. Many modern trees are made with spring steel running from front to rear between the bars. These trees are somewhat flexible and are known as “spring trees,” with the degree of flexibility varying from saddle to saddle. More recently, saddle manufacturers are using various materials to replace wood and create a synthetic molded tree (some still using spring steel and a steel gullet plate). Synthetic materials vary widely in quality. Polyurethane trees are often very well-made, but some very cheap saddles are made with fiberglass trees that are not so durable.

Leather is added on all sides of the tree to create the seat, flaps and panels. Cowhide is usually used, though pigskin and other leathers are also seen. The panels on the underside of the saddle traditionally are stuffed with wool flock, which is still preferred and used on the highest quality saddles. Synthetic materials, including foam and fiberfill materials, are used on more moderately priced saddles, and one company currently sells a design that uses airtight sealed panels that are inflated with air.

Parts of the English saddle

Tree: the base on which the rest of the saddle is built, usually based on wood or a wood-like synthetic material, with metal elements added, such as the stirrup bar and, in some cases, the gullet. It is eventually covered in leather or synthetic material as the saddle is built.

Panels: the part of an English saddle which provides cushioning between the horse’s back and the saddle, and allows adjustment in fitting the saddle to the horse. Also important in keeping the saddle balanced for the rider. Often stuffed with wool or foam flocking, or maintained by sealed air pockets. The panels under the cantle are called the “rear panels.” Those at the front of the saddle are called the “front panels.” However, the rear and front panels are one continuous unit, which can be seen if the saddle is flipped over. The saddle has two panels total, one on each side of the horse’s spine.

Gullet: The space between the bars of the saddle which provides clearance for the horse’s spine so the saddle does not place pressure on it. The gullet width of the saddle is dictated by the front arch of the tree. In some models, the angle (and thus the width) of the front arch can be adjusted on an individual saddle by use of interchangeable elements. Though imprecise terminology, the gap between the stuffed panels is colloquially referred to as the gullet.

Seat: the dip in the saddle where the rider’s seatbones rest, it is the lowest part of the saddle’s topline. The deeper the seat, the more security is provided for the rider.

Pommel: the front of the saddle, which is raised higher than the seat both to provide security for the rider and to give the horse’s withers clearance.

Cantle: the back of the saddle, which is raised higher than the seat to give security.

Waist or Twist: the part of the saddle between the seat and the pommel, on which the rider’s pelvic bone rests. The width of the waist has a great effect on rider’s comfort, especially for women riders.

Skirt or Jockey: piece of leather that goes over the stirrup bar, to help prevent the rider’s leg from rubbing on the buckle of the stirrup leather (which is adjusted so it is right against the stirrup bar). It also helps to keep the buckle of the stirrup leather from unbuckling and sliding down. The skirt is small to allow easy access to the stirrup leather.

Saddle flap: The large piece of leather on the exterior of an English saddle that goes between the rider’s leg and the billets and girth buckles. The shape and length of the saddle flap is directly related to the intended use of the saddle, as it must mirror the rider’s leg position.

Sweat flap: The large piece of leather on the underside of the saddle that goes between the billets and the horse. It helps to protect the rest of the saddle from the sweat of the horse, and the horse’s skin from being pinched by the girth straps and buckles. In monoflap saddles it is lightweight and sewn to the saddle flap, with extended girth points enabling the girth to be buckled below the flap.

Stripped-down saddle, showing spring tree structure that underlies the panels

Billets, sweat flap, buckle guard, and knee rolls. These are under the flap of the saddle

Billets or points: Straps which are secured over the saddle tree on stout webbing and hang down, to which the girth is buckled. They have several holes in them to adjust the tightness of the girth. There are generally three billets, allowing a spare in the event one billet is torn or frayed. Some saddles have very long billets to buckle the girth below the saddle flap to reduce the bulk underneath the rider’s leg, allowing for closer contact with the horse. The foremost point is usually attached to a narrow web, and the rear two to a wider web.

Girth Buckle guard: the billets are threaded through the Girth buckle guard, which protects the saddle flap from getting worn away by the buckles of the girth. These are not always present on saddles with long billets, which are intended to be buckled below the saddle flap.

Knee roll: the padded part at the front of the English saddle’s panel and sweat flap, helping to give the rider more leg support. It may be very wide and thick, very thin (a pencil-roll), or not present at all. Additional padding on the outside flap of the saddle is sometimes added for extra grip.

Thigh roll: the padded part at the rear of the panel’s sweat flap, which lies behind the rider’s thigh and can give extra stability in the saddle. Very common in dressage saddles but much less so in jumping saddles as it may interfere with freedom of movement of the rider’s leg.

Calf block: padding that falls behind the rider’s lower leg, helps to keep it in place and stabilize the rider. It is only seen on a few saddle models.

Stirrup: part of the saddle in which the rider’s feet rest, provides support and leverage to the rider.

Stirrup Bar: part of the tree of the saddle which allows stirrups to be attached. It is made of strong metal and riveted to the tree. The stirrup bar is often kept in the “open” position, so that, should the rider fall and start to be dragged, the stirrup leather can release off the saddle, freeing the rider. There are only a few instances in which the bar should be kept in the “closed” position, and some stirrup bar designs cannot be closed.

Iron: The metal part of a stirrup, in which the foot of the rider rests. It provides support and leverage. It is usually made of stainless steel, not iron.

Leather: The part of the stirrup which attached the stirrup iron to the stirrup bar of the saddle. It can be adjusted to change the lengths of stirrups. Leathers is correct plural usage.

Stirrup leather keeper: keeper sewn onto the saddle flap, through which the extra stirrup leather is passed. Keeps it neatly out of the way so it doesn’t get under the rider’s leg. Some saddles simply have a slot cut into the saddle flat, through which the leather is passed.

D-ring or Staple: a metal ring with rounded or squared corners on the front of an English saddle, to which certain pieces of equipment, such as breastplates, can be attached. May be of stand-up or centrally hinged design. Some are stitched into leather and can be pulled out of the saddle when under stress. Some are fixed through the front arch of the tree for greater strength.

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Parts of an English Saddle (All-Purpose style)

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A saddle with most leather removed, showing tree and seat padding

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Underside of a Dressage saddle, showing panels, gullet, sweat flaps and tips of the billets

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Stripped-down saddle, showing spring tree structure that underlies the panels

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Billets, sweat flap, buckle guard, and knee rolls. These are under the flap of the saddle

Styles of English saddles

The differences between the styles of English saddle are small but significant. The most important distinctions are the location and therefore the balance 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 does 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 better balance and security, 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, and the flap would constantly push the leg out of position (usually backward), so that the rider would become unstable and interfere with his horse. 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 well back from the pommel to keep the rider’s center of gravity correctly situated.

All-purpose or eventing saddle, crossing a deeper seat and long flap with a more forward flap placement.

Supportive padding in the seat, size and shape of knee rolls and the use of additional blocks behind the leg 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. Another development is the monoflap saddle, in which both the sweat flap and saddle flap are made of lighter weight leather, stitched together around the edges leaving only a passage point for the girth straps, thus reducing the thickness of leather between the rider and the horse, and giving a closer feel, while still protecting the horse’s skin from straps.

All-Purpose or Eventing saddle

The “all-purpose” or “eventing” saddle (also sometimes called a “general purpose” saddle) was developed to allow riders to use one saddle both over fences and on the flat. This type of saddle has a deep seat with a long, but somewhat forward flap. The flaps usually have padding under the leg, for support while jumping. The design is intended to be a compromise between the flatter “close contact” jumping saddle with a forward flap, and deep-seated dressage saddle with a long, straight flap.

This style of saddle is most commonly seen in amateur-owner or lower-level junior competition. The less-expensive “all-purpose” models are often marketed as beginner’s saddles. More expensive models are usually labeled “eventing” saddles. Manufacturers insist that there is a significant design difference between an eventing saddle and an all-purpose saddle. However, while eventing saddles usually do have better balance and higher quality materials and workmanship, a fundamental design difference is otherwise difficult to discern. Many manufacturers create two models, one with a slightly straighter dressage-oriented flap that still allows a rider to jump low fences, and another with a more forward flap that allows a rider to jump somewhat more challenging fences, but still permit a deep seat for flat work. One company manufactures a design with a flap that can be adjusted to be straighter or more forward, as the rider prefers.

Due to the deep, secure-feeling seat, the design is also used by some people when starting young, unpredictable horses, and is quite popular for trail riding, endurance riding, and casual hacking. Many top-level endurance riders find this design superior to an “endurance” style saddle for distance competition because it allows them to get off the horse’s back and move quickly over rough or mountainous terrain, yet provides greater security to the rider. On the other hand, this compromise design also means that an advanced rider may find the saddle limits his or her ability to obtain a correct position at higher levels of competition, either in show jumping or dressage. For this reason, some English riding instructors and coaches do not particularly encourage their riders to use these saddles.

Quality and balance are very critical factors to consider when purchasing an all-purpose saddle. Many cheap models are designed with a too-forward cut flap that is not properly aligned with the seat, which prevents the rider from getting into a correct position on the flat and sometimes gives the rider the uncomfortable sensation of feeling like they are constantly sliding backwards. Also, when the stirrups are adjusted correctly for jumping, the rider’s knees are not always placed properly in relation to the flap. Some models also are too high in the cantle, which can hit a rider in the buttocks and push the seat too far forward when jumping all but the smallest fences.

The Jumping saddle

The jumping saddle, sometimes called a “forward seat” or “close contact” saddle, is designed for show jumping, hunt seat equitation, foxhunting, and the show jumping and cross-country phases of eventing. Its most distinctive feature is a forward-cut flap that allows for a shorter stirrup length (although not as short as racing stirrups). The flap often has supportive padded knee rolls, especially for show jumping and cross-country, less so for equitation. The balance of the seat is further back and comparatively flat, with the cantle and pommel low so that they do not interfere with the rider’s jumping position (and variations known as “two-point position” or “half-seat”).

Like the All-Purpose saddle, the jumping saddle usually has three short billets. However, other styles (such as monoflap jumping saddles) have longer billets that mirror the dressage saddle, so that the rider no longer has to ride with extra bulk under the leg.

Jumping or “close contact” saddle, with more forward flap and design placing rider closer to horse

It is important that the rider’s leg fit appropriately into the flap of the jumping saddle when the stirrups are shortened. If the knee is too far forward or back, the rider’s balance will be incorrect and the saddle becomes a hindrance rather than an advantage while jumping obstacles.

Dressage saddle

Dressage saddles have a very straight-cut flap, much longer than a jumping saddle, which accommodates the longer leg position of a dressage rider, who works only on the flat and does not need to jump fences. The pommel is a bit higher and the deepest point of the saddle’s seat more forward, all to allow for this longer leg position.

The seat is usually much deeper in a dressage saddle than a jumping saddle, and allows the rider to sit comfortably and relax to best influence the horse. The stuffing of the panels is often kept to a minimum in a dressage saddle, to allow a closer feel with the horse. It often has a wider bearing surface than a jumping saddle.

Some designs feature an exaggerated amount of padding in front of the knee, much more than in a jumping saddle, said to assist the rider in keeping the knee down and thigh back. However, there is usually little padding behind the calf, as the rider needs to be able to freely move the lower leg to give aids to the horse.

The billets of most dressage saddles are very long, to allow the girth to be buckled near the horse’s elbow rather than underneath the rider’s leg (which would get in the way of giving effecting leg aids). However, some dressage saddles come with shorter billets.

Dressage saddle, showing a long, straight flap.

Endurance saddle

The Endurance saddle, originally based on a military or police saddle, is used for the long-distance competition of endurance riding. Its major task is to provide the horse and rider with the comfort and balance needed to cover long distances over rough terrain, sometimes for multiple days. For the rider, the seat is often quilted or padded, and the stirrups are designed with a wide foot tread to reduce fatigue. For the horse, the panels of the saddle are extended to provide a larger area of contact with the back, thus reducing fatigue linked to the pounds per square inch of saddle contact. The saddle has many dee rings along the pommel and cantle that allow the rider to attach various items.

Modern endurance saddle manufacturers have been innovative in methods to lighten weight and provide additional comfort for the horse, and several of these techniques have gone on to influence other saddle types. The panels are stuffed with different types of material, all designed to spread pressure evenly and disperse sweat. Most endurance saddles may have extended panels (called “fans” or “blazers”), which increase bearing area. Others may have “floating” panels, which are particularly useful since endurance riders often ride with their seat out of the saddle (releasing pressure from the back, but increasing the amount felt on the stirrup bars where they attach near the point of the tree).

There is also an endurance saddle design based on the western saddle that is a bit larger and heavier, but is designed with similar goals.

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