What is actually inside your saddle and have you ever thought how each part affects the fit and comfort for both the horse and rider?
The saddle is the interface between the horse and the rider and needs to suit both so that they are comfortable and able to communicate with each other. This is very important! A bean bag placed on the horse’s back could be comfortable for both horse and rider but would minimise a lot of the way the rider could communicate using his/her body, forcing them to rely more on peripheral and auxiliary aids such as hands/reins and whips. Much better is a saddle that evenly distributes the rider’s weight over areas of the horse’s body that can weight bear whilst completely avoiding contact with structures that should not have pressure.
Most English saddles have a solid structure inside them called the saddle tree. This is like the skeleton of the saddle and is made of wood (either solid or laminated), polyurethane or plastic. The tree gives the saddle its shape. Some trees are flatter whereas others are more curvy. They will also vary in width and length and the rails will influence how the panels will lie. When you look closely at different saddle trees it is easy to see how essential it is that the actual tree suits the horse and that no amount of packing in the panels will make up for an incorrect tree choice.
The tree material determines how flexible the saddle is and some horses prefer a flexible tree whereas others prefer a more solid tree. Saddles that have changeable gullets need a flexible tree to allow the huge range in gullet widths that may be inserted. This range just would not be possible with a wood tree. This is why wood trees with metal gullets that require pressing should only be pressed according to manufacturers’ instructions. Most of these will state that they should only be pressed in or out one size, 3-4 times throughout the saddles’ life. Something to think about if your horse is very young and you feel it is going to change a lot. Also remember that there is no industry standard requiring saddles to be stamped when adjusted so if you buy second hand you have no way of knowing if it has been done. Head plates may crack from metal fatigue if pressed too often or made to change shape too much.
Gullets come in different shapes, widths and orientation. Some are more open at the head like an upside-down U whereas others are more like an upside-down V. Some gullets angle forwards and flare out, most are straight or vertically positioned and some angle backwards. Add to this the fact that they can all vary in length, there a lot of ways this area of the saddle can vary. Just as well when you consider how different horses can be in their conformation!
Between the tree and the horse’s back there are the panels which may be filled with flocking (natural wool or synthetic), air or foam or a combination of all of these. They may or may not have a foam or felt lining to ensure a smooth surface for the horse’s back. No one type of flocking is better than the other. What matters is that the correct flocking is used to compliment the tree and the fit of the horse. A more flexible tree needs a firmer flocking whereas a more rigid tree is better with a type of flocking that is springier and softer.
The panels will follow the contours of the rails of the tree of the saddle and these should match the shape of the horse's back from all dimensions. Often gussets will need to be added to saddles in front or behind to allow the saddles to be balanced properly.
Whilst not strictly inside your saddle but certainly under the top flap are the girth points. These are so important to ensure your saddle stays where it is supposed to stay on your horse’s back. Different saddle brands have different girthing options. The furthermost front strap can only be as far forward as where the gullet of the saddle is. This is known as the point strap. For horses with very forward girth grooves this strap is a lifesaver! It helps to keep the saddle back off the horse’s shoulders but when used it needs to be balanced either with a balance strap or a self-adjusting running-Y back strap. Then between these two girth positions there may be 2 or 3 other options, depending on the saddle brand. All have their own use, depending on the horse being fitted. When you have your saddle fitted you need to make a note as to which straps your fitter recommends for your horse. It can make the world of difference to saddle stability and freedom of movement, not to mention safety as some horses get quite wild about saddles moving up over their shoulders!
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Western Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.