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Selecting A Saddle For Lessons

18 August 2011 No Comment

Selecting A Saddle For Lessons
by Dr. Jessica Jahiel

Editor’s Note: This is Dr. Jahiel’s response to a question submitted to her from a rider regarding selecting a saddle for riding lessons.
I started riding a year ago at 35. It was a childhood dream come true – horses were all I talked about when I was a kid and the trail ride at Disney World at 10 years old and the ride around the corral in Chincoteague a few years later just didn’t cut it. Once I was led bareback out of a field, and my fianc es sister had a horse that I road once, in 1994 before she sold it (with her holding onto the bridle LOL!) – That’s it! I lived my dreams through Breyers.

I found an ad for a free lesson at a local stable last year and after trying it, my fianc encouraged me to sign up for regular lessons. Ms. Frugal (myself) has added another expensive hobby to our list.

As a rider, I’m not too bad (for someone who’s never done it before). I’ve only fallen once (more of a dive – I thought I was going to fall and bailed – before we got to a point where I would have fallen on something). I don’t have too much fear, although when the horses started to speed up in the cool weather last fall, I found that gripping to stay on made them go faster, and then I realized I was not immortal. I do think I have apprehension though – guess that’s what happens when you realize you don’t bounce anymore! I can canter and we do small jumps, at the trot and canter. I read everything I can. My form however could use some work.

What I would like is to buy a saddle. My biggest complaint about the schooling saddles is that the leathers are often mismatched! I am short and I have a difficult time when we have to roll the leathers to get them the right length. They often stretch and slip when we do this which throws me off balance. I am hoping that buying a saddle with my own leathers will help me to concentrate more on my riding and less on the saddle & stirrups. I think having a constant in my lesson will be a good thing. Often I will ride a school horse for a few weeks or months, but this can always change depending on who else is in the class and what we are doing. My instructor feels that getting a large variety in horses will only help us in the long run (I do agree with this but sometimes wish I had one that “minded better” as opposed to a school horse that thinks “do they really want me to go or are they just trying to get comfortable up there?”)

Back in February we got a new school horse that was short & very wide. We only had one saddle, a generic deep seat with knee padding, that fit her well, one that I never liked to use before (I had come down hard on the pommel in the past, ouch!). With her I used it every week. Three weeks ago was her first time schooling outside. She is young and gets nervous about new things and her canter is not very balanced, and let’s just say that the lesson was a disaster. The tractors in the field across the street were going to eat her, she didn’t like the rail, I was frustrated because I couldn’t keep her in a straight line. My instructor put me back on one of the older schoolies for the next lesson and I grabbed the saddle I had been using and it was a great lesson. Last week, I knew someone was riding the new horse, so I took a different saddle, same old horse from the week before, and again, things were tense. I couldn’t get the leathers equal, my feet were too far forward, I was pinching with my knees, etc.

On one hand I feel I should be able to adapt to anything (and I know my instructor feels the same way). I think I need some stability to get the basics down!

I’ve read all your saddle archives and some of my questions have been answered. I already know a saddle won’t fit every horse, and if I’m assigned to a horse it won’t fit, I won’t use it. Used is fine, I know I’ll get a better used one for my money. My instructor has told me to stay with Crosby, Courbette, Stubben and Pessoa, close contact, 16″ – 17″. As you well know, there are many variations within each brand and there I am lost. Cars and tires I know inside out; saddles – help! She would rather I get a close contact than and all-purpose, and if the analogy is that AP saddles are equivalent to all-season tires, I agree 150%. (I fully believe in snow tires only for winter)

I read one of your archives and it said your thigh length was more important in determining seat size – mine is about 16.5″. Oh, and what is the correct way to measure the saddle? Some say from pommel to cantle, others say from the button on the side to cantle.

I was thinking I liked a deeper seat for security. I know it would get in the way for larger jumps but I don’t see myself taking them anytime soon. But it’s comforting for me to feel the cantle behind me at the sitting trot etc. I had also wanted a non-padded flap because I do have such a difficult time feeling the horse’s shoulders beneath me and well, I just didn’t like the miles and miles of padding and the suede that gets ripped.

I tend to pinch with my knees. I hunch forward sometimes (more often than not). I have a hard time with balance (but have not ended up wrapped around a horse’s neck holding on as others have) and as my instructor points out, I need to develop a more secure seat. I’m perching I guess. In the saddle I had been using for a few months I had finally found my balance and had pretty much stopped posting from my toes. Different saddle last week, pushing off the stirrups again.

The saddle I didn’t have any fun in last weekend was a Crosby Olympic Works plain flap. I am quite upset by this, as that was one of the models I was thinking I could afford. I was poking around in dejanews and found that some people felt one of the Crosby models had a tendency to put your legs forward. Better riders can compensate for this but I’m not of that caliber, and putting legs forward is another of my problems.

Are there features I should be looking for and those I should be avoiding?

I don’t know if the deepness of the seat matters (my instructor doesn’t like deep seats, they hinder her posting); I think I will feel more secure in one. I’m worried that buying a plain flap will develop more insecurities in jumping and will encourage me to pinch with my knees. Should I look for or avoid saddles with thigh blocks? You mentioned stirrup bars being different lengths – they always seem about the same to me on the schooling saddles!

I know I can adapt to anything but for the time being I’d rather have something that will help me learn better and worry about adapting later.

Any suggestions you can give would be greatly appreciated! I am a superb driver (we race as a hobby) and can feel out of balance wheels and suspension problems without even thinking about it (I think my co-workers hated me in their cars; I’d always tell them they needed an alignment or a CV joint or something). But it really bugs me that I can’t feel the horse’s mouth the way I think I should, I don’t feel shoulders unless I think hard about it (and can’t do that when trying yo stay in balance) and a host of other things. I try too hard I guess (problem of an adult rider? LOL!)

There are almost two issues in this letter but if you can deal with the saddle purchase I’d be very happy! Thanks so much for everything.


Hi Diane! Congratulations on taking up the wonderful sport/art/passion of riding. It sounds as if you’re doing very well.

One of the first things I tell people in your situation is that although it usually doesn’t make sense to buy a saddle before you have a horse, it can make excellent sense to buy your own stirrup leathers and stirrups, take them with you to lessons, and put them on whatever saddle you’re using that day. That way, you will always know that your stirrup leathers are even, that they are safe, that they are the correct length, and that your stirrups are the right size. It’s amazing how much this can do for your comfort and security. I suggest that you do this – it will help you while you are still saddle-shopping, and then you can put the stirrups and leathers on your saddle if and when you find the one you want to buy.

I assume that you are riding huntseat – if you were planning to do dressage, you would be looking for a dressage saddle, and if you were planning to event, or to participate in combined training, you would be looking for a good all-purpose model that would allow you to do both dressage and jumping. If you are riding huntseat, though, and your main focus is good flatwork for good jumping, then a single close-contact saddle designed specifically for jumping is a good idea.

I would suggest definitely staying within the top level of saddles, whether you buy new or used, because it will be more comfortable and better while you own it, and much easier to “recycle” if you reach a point in your riding where you want to change styles.

Your instructor gave you good advice on saddles, and I’ll just add one warning: If you want a Crosby, don’t look for a new saddle. You’ll need to find an OLDER Crosby, perhaps someone’s ten- or fifteen-year-old saddle that has been used but not abused. The newer ones are not the same, “Crosby” is nothing but a brand nowadays, and if you are looking at a Miller’s catalogue, you would do better to spend more time checking out the Collegiate saddles than the new Crosbys.

Some things change in style and quality over time. Some don’t – Courbette and Stubben are still top-quality and reliable, with manufacturers that stand behind their products.

For horse-fitting (and eventual possible resale) I would suggest buying a saddle with at least a medium-wide tree and preferably a wide tree. It is possible to make a horse temporarily (for an hour or so) more comfortable in a too-wide saddle by the judicious use of pads; it is NOT possible to make ANY horse comfortable, even temporarily, even for two minutes, in a too-narrow saddle. And the trend is definitely toward the saddle with a wider tree – you’ll find it much more difficult to resell something with a narrow tree. This is a good trend, I think. A correctly-ridden and trained horse should get WIDER in the back – not narrower. If a horse gets narrow, something is wrong (usually a too-tight saddle causing muscle atrophy).

If you’re hoping to put the saddle on a lot of different horses, then I would strongly recommend the Courbette saddles built on a flexible tree – there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all saddle, but I’ve had very good luck over the years with these saddles, and found them to be comfortable for many different horses.

For fitting yourself, much will come down to your preferences, and those will depend on two things: your personal conformation and the sort of riding you want to do.

Soft seat or hard seat? It’s up to you, your comfort level, and how much padding makes you happy. The important thing is to buy a saddle that is big enough – and that lets you sit comfortably. Larger sizes are easier to re-sell, too, and they make the horses more comfortable, so if you are happy in a 16.5, a 17, and a 17.5, go for the largest one that’s comfortable. You measure an English saddle from the middle of the button (on either side) to the center of the cantle – the tape should be straight, not draped along the saddle seat.

Do you prefer a wide or narrow twist? It’s a personal preference, but it’s important. Be sure to buy a saddle with a twist that suits you, and always, always be sure that there are no seams directly under your seat bones!

Plain flaps can still be padded. I’m not a fan of suede kneeflaps, personally. I find that riders tend to get grippy with their knees if they’re counting on the suede to make them secure, and I’d rather they would count on their balance instead, and keep their weight in their heels where it belongs. Also, the nap of the suede eventually wears off, and you’re left with a mangy-looking flap that’s just about as smooth as a plain or plain padded flap would have been in the first place. You should have just enough of a knee roll to keep you comfortable, and again, that will depend on your stage of riding and your conformation. If your knees and toes naturally point straight forward when you’re on horseback, a saddle with little or no knee roll may be just fine. If your knees and toes both tend to point a little more outward, to the side, and/or if it is hard for you to achieve the stretched, strong hips that will let you keep your inner thigh and inner calf against the saddle without straining, then a larger kneeroll might help you feel more secure for the first few years. As long as your saddle suits and fits you and lets you ride the way you want, with stirrup leathers vertical, you’ll be much less likely to try to hold on with your knees.

If you are buying a close-contact saddle for jumping, you won’t want a really deep seat – and you would have a hard time finding one anyway, as jumping saddles are made with flat, shallow seats on purpose. Riders who use those saddles spend at least as much time OUT of them as IN them, and need to make position adjustments in a hurry and sometimes in mid-air. The stirrups are hung more forward on jumping saddles, for the same reason – the rider uses a shorter stirrup, with the overall balance more forward, and with a more closed angle at hip and knee. When you fold your body to stay with your horse over a jump, you don’t just close your hip angle and fall forward on the horse’s neck, you close your hip angle and simultaneously push your hips BACK, toward the cantle. If the seat is short and deep, you’ll hit the cantle on your way back – now THAT is uncomfortable.

What do you want to do in your saddle? Jumping saddles are made for jumping – not for trail-riding or eventing or dressage. You can do reasonable flatwork in a close-contact, jumping-style saddle – but if you want to be able to do dressage, this won’t be the saddle for you. On the other hand, if your heart’s desire is to get onto the Grand Prix jumping circuit, a close-contact jumping saddle is exactly what you’ll need. Figure out how you will be spending most of your riding time (two-point? three-point? back and forth?) and then choose the saddle that, with stirrups adjusted to the correct length, will let you balance comfortably over your legs, with the stirrup leathers hanging vertically.

As for your other issue… Yes, trying too hard is typical of adult riders. Don’t worry, you’ll get over it. Familiarity can lead to relaxation in time. You’re a race driver, you know that people who have never raced (as well as those who are just learning to drive in town, on the highway, using a stick shift, etc.) have to over think everything at first, and usually white-knuckle their way around the track or around the town until they’ve done enough driving to feel comfortable with the car, with their own body as it relates to the car, and with their own reflexes, reactions, and skills. You probably don’t even remember what it felt like NOT to know how to drive easily, at speed, feeling everything that happens – but there was a time when you were there.

There will also, someday, be a point at which you look back and try to remember how it felt to be uncoordinated and inept on horseback…. and you’ll have a hard time recapturing the feeling, because you’ll be riding easily and feeling everything that happens. Time, thought, good practice, and mileage – it’ll all pay off in the long run.


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