Every year, saddlemakers trot out innovative trail-saddle features and improvements. Here, we take you on a tour of the seven best innovations in today's trail-ready saddles: saddle-fit features; flexible trees; enhanced weight-distributing/shock-absorbing features; lightweight materials; easy-care synthetics; gender-specific design; and improved Poleys.
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For each innovation, we provide a definition, explain when it might be right for your needs, provide an expert tip, and list a few manufacturers who include these features in their saddles. We also tell you how to enhance your current saddle, give you a brief rundown of today's "soft saddles", and provide a handy resource guide .
Innovation #1: Saddle-Fit Features
What they are: Any features designed to enhance saddle fit. Some saddles conform to fit the backs of different horses (or adjust to one horse as his conformation changes), some are adjustable, and some are custom-made to fit horse and rider.
Patented saddle-tree designs, such as the GenII by Tucker Saddles, conform to the horse's back. The Fit-Fusion GenII combines a flexible bar system and PolyForm bar to self-adjust to and distribute weight on each individual horse.
"The Circle Y Flex 2 Tree and the Tucker Gen II saddles have unique trees that are made to accommodate fit issues on a variety of horses with a range of conformation issues," explains Anne Fordyce, marketing media manager for Circle Y of Yoakum and Tucker Saddles. (For more on flexible trees, see Innovation #2.)
Adjustable gullets also offer fit flexibility. "Horses change shape every few years with age, work, muscle development, and growth," explains Amy Parsons of Performance Tack, LLC, an authorized dealer of Sommer Saddles. "So if you're on a budget, you need a saddle that will adjust." Sommer Saddles' gullets can be widened or narrowed via an adjustment machine at the dealer.
Specialized Saddles allow you to adjust three dimensions of saddle fit yourself. Using fitting pads and a shims kit, you can modify the saddle's width, arch, and angle, so that it comfortably fits your horse's loin and shoulder slope. (You can also change stirrup location to the forward, balanced, or centered position by moving a single screw.)
Investing in a custom-made saddle ensures maximum comfort for both your horse and you. "Different saddles do not have ample bars in front of the pommel or fork," explains saddlemaker Marilyn Horstmyer, owner of Desoto Custom Saddlery. "Riders may struggle with finding comfortable fenders, especially people with shorter legs."
Good for you if: You're concerned about saddle fit, especially if you ride more than one horse, and/or tend to log long hours on the trail.
Expert tip: "Educate yourself about saddle fit," Parsons emphasizes. "Don't guess about whether it'll fit. You need to be an educated shopper." For more information, she suggests visiting http://lorienstable.com/book. Another good saddle-fit resource is a video called About the Fit, from David Genadek, Master Saddle Maker (800/449-7409; www.aboutthehorse.com).
Available from: Bates Saddles; Circle Y of Yoakum; Crest Ridge Saddlery; DK Saddlery; Desoto Custom Tree and Saddle Company; Double Creek Saddlery; Duett Saddles, J.J. Maxwell Tack & Saddle Company; Marciente Saddle & Leather Company; Mile High Ranch Saddle Outfitters; OrthoFlex Saddleworks, Inc.; SR Saddlery; Saddles by Steele; Sommer Saddles (available from Performance Tack); Specialized Saddles; Stone Creek Saddles; Synergist Saddles; Tucker Saddles.
Innovation #2: Flexible Trees
What they are: Saddle trees with give. Flexible trees can be divided into two categories, a "flex tree" saddle and a saddle that has a flexible tree. Flex-tree saddles have a rigid fork and cantle, but the saddle bars are made from flexible components, such as plastic, rubber, leather, or synthetic materials, that move horizontally to hug your horse's back.
Flex-tree saddles eliminate pinching in the withers and spine irritation, say the manufacturers. "Our flex-tree saddles works like the arch support of a shoe; they provide the correct fit while the flexibility allows unrestricted movement," says Ernie Tracy, sales manager for Reinsman Equestrian Products.
A saddle with a flexible tree also moves with the horse, but is made from composite materials and lacks separate components that also flex. Some flexible trees, such as those on Sommer Saddles, aren't as stiff or heavy as a traditional fiberglass or wooden trees.
There are even treeless saddles, such as those from Bob Marshall Sports Saddles and Nickers Saddlery Ltd., which encourage close contact with your horse and offer a deep, secure seat.
Good for you if: You seek enhanced comfort for you, as well as your horse. Such saddles have give and allow you to feel more impulsion, says Parsons. She also notes that if you ride a gaited horse, you'll see an increase in hip and shoulder movement, and a lengthened stride.
Expert tip: "Flex-tree saddles are not a fit-all," Tracy explains. "You also need to select the correct bar spread and twist."
Available from: Bates Saddles; Bob Marshall Sports Saddles; Circle Y of Yoakum; DK Saddlery; Evolutionary Saddles; Mile High Ranch Saddle Outfitters; Nickers Saddlery Ltd., OrthoFlex Saddleworks, Inc.; Reinsman Equestrian Products; SR Saddlery; Sommer Saddles (available from Performance Tack); Specialized Saddles; Tarpin Hill Saddle Company; Tex Tan; Tucker Saddles.
Innovation #3: Weight-Distributing/Shock-Absorbing Features
What they are: Materials and design that help absorb shock and evenly distribute your weight. Weight-distribution features include synthetic materials, rigging position, tree shape. Shock-absorbing features include neoprene fillers, gels, and high-density foams used in saddle seats, fenders, and skirting.
Rigging position plays an important role in weight distribution. "Dropped rigging lowers the pound per square inch of pressure on the cinch area and more evenly distributes a rider's weight along the horse's back," says Nancy Alpert, owner of TrailMaster Saddles.
Horstmyer agrees. "A 'Y' rigging pulls from the front and rear, and ensures the rider's weight isn't just over the middle section of the horse, but is instead spread evenly."
Tree shape also affects how your weight is spread across your horse's back.
"There are a lot of places on a tree that you want clearance, because the muscles need room to move, particularly on the top side of the bars in the gullet," Horstmyer explains. "The way the tree dishes up so it doesn't touch the withers is important."
In terms of shock absorption, "We include high-density foam in the skirting," Horstmyer says. "It's a huge shock absorber."
Tucker Saddles also have shock-absorbing materials. "The Gen II by Tucker has a nitro-gel cushion and memory foam built into the seat," says Fordyce. "The nitro gel isn't susceptible to heat or cold, so it doesn't lose its shape and absorbs shock for both the horse and rider. It's like memory foam; it compresses but doesn't become misshapen or bulky."
Good for you if: You're concerned about how your shifting weight affects your horse's back. As a trail rider, you increase concussion on your horse's spine with long hours in the saddle over varied terrain. The more evenly your weight is distributed, and the more shock is absorbed, the better for your horse's comfort and soundness. It can even help avoid injury and lameness.
Expert tip: "When purchasing a new saddle, consider stirrup position and tree shape, in addition to shock-absorbing materials," Horstmyer says.
Available from: Bates Saddles; Circle Y of Yoakum; Desoto Custom Saddlery; Duett Saddles; J.J. Maxwell Tack & Saddle Company; Mile High Ranch Saddle Outfitters; Nickers Saddlery Ltd.; TrailMaster Saddles; Tucker Saddles; Sommer Saddles (available from Performance Tack); Specialized Saddles; Synergist Saddles.
Innovation #4: Lightweight Materials
What they are: Synthetic materials - such as nylon, Cordura nylon, or a combination of materials covered in leather - that reduce the weight of a traditional trail saddle. Newer leather trail saddles are also designed to weigh less than older models.
"Cordura is a form of a tight nylon weave," says Kimberly Grant of BuyTack.com. "It's used to cover a neoprene foam, which gives Cordura its shape. This makes the saddle light and easy to lift." For instance, she notes, the Abetta Saddle ranges from 15 to 18 pounds, depending upon saddle size and skirt design.
Many of today's leather trail saddles are designed to be lightweight, too. Leather is used to cover lightweight synthetic materials, and the trees can be made from fiberglass or composite materials to reduce the saddle's weight. You can also choose a saddle without fenders. Leather trail saddles range from 20 to 30 pounds, says Grant.
Good for you if: You'd like a lightweight saddle for ease of saddling, and/or you log miles in the saddle and are looking for a saddle that's easy for your horse to carry.
Expert tip: "Synthetic saddles are great for riders who are looking for comfort or those looking to be stylish," Grant says, pointing out that synthetic materials sport a wide range of colors and designs.
Available from: Abetta Saddles; The Australian Connection; Bates Saddles; Circle Y of Yoakum; Evolutionary Saddles; Fabtron; Long Riders Gear; Sommer Saddles (available from Performance Tack); Specialized Saddles; Stone Creek Saddles; Tucker Saddles.
Innovation #5: Easy-Care Synthetic Materials
What they are: Synthetic materials designed for easy cleaning. Washing can even be as simple as a quick spray with the garden hose. Nylon and Cordura nylon are two such materials. "It doesn't matter if you get caught in the rain," says Grant. "The material can be hosed off, or left out to dry and then brushed off."
To save even more time, consider a synthetic bridle and breastcollar. BioThane, Beta, and Zilco products are popular among trail and endurance riders.
BioThane has a nylon core that is coated in polyurethane. Beta also has a nylon core, but is covered with vinyl, so it looks and feels like leather. Zilco doesn't have a nylon core; rather, it's made from all-synthetic materials and features a polymer coating to keep the pieces flexible and lightweight.
Good for you if: You encounter all-weather riding situations and are looking to spend less time cleaning your equipment and more time riding.
Expert tip: Not only are synthetic materials easy to wash, but because they come in bright colors, they can enhance your visibility, notes Grant.
Available from: Abetta Saddles; The Australian Connection; Bates Saddles; Buytack.com; Cool Tack; Long Riders Gear; Stablegear Tack; Weaver Leather; Wintec (available from Partrade Trading Company, LLC); Zilco.
Innovation #6: Gender-Specific Design
What it is: Traditionally, saddles have been designed for men, as the first riders were cowboys. Today, women are just as likely as men to log long hours in the saddle. Until recently, saddle construction hasn't changed and to account for anatomical differences.
"A gender-specific saddle design takes into account that men and women are different anatomically," explains Alpert. "Male and female riders come into contact with the saddle in different areas."
For example, women's seat bones are flatter and wider then men's, and women have smaller skeletal systems. A deep, balanced seat with thigh grooves for balance is a more comfortable option for women.
Good for you if: You're a woman rider looking for in-saddle comfort, and who wish to keep riding as long as possible. "I want to trail ride until I am 80, and I want my girlfriends to be there with me," Alpert says. "If their saddles hurt them, then they won't be. But with a saddle designed with them in mind, they can enjoy riding well into their older years."
Expert tip: As a trail rider, your body will be moving a lot as you ride over a variety of terrain. Not only is saddle design critical, but also stirrup position. "Our stirrups are set in the neutral dressage position, so that you can lean forward, stand up, and balance easily," Alpert says.
Available from: Fabtron; Rio Verde Saddlery; TrailMaster Saddles.
Innovation #7: Improved Poleys
What they are: Extra pieces on the front of a trail saddle to give you added security. Although not new, they've been refined over the years and adapted to trail-riding needs.
Poley saddles originated from English saddles 200 years ago when the English brought saddles to Australia, explains Colin Dangaard, owner of the Australian Stock Saddle Company. "Riders fell out of these (English) saddles when they were chasing cattle at high speed on the roughest country on earth," he says. "Riders started building outcrops of leather on the front of English saddles."
These outcrops provided extra stability and prevented the rider from falling out of the saddle when executing sharp turns at a gallop. "When the saddle first appeared, it reminded people of a poled cow, meaning a beast with the horns cut off, and just the ears sticking up," he adds. "So these saddles became known as Poley saddles."
Good for you if: You engage in extreme trail riding, and/or wish extra security when your horse makes sudden moves, such as when he spooks.
Expert tip: "The Poleys aid a rider by actually keeping him or her in the saddle in the many instances that people call 'freak accidents,' " Dangaard says.
Available from: The Australian Connection; Australian Stock Saddle Company; Desoto Saddles; Down Under Saddle Supply; Kate's Saddle Supply; Syd Hill & Sons; Frontier Equestrian.