After you’ve followed the guidelines below, arrange to try the saddle on your horse, to further test its fit comfort, and performance. (For more trail-saddle tips and 17 online saddle sources, see “Horseman’s Handbook,” Horse & Rider, November 2002.)
Top quality leather may cost more than poor leather, but when well cared for, it’ll look better than poor-quality leather, and hold up better to use.
- Check feel (or “hand”). Quality leather should feel smooth and supple, but never spongy. Bend the saddle’s fenders, side jockeys, and skirt. Small cracks on the top (grain) side indicate dry rot or overly dry leather; avoid buying the saddle.
- Check strength. The leather’s hair follicles should be close together, there should be no wrinkles. Open or course grain (wide between the follicles) and small wrinkles indicate belly leather, which is weaker and less durable than leather from the animal’s sides and back.
- Check finish.Make sure the leather’s edges are skived (the sharp edges removed), burnished (slicked down), and sealed with edge coating. A well-made saddle always has nicely finished edges, rather than rough, fibrous ones.
The tree is a saddle’s “skeleton”–if it’s broken or of poor quality, the saddle is worthless. Here’s how to check it over.
- Check tree damage/breakage. Point the front of the saddle toward you. Grasp the pommel (or fork, the part that sits over your horse’s withers) with one hand, and the cantle (back of the seat) with the other. Pull the cantle toward the fork. If the tree flexes under this pressure, move on. Then face the front of the saddle away from you. Hold the cantle in one hand, and force the pommel back (toward you and the cantle) with the other. Again, there should be no movement.
- Check tree material. Look under the side jockey to see what the tree is made from. (You may not be able to do this on some English-style saddles). Rawhide-covered wood trees are stronger and more durable than injected, molded-plastic ones. Fiberglass-covered wood trees are not only strong, but the fiberglass coating waterproofs the wood.
- Check the bars.Place the saddle on a saddle stand, or flat on the floor. Bend over the side, and grasp the bars (the tree’s long side panels that run parallel to your horse’s spine) one at a time. Then, try to flex them in and out. Do the same thing on each side just below the cantle. Feel for movement and look for wrinkles in the leather, which could indicate a broken pommel or cantle. (Note: A spring tree in an English saddle will show slight natural flexion, but it will be of equal resistance on each side, rather than the telltale looseness of a break in a specific spot.)
Stitching and Buckles
These hold the saddle’s parts together, so it’s important to check them for wear and tear.
- Do a sight check. Watch for rivets that pull through the leather, and for any stitching that’s worn through. Tip: Thoroughly inspect saddles that are dyed a dark color, which can hide stitching flaws.
- Check rigging. Examine the saddle’s rigging (the hardware–such as D-rings–and straps that attach the cinch or girth to the saddle). All leather should be soft and supple. Adjustment holes should be clean and tight. Hardware should be made from stainless steel, solid brass, or chrome-plated brass, for durability. Avoid rusted steel or corroded aluminum hardware.
- Shopping tip: Take a small magnet with you. It won’t stick to brass or chrome, but it will adhere to steel. It also won’t stick to aluminum, but you can learn to recognize this metal by its pale-gray color and the fact that it corrodes instead of rusts.
You won’t be comfortable–or safe–in a trail saddle if the seat is too big or too small for you. Here how to check size.
- Position the saddle. Place the saddle on a saddle stand with a good saddle pad. Be sure it’s level, as it’d be on your horse’s back. That is, the front of the saddle shouldn’t sit lower or perch up higher than it would on your horse.
- Check comfort. Hop onto the saddle, and place your feet in a natural riding position. Have a shopping buddy or the sales clerk stand on one side and draw an imaginary vertical line down from your shoulder, through your hip and ankle. The seat should allow you to comfortably keep your hip under your heel, and shouldn’t tip your upper body forward or back. You should be able to stand in the stirrups without falling forward or backward. If you have a problem in any of these areas, then the seat is too big, too small, or out of balance.
The design of a saddle’s twist, the narrowest portion of the seat just behind the fork or pommel where your legs hang down, is critical to your comfort.
- You be the judge. Twist width preference is highly individual, so while you’re trying out the saddle on the saddle stand, imagine how it’d feel on the trail. Twist width and contour needs to be wide enough that that your pelvic bone isn’t rubbed raw on a long ride, but shouldn’t leave you feeling as though you’re doing the splits. (Note: Some custom saddles are designed with a piece of felt just under the seat’s leather, shaped to give you the feeling of a narrower twist on a wide-treed saddle, for long-distance comfort.
Finally, check the saddle’s stirrups and fenders.
- Check stirrup design. Look for wide, flat stirrup bottoms, which offer balance and support, and alleviate nerve pressure in your feet. If the saddle you’d like to buy doesn’t offer suitable stirrups, replace them after purchase.
- Check stirrup-leather length. If the saddle features English-style stirrup leathers, make sure they’re long enough for you. If they’re too long, you’ll be able to punch new holes to shorten them, but if they’re too short, you’ll need to buy new ones. (Tip: Replace used stirrup leathers that have had multiple holes punched in them; these leathers will be weak, and may break under stress.)
- Check fender length. Adjust the stirrups to riding length to make sure the saddle’s fenders are the right length for you. If so, you’ll be able to adjust them up and down without obstruction.
As an English Saddlers School graduate, Marilyn Horstmyer of Desoto Custom Saddlery specializes in solving problems for the hard-to-fit horse and rider. She’s been building custom saddles for 36 years, but once she took up competitive trail and endurance riding 19 years ago, she developed her own tree and saddle for going the distance. Today, she and her husband operate out of Boon, Mich., and build each saddle to fit both horse and rider while incorporating the rider’s individual style requirements. Marilyn continues to compete in 50-mile, 100-mile, and multi-day endurance rides.