purchasing a Saddle for Western Dressage

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Western Dressage Saddles

I often get asked what to look for when purchasing a western dressage saddle. I usually go over the same points with each rider, so it seemed logical to put it all on paper. What to consider when purchasing a saddle for western dressage.

First, there is no need to go out and buy a brand-new saddle right away. If your current stock saddle has been working well for you and your horse for many years, it will be fine, at least at the lower levels of Western Dressage. Now, if you happen to shop for a new saddle and would like to make sure it will not interfere with Western Dressage work, here is a list of things to consider, in no particular order:

Fit for the Horse

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Measure the rock, including the gullet width.

While it is evident to most that the saddle must fit the horse, not everyone knows what it means exactly. I still see far too many ill-fitting saddles that restrict the horse’s movement and, sometimes, cause pain. Saddle fit of a western dressage saddle is a tricky business as, beyond the angle of the bars or treewidth (Quarter Horse, Semi-etc. – with NO industry standard!), you have to worry about the rock (the degree of the natural sway in the horse’s back) and the fit of the bars over the shoulders.

Proper Position of the saddle

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Back of scapula

To make things even more complicated, a perfectly well-fitting saddle can be placed too far forward on the horse’s back and cause all the same problems as a saddle that does not fit. Nothing fits if the saddle is rated out of Position. Find the back edge of the scapula while the horse stands square, all four legs are weighted, and the neck is in line with the spine. Horses are all asymmetric. Looking over your horse’s rump, find the most significant shoulder; most are more prominent on the left, so we need to fit and position the saddle according to that side. Place the tip of the bar behind the scapula. The leather of the skirt may sit ahead of the back of the scapula.

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Short round Skirt

The size and shape of the skirt

Most stock breeds used for western dressage tend to be in the 14–15 hand range. An overly large skirt, particularly a square one, can extend far beyond the saddle bars and is likely to dig into the horse when you introduce significant bendings, such as during work on small circles and lateral positions. The second problem with heavy skirting is that the rider’s leg can’t communicate with the horse effectively. Therefore, on saddles built specifically for Western Dressage, you will often see the minimal round skirts cut out under the rider’s leg to reduce the bulk.

Stirrup Position

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Adjustable stirrup strap position

Dressage work requires the rider to move her leg back to ask her haunches to step laterally. Therefore, fenders that can swing back and forth freely are essential. The position and fender length are necessary for the rider to keep a balanced seat. The most common seat fault by far is the “chair seat,” which occurs when the rider’s feet are placed well ahead of the ear-shoulder-hip vertical line. Often, the chair seat is made worse by riders bracing against the stirrups, locking out their knees and thus wedging themselves between the stirrups and the cantle of the saddle. While such an arrangement can feel very secure, it is useless for dressage work, as locked-out joints don’t allow the rider to follow the horse’s movement, the seat is disconnected from the horse’s back, and the rider is perpetually behind the motion of the horse. Moving a leg back for a lateral aid is a rather tricky proposition for a rider in such a seat. While out western dressage saddle shopping, sit in the saddles to ensure that the fender position allows your feet to stay underneath you, with the knees slightly bent. If you are lucky, the fenders will be attached to the bar so you can slide back and forth to find a perfect position.

Seat Size

3 pt of contact

Having the seat of the saddle fit the rider is another seemingly obvious point, yet far too many riders try to wedge themselves into too small of a heart. I often hear the excuse — “well, the saddle fits the horse well, so it’s OK that I suffer in a saddle that is too small.” A saddle that is too small for the rider will never fit the horse well. Instead of the rider’s weight resting in the deepest part of the saddle, in front of the cantle, the rider will end up sitting ON the cantle, putting all of the weight on the back edge of the saddle bars, pushing them into the horse’s loin. To make things worse, sitting up on the cantle tips the rider’s pelvis forward, so now the rider is unbalanced, causing even more motion and digging into the horse’s back.

Another prevalent myth is that larger seats are only required for larger/heavier riders. The rider’s thigh size determines the seat size. Thigh circumference can be converted to thigh width by dividing it by 3.14 and measured on the saddle from the back of the swells to the front of the cantle. Saddles that are too long for the rider are also an issue; the stirrups frequently hang too far (see Point 3. Above). A long seat combined with a chair seat position places all of the rider’s weight on the loins. A large seat makes it difficult to maintain one’s equilibrium. As you start to feel comfortable riding In a balanced position, the size of the saddle seat required diminishes. Another benefit of a smaller seat size is moving closer to the horse’s center of balance (like a jockey or bronc rider) and the ride smoother.

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Adjustable ground seat for a neutral pelvis

The Rise of the Seat

This is an essential aspect to consider, and it is entirely individual—it depends on each rider’s confirmation. Next time you are in a saddle shop, look at the saddles in profile, eyes level with the seat. You will notice a great range in the width and location of the flat part of the seat meant to accommodate your seat bones and allow you to keep a vertical/neutral pelvis. You will see saddles with no level spot – the heart rises right from the bottom of the cantle. Maintaining a balanced seat in such a saddle would be very hard, so they won’t work well for Western Dressage. Again, it would be best if you tried different types of saddles to determine what works for you; some people’s pelvic floors require the support of a steep rise, and other riders need a much gentler angle.

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Measure your horse’s back, angle, rock and twist. Find and measure a saddle to match.

How do you find a western Dressage saddle that fits your horse?

The western dressage saddle must fit the horse and allow you to effortlessly maintain a balanced position with a straight line (looking from the side) running vertically through your ear-shoulder-hip-heel. If you noticed, I have not mentioned particular types of saddles or makes/models. There is a vast variety of each type (barrel/cutting/pleasure, etc.), and you will likely find your next Western Dressage Saddle in any of those categories. Do not rely on someone else’s choice—just because the saddle works well for someone else does not mean it will work for you. Do not take the price as the sole guarantee that the saddle is suitable for Western Dressage (but avoid brand-new saddles for $200 – a good saddle cannot be built that cheaply). Look at used saddles—a well-taken care of saddle will last many decades. If your budget allows, custom-made saddles are the way to go—they will be built to fit you and your horse.

FAQ

What saddle do you use for Western dressage?

One of the most appealing aspects of Western Dressage is that it may be performed in any saddle or riding style. To compete, however, the saddle must meet the following WDAA requirements: A typical American Western stock saddle with swells, a seat, a cantle, fenders, and Western stirrups. In competition, a Western side saddle is also acceptable.

What is the distinction between cowboy and Western dressage?

Cowboy dressage is about building an enjoyable horse and effective horse in the field. Western dressage’s ultimate goal is to establish harmony and lightness between horse and rider. Western dressage combines classic training concepts with Western heritage to produce a versatile, practical, enjoyable horse. Riders must also improve their skills to form a willing partnership with the horse.

What exactly is Western dressage horseback riding?

It is a systematic and progressive approach to training the Western horse and rider in conventional western tack to be a safe, happy, versatile, and valuable working horse.

How many levels are there in Western dressage?

Competitions are held at several levels, starting with the Introductory Level and progressing through six levels to Level 4. A western dressage test is a set of manoeuvres performed at different gaits to assess the rider’s ability to communicate with their horse.

What is the difference between dressage and Western dressage?

Western dressage tests can contain a 3full circle turn on the forehand and a turn on the haunches, which English exams do not. The jog replaces the trot, and the lope replaces the canter.