I often get asked if a particular saddle would be OK for Western Dressage work if a barrel saddle is better than a trail saddle, or a cutting one better than a ranch working saddle. I usually end up going over the same points with each rider, so it seemed logical to put it all on paper.
First – there is no need to go out and buy a brand new saddle right away. If your current stock or Australian saddle has been working well for you and your horse for many years, it will be just 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:
1. Fit to the Horse
While it is obvious 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, outright cause pain. Saddle fit of a stock saddle is a tricky business as beyond the angle of the bars or tree width (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 panels over the shoulders. And 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. Your best bet is to pay for an opinion of a professional saddle fitter or a person competent in evaluating saddle fit. Here is a very educational article by Rod Nikkel Saddle Trees on building a tree with wonderful pictures. http://www.rodnikkel.com/content/tr…
2. Size and shape of the skirt
Most stock breeds used for WD tend to be in the 14-15 hands range. An overly large skirt, particularly a square one, will extend far beyond the bars of the saddle and is likely to dig into the horse when you introduce significant bending such as during work on small circles and lateral work. 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.
3. Position and attachment of fenders
Dressage work requires the rider to move her leg back to ask haunches to step laterally, therefore, fenders that can swing back and forth freely are important. Run, do not walk, away from saddles with fenders attached to the skirt (yes, I’ve seen such things with my own eyes). The position of the fender/stirrup is essential for the rider’s ability to keep a balanced seat. The most common seat fault by far is the chair seat – 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, thus wedging themselves between the stirrups and the cantle of the saddle. While such an arrangement can feel very secure, it is absolutely 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 saddle shopping, make sure to sit in the saddles to make sure that the angle of the fender allows your feet to stay underneath you, with the knees slightly bent. If you are lucky, the fenders will be attached to the bar in such a way that you’ll be able to slide them along the bar to find a perfect position.
Sometimes you can find saddles with fenders hung on the bar with enough space in front and behind them to adjust the position. Here is an example of an innovative approach by EasyFitSaddles.com – they offer repositionable fenders that sit over the tree on their custom saddles.
4. Seat Size
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 seat. I often hear the excuse – “well, the saddle fits the horse really well, so it’s OK that I suffer in a saddle that is too small”. The truth is, the saddle that is too small for the rider will NEVER fit the horse well. Instead of rider’s weight resting in the deepest part of the saddle, in front of the cantle, the rider will end up seating 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 as well, causing, even more, motion and more digging into the horse’s back. Another common misconception is that only bigger/heavier riders need larger seats. The reality is that the seat size depends on the length of rider’s femur – a long-legged rider needs a longer seat. Notice I didn’t say a taller rider – height itself does not necessarily mean a longer leg. My husband is 5-6 inches taller than me, yet my inseam is about 2 inches longer. Saddles that are too large for the rider are also a problem – usually, that means that the stirrups will be hung too far forward (see Point 3. Above). An overly large seat makes keeping one’s balance difficult.
5. The Rise of the Seat (the angle from the deepest point toward the pommel)
This is a very important aspect to consider, and it is entirely individual – it depends on each rider’s confirmation. Next time you are in a saddle shop, take a look at the saddles in profile, eyes level with the seat. You will notice a great range in 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 some saddles that have no level spot – the seat rises right from the bottom of the cantle. It would be very hard to keep a balanced seat in such a saddle, so they won’t work well for Western Dressage. Again, you must try different types of saddles to determine what works for you: some people’s pelvic floor requires the support of a steep rise, other riders need a much gentler angle.
To sum it up – the 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 such a huge variety of each type (barrel/cutting/pleasure etc.) that you are likely to 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 saddle for $200 – a good saddle cannot be built that cheaply). DO look at used saddles – a well taken care of saddle will last many decades. If budget allows, custom saddles are the way to go – they will be built to fit you and your horse.