Writing Horses: Saddles and Styles of Riding

My post on Saddles 101 gave rise to a whole sequence of reader questions. I love reader questions. Here I’m going to answer one particular set, which is best summed up in Troyce’s comment:

An interesting addendum to this essay would be one about the style of riding and how the rider sits.

As I noted in my post, a saddle is a structure designed to serve as an interface between the rider’s seat and legs and the horse’s back. It can be as basic as a piece of leather or other flexible, breathable material (fabric, synthetic) shaped to the horse, with some form of attachment that holds it in place—again, most basically, a strap around the horse’s barrel. There may be additional straps to stabilize it fore (a breast collar) and/or aft (a crupper). (And maybe a second girth or cinch in a Western saddle.)

But here we’re talking about how the structure of the saddle determines where and how the rider sits on the horse’s back. Some of that is style, i.e. form, and some is function. The definition of what “looks good on a horse” has a lot to do with style, but it’s also related to the optimal way to stay on board when the horse does whatever the style of riding is about.

For this post I’m going to talk about the common or garden variety of saddle that you’re likely to find in North America or the UK. I’ll devote another post later on to the less well known or the historical variety. That includes the sidesaddle and the many forms of military/war saddles.

So. First, the familiar. A Western saddle has a lot of structure to it. It’s built big and high. It has a large swell in front and a horn on top of that, and a fairly high cantle behind. There’s a good amount of surface area underneath, where it sits on the horse’s back.

It’s designed to be ridden in for hours, which means it has to be comfortable for both horse and rider. The position it tends to encourage sets the rider fairly far back on the horse, with the legs fairly long and set forward. It’s the recliner of the saddle world.

A rider in that position is well placed to sit back as the horse negotiates steep slopes both up and down. It allows them to brace when the horse slides to a stop, or when the rope pulls taut with a cow on the other end. It’s not a saddle that gives close contact with the horse’s back and movement. It’s designed to insulate against sudden moves and, to a degree, roughness of gait. Though the ideal Western horse is very smooth-gaited and easy to sit. Again, it’s all about comfort for the long haul.

Much the same applies to the Australian stock saddle. It doesn’t usually have a horn, and the shape is more “English”, with a smaller surface area underneath. But it’s designed for long rides, again, and it’s meant for comfort. There’s a fair amount of structure to it, with provides insulation from the horse’s movement. The Australian rider will tend to sit more upright than the Western rider, but the two riders are doing a lot of the same things. They’re working riders, getting the job done out on the range or in the outback.

The various incarnations of “English” saddles are a bit different. They’re more specialized in what they do, and they set the rider up for specific positions.

The saddle-seat saddle is almost completely flat, often cut back to open up space for the horse’s withers. The rider sits relatively far back, in some cases almost to the horse’s hip, with a long stirrup and a forward leg and an upright body position, with the hands high. There’s a lot of form to go with the function: shows have multiple classes labeled “equitation,” in which riders are judged on their position according to the saddle-seat standard. Equitation riders are at base riding in the optimal position for the style, but fad and fashion have a lot to do with how the riders are judged.

(I should note that Western riders have their own version of this. It’s called Western Pleasure. It is…a thing.)

The close-contact or jumping saddle is pretty much the exact opposite of the saddle-seat saddle. It sits well forward on the horse’s back, and it positions the rider well forward as well. It’s not meant to be sat in for any significant period.

The point of the exercise is to ride over fences. The rider rides in what’s called a “two-point,” lifted up and out of the saddle with the upper body leaning forward. It’s like a very elongated version of the jockey’s seat in a racing saddle, with a similar purpose: to stay out of the horse’s way while it clears a fence or races around a track. Jockey stirrups are almost vanishingly short, to keep the rider completely out of the saddle. Hunter-jumper stirrups are longer and allow the rider to sit in between fences, but they’re still very short by Western and saddle-seat standards. The rider is ready at any point to lift up and sit forward and go.

These types of saddles have been most familiar through the years, but in recent decades another type and style of riding equipment has taken over a fair share of the market: the dressage saddle. Dressage is a European import with a long history on that continent, and its own range of saddles. What’s come over to the Americas is a relatively recent design. It’s “English” in concept and basic shape. No horn. Intended for fairly short workouts in a riding arena, performing specific patterns and movements to a particular standard.

Compared to a jumping saddle, it’s long and oval in the flaps. It covers less square footage than a saddle-seat saddle, with a notable amount of engineering, and sometimes quite a bit of buildup, though nothing to compare to the Western saddle. It sits farther back than the jumping saddle but not as far back as the saddle-seat saddle; it’s meant to position the rider over the horse’s center of gravity.

The rider in a dressage saddle sits perpendicular to the back of the horse, an upright seat with the leg beneath the body. The line from shoulder to hip to heel should be straight. Hands are lower than the saddle-seat hands. Stirrups are longer than the jumper stirrups, by several inches, though there’s still an angle to the knee.

The point of the exercise is to remain poised over that equine center of gravity, no matter what the horse is doing. The principle is to train the horse so well that they’re always balanced and relaxed and obedient, and able to perform a large number of gaits and movements at the rider’s command. Ideally, the saddle doesn’t have to be highly constructed at all; the performance saddle of the Spanish Riding School is remarkably minimalist, with just enough structure fore and aft to support the rider through the Airs Above the Ground, which include the courbette (horse vertical on hindlegs, jumping forward multiple times) and capriole (whole horse in the air, parallel to the ground, kicking backward violently with the hindlegs).

But those are world-class riders trained from their teens to ride in this manner. Even they train and practice in conventional dressage saddles, though those are, again, fairly simply constructed. On the other end of the spectrum are dressage saddles that effectively lock the rider in place, allowing very little flexibility as to position and movement in the saddle.

There’s a reason for that however. The horse in vogue for competition is exceptionally large and exceptionally powerful, with tremendous scope in the gaits. It’s very hard to sit such a horse without being an extreme athlete in one’s own right. One way to try to compensate for lesser skill and fitness is to build a saddle that creates the position for the rider.

On a personal note I’ll say that I love the big boingities and I am not a fan of the coercively engineered saddle. I’ve also ridden mountain trails in a basic-model dressage saddle with a slightly deep, lightly padded seat. It’s fairly comfortable if it’s a fit for both rider and horse.

By the same token, a poorly fitting Western saddle can be excruciating. My usual problem is that it’s too wide in the twist, aka the part directly underneath my seat. I also have a tropism toward the dressage position, which can be a battle in a saddle that wants me to sit back with my feet in front of me, relatively speaking. I actually have a Western saddle that allows that (leather and cordura Big Horn, for those who may wonder), thanks to the way the stirrups are attached.

But that I’ll get into in another post.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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