The English riding saddle is designed to give close contact between horse and rider, while elevating the weight of the rider from the horse’s back to protect their spine. A well-fitting saddle makes carrying weight much more comfortable for the horse, and helps the rider to maintain a well-balanced position.
English riding saddles are incredibly complex pieces of kit with many parts. Creating functional saddles requires both ancient and technical expertise. In reality, even the most avid riders rarely understand all there is to know about fitting their horse with the perfect saddle. This knowledge can only be gained over years of experience of being a professional saddler.
But, I think it is really important that we riders understand the fundamentals of saddle builds, care, and fit. This is because caring for your saddle will make it last longer, and also keep it functioning safely, protecting you and your horse.
A poorly fitting saddle can even cause you or your horse pain and discomfort. When one of my horses began bucking at seemingly random times during trail rides, consulting a saddler led to correcting fit problems that may have been causing this behavior.
Today I am going to explain all the parts of the English saddle, so you can better understand how each part affects you and your horse.
Parts Of The Saddle
The tree is the most integral part of the saddle, which gives it its structure and shape. It can be found beneath the pommel and extends down the sides of the front of the saddle, and back toward the tail. The tree cannot be seen from the outside of the saddle; it is like the saddle’s skeleton. It is usually made from wood and/or steel, and the rest of the saddle is built around it.
The purpose of the tree is to distribute the rider’s weight on either side of the back of the horse, but lift it from contact with the spine. The fit of the tree is the most important factor in fitting the saddle to the horse. If the tree is too narrow, it will not sit far enough down on the withers of the horse. This means that the withers will be pinched, and the saddle will sit high up in the front.
As a result, the rider’s weight will be tipped backward toward the cantle of the saddle. Unfortunately, this causes the rider’s weight to be put onto the weakest part of the horse’s spine. The rider will also feel very unbalanced and out of sync with the horse.
If the tree is too wide, the pommel of the saddle will sink low onto the withers of the horse in the front. The weight of the rider will bear far too directly onto the spine of the horse, potentially damaging nerves and bone over time. The rider will also be imbalanced and tipped forward.
Adjustable Gullet Saddles
As your horse grows, loses weight, or builds muscle, you may find that their previously well-fitting saddle is not fitting right anymore.
The changes can go in predictable cycles throughout the seasons. Some modern all-purpose saddles come with adjustable gullets, so you can adjust the fit of the tree a little. This means you might be able to avoid buying different saddles for your horse, which is very costly!
I had one of these adjustable saddles from Thorowgood for my pleasure-riding cob, who seemed to put on weight at the mere sight of spring grass. The gullet is essentially an upside-down, V-shaped piece of steel that fits over the withers of the horse, at the head of the tree.
The gullet bars can be purchased individually from the manufacturer of the saddle. The saddle opens to allow you to swap them. Interchangeable gullets allow you to increase or decrease the width of the front of the saddle only.
Interchangeable gullets are not an ideal solution, as no other parts of the saddle can be adjusted in balance with this change. But, they are an innovative and cost-effective answer to the saddle-fitting challenges caused by minor body shape fluctuations of your horse.
The pommel is the highest point in the front of the saddle. In the English saddle, the pommel is smooth and is not intended for use as a handhold or equipment hanging point when riding. But, when lifting and carrying saddles, riders should hold the pommel in their left hand and slide their right forearm under the saddle from the back end to support the equipment without damaging it.
The pommel is rounded and high, forming the front of the seat area. It is angled slightly backward and sits just behind the withers of the horse, very close to the groin of the rider.
Many learner riders will attempt to hold on to the pommel when they feel nervous. However, I personally recommend that learner riders avoid this bad habit! This is because the pommel is set quite far back, and so riders become very unbalanced when they try to reach down and brace their arm to hold it.
The unbalanced rider will then tip forward or backward, and completely lose their seat and control. The horse can also feel this unnatural pulling upward of the pommel and is likely to be unsettled.
Instead, adding a loose loop of rope or leather around the neck of the horse provides much better support for new riders who need something to hold on to. A neck strap can save the horse from having his mouth pulled on by a panicking rider hanging off the reins.
And, a neck strap will not unbalance an inexperienced rider from their seat. This is thanks to the more forward position and independent movement of the neck strap compared to the pommel.
A grab strap is a short piece of leather or synthetic material that can be added to the pommel by clipping it to D-rings on either side. It is designed to be held on to increase the security of the rider in nervous moments.
Grab straps can be great for very small children, who are often rather outsized by their mounts and saddles. This is because the grab strap is further in front of them. Also, it is likely that an adult will have the ultimate control over the head of the horse.
However, I personally dislike grab straps for adults, as the pommel is situated too far back. Trying to stabilize yourself by gripping just in front of your crotch causes your whole body to become imbalanced and stiff.
As above, I recommend a neck strap instead, which will enable you to articulate your hands and seat independently, but still provide something to grab onto. However, each to their own and grab straps are popular with many riders.
The twist of the saddle is the narrowest part that the rider sits on, between the pommel and the wider seat. It is the sloping part of the saddle that makes contact with the top of the inner thigh and groin, and should have even, comfortable contact throughout.
The height and width of the twist are essential to rider comfort, especially for women, who tend to have less space between their upper thighs. The twist of the saddle can be created to fit the rider well, without affecting the fit of the saddle for the horse.
Unfortunately, for all but the most affluent riders who have custom saddles built from scratch, this is often neglected. For most of us, the priority has always been to purchase a saddle that fits the horse well, with rider comfort being something of an afterthought.
This part of the saddle is quite self-explanatory! The seat is the part of the saddle where the rider sits. It is usually leather or synthetic and is padded for comfort. The amount of padding and depth of the seat compared to the pommel and cantle depend on the purpose of the saddle.
The cantle is the rise at the back of the seat of the saddle. The height of the cantle varies dramatically depending on the discipline that the saddle is for. The cantle supports the rider in good posture and increases the comfort of the saddle.
The panels are found underneath the saddle and run the length of the saddle beneath the seat. They are padded and are there for the horse’s comfort. Good panels will have a large contact area with your horse’s back, to comfortably spread the rider’s weight.
Well-padded panels also provide some shock absorption, reducing the impact of the rider rising and falling. The panels have an empty channel between them, which forms an elevated tunnel over the horse’s spine. Over time, panels can become compressed, so it is important to check that your horse’s spine is not being pressurized by examining the fit of the saddle with a rider on it from time to time. The channel should be clear.
The channel runs the length of the underside of the saddle, from pommel to cantle, between the padded panels. The channel creates a hollow elevation over the horse’s spine so that the weight of the rider is distributed on either side of it.
The channel prevents bone and nerve damage to the spine of the horse. It is important that the channel is wide enough to prevent pinching of the spine and high enough to protect the spine from bearing direct weight.
The sweat flaps are the large, flat flaps of leather that are in contact with the horse’s sides (with a saddle pad or cloth between the leather and the skin).
The sweat flaps sit underneath the billets and girth buckles and protect the horse’s sides from them. The sweat flaps also protect the saddle itself from sweat rising from the horse’s skin.
The saddle flaps look similar to the sweat flaps, except they are not in contact with the horse’s sides at all. Instead, these large pieces of leather lay over the billets and girth buckles and protect the rider’s leg.
Saddle flaps are noticeably different between saddles from different English riding disciplines. In dressage, they are very long, whereas, in racing, they are extremely short and thin. Saddle flaps on custom saddles are also created in various lengths and angles to suit the leg and riding position of the rider.
The knee roll is found at the front of the saddle flaps on either side of the horse’s shoulders. The knee rolls help to keep the rider’s leg in a good position and prevent it from moving forward too far. A larger knee roll can help improve rider stability and comfort.
Knee rolls are especially important in dressage. Larger knee rolls help the rider maintain a very upright seat with an elongated leg posture that is set further back than in other disciplines.
Knee blocks have the same function as the knee rolls, but are harder. They are found at the front of the sweat flaps on either side of the horse’s shoulders. So, they sit directly beneath the knee rolls.
The thigh block is found opposite the knee block, at the back of the sweat flaps. The thigh block also provides support for maintaining good leg position and posture. Not all saddles have thigh blocks.
The girth billets are three straps of leather, situated between the sweat flaps and saddle flaps. They are attached to the tree, so have a very strong foundation. The billets are punctured with holes in order to attach the girth buckles and fit the girth.
There are always three girth billets on an English saddle, despite girths having only two buckles at each end. The purpose of having an extra billet is threefold. Firstly, being able to choose which buckles you use can have an effect on the security, angle, and fit of the girth around the horse’s belly.
Secondly, some riders purposefully alternate their use of the billets to ensure even wear and improve their longevity. Thirdly, having an extra billet always comes in handy when one breaks.
The billet keeper is another flap of leather, but this one is small and removable. It slides onto the billets and lays over the top of the buckles when attached. The purpose is to protect the saddle flaps and also to smooth over the hard lumpy buckles.
Even with the billet keeper, the girth buckles can be easily felt under the rider’s mid-thigh and can cause soreness over time if the saddle flaps are thin. So, a good billet keeper can really increase rider comfort.
The girth is the long strap that passes underneath the horse’s belly and connects to the saddle on each side. The girth has two buckles at either end, which are buckled to the girth billets. The girth is what keeps the saddle on the horse. It is easily removable and should be cleaned frequently.
The girth should be loosened from the billets on both sides after each ride; not only released from the left side. To tighten the girth before a ride, riders should always start with both sides of the girth fastened loosely. When the saddle is on the horse, tighten both sides in even increments until the saddle is secure.
The skirts of the saddle are similar to the saddle flaps in function but are much smaller. They are a continuation of the side of the seat and twist area and are found at the very top of the saddle flaps.
The skirts are a third-layer flap of leather and cover the stirrup bars, stirrup buckles, and the top of the stirrup leathers. They sit underneath the top of the inner thigh of the rider and prevent pinching and bruising of the rider’s skin.
The stirrup bars can be located underneath the skirt of the saddle. They are made of steel and directly attached to the tree inside the saddle. They are incredibly sturdy and weight-bearing.
The bars are where the stirrup leathers are hung from, to attach the stirrup irons to the saddle. In English riding disciplines, the rider is very often standing in the stirrups, rather than sitting down in the seat. So, the anchor for the stirrups needs to be very strong and integral to the build of the saddle.
Stirrup leathers are connected to the saddle by threading behind the stirrup bars. Stirrup leathers are traditionally made from leather, but can also be made from synthetic webbing fabric.
Stirrup leathers have buckles at one end and a very long section with buckle holes at the other end. Once you have buckled your stirrup leather at the correct length for your leg, you should always pull down on the length that is closest to the horse’s side.
This will run the buckle up, to sit flush against the stirrup bar, underneath the skirt. The free length of stirrup leather that is left over should be tucked neatly through the stirrup leather keeper.
Stirrup Leather Keeper
The stirrup leather keeper is a simple piece of leather, much like a belt loop, It is found near the back of each saddle flap. Its purpose is to neatly store the free length of stirrup leather after you have adjusted the length to suit your leg.
Stirrup irons are a very important part of the English saddle and come in many shapes. Stirrup irons are where the rider places their feet. They are connected to the saddle using stirrup leathers. English riders stand in the stirrups irons during the rising beat of trot, when taking a light seat for faster paces, or when jumping.
Stirrup irons can pose a significant risk to riders. It is frighteningly easy to allow your foot to pass through the stirrup iron when experiencing a fall. The result is that the stirrup iron can become caught around a rider’s ankle. This can cause a frightened horse to drag a fallen rider along upside down.
To counter this risk, many riders use modified safety stirrup irons. There are a few different versions of these. Some safety stirrup irons are designed to prevent your foot from passing through the iron. Others allow your foot to be pulled free of the iron during a fall, using either tear-away bars or curved bars on the outer side of the foot. These are known as quick-release irons.
I personally feel riders should be using safety irons where possible. Though we love a little traditionalism and bravado in the equestrian world, safety should never be compromised for the sake of pride. Safety stirrup technology is being developed and improved all the time, and thankfully safety stirrups are becoming more commonplace at all levels of horse riding.
A croup strap connects to D-rings at the back of the saddle and passes underneath the tail of the horse. This is designed to prevent the saddle from slipping forward. Croup straps are a common part of the tack for ponies. But, croup straps are optional and most riders don’t use one.
Martingales can be a little challenging to tack up your horse with. They are sets of leather straps that connect to the girth. Martingales encircle the neck and have straps passing from under the belly and up the chest. At the end of the straps are loops that the reins run through.
The purpose of a martingale is to prevent the horse from throwing up its head. Not all horses need martingales.
A breastplate can look similar to a martingale but does not necessarily connect to the reins. Breastplates are sets of leather straps that connect to the saddle at various tether points. They encircle the neck and chest of your horse.
The purpose of a breastplate is to prevent the saddle from sliding backward if the horse jumps, rears, or simply runs fast. Not all horses need breastplates.
• All-Purpose: The all-purpose English riding saddle is designed to work moderately well across all disciplines and provide good rider comfort. It is ideal for schooling and hacking. It has medium-sized knee rolls, a medium-rise pommel and cantle, and a wide, padded seat.
• Dressage: The dressage saddle is designed to support the stable, upright posture of the dressage rider. It has very large knee rolls and blocks, as well as a very high cantle. The seat is deep, while the saddle flaps are very long and set further back.
• Jumping: The jumping saddle is designed to allow the rider to take the raised jumping position, but also sit well in between jumps to control the pace. For this, the rider needs shorter stirrups, so the saddle flaps are also shorter and more forward.
Prominent knee rolls are also present, to help the rider grip the saddle with the lower leg while jumping, and prevent the leg from sliding too far forward. The seat is shallow, allowing the rider to switch between seated and jumping positions unencumbered.
• Racing: The racing saddle is more extreme than the jumping saddle. The saddle flaps are even shorter and more forward-angled, to allow for an extremely short stirrup length.
The whole design is as light as possible. The seat is almost flat, as the rider rarely sits down, but instead stands in the stirrups and floats above the saddle.
Answer: The English and Western saddles are different in many ways. Western saddles are designed for the comfort of the rider, so that the rider can spend full days in the saddle, crossing vast distances.
Western saddles are much heavier than English saddles. When looking at a Western saddle, the most obvious difference is that it has a horn where the pommel of the English saddle is. The horn is very tall and is sometimes used to attach ropes. You can learn more about Western saddles in our article: Parts Of The Western Saddle Explained.*
Answer: Fitting a horse with a saddle correctly is a very complex business, and professionals train for many years to do this effectively. However, some obvious signs that your saddle is ill-fitting include:
• You can’t fit three fingers into the channel between your horse’s withers and the pommel.
• The seat of the saddle isn’t level.
• You can’t see light passing through the channel of your saddle over your horse’s spine.
• The saddle shifts or rocks.
• The panels don’t make even contact with your horse’s back.
• It is always best to have your saddle fitted by a professional saddler.
English saddles are amazing pieces of equipment. If you are new to horse ownership and seeking your first saddle, my recommendation is to purchase a leather all-purpose English saddle and have it fitted by a professional. This way, you know you are making a great investment.
I love my leather saddles and am always amazed at how proper conditioning of the natural materials allows them to keep performing and looking like new. Take the time to learn about the parts of your saddle and how to care for them, and your saddle will keep you and your horse safe and comfortable for years to come.
- Thorowgood – Changeable Gullet System. (2022). Thorowgood.com. https://www.thorowgood.com/features/11-changeable-gullet
- Support and safety features in preventing foot and ankle injuries in equestrian sports : review article | International SportMed Journal. (2020). International SportMed Journal. https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.10520/EJC48619