Ride in Comfort: Find the Perfect Trail Saddle
Find the right saddle for your riding needs with our expert trail-saddle shopping guide.
SSaddles are a big-ticket item; trail saddles are no exception. The good news is that saddle manufacturers are offering more options than ever before, with trail saddles for just about every horse, every rider, and every kind of terrain. As you shop for a trail saddle, keep in mind that every horse, rider, and trail-riding experience is unique. Whatever form your trail-riding takes, the more suitable your saddle, the better off you and your horse will be. The following guidelines are designed to help you select a saddle that matches your particular riding style.
Here, I’ll describe four rider profiles: (1) casual day rides on home trails, over mostly easy terrain; (2) frequent traveling to overnight trail-riding and horse-camping destinations; (3) long, challenging rides over steep terrain; and (4) gaiting or hacking on broad, mostly flat trails. Then I’ll offer saddle suggestions that might work best for you.
When you’re ready to start shopping, turn to the resource guide of saddle manufacturers (page 40). And don’t miss our roundup of trail-riding safety gear, along with related resources (page 39). Riding profile #1: Casual day rides on home trails, over mostly easy terrain. Saddle specs: If you already own a saddle that fits both you and your horse, you may be in luck. A good Western saddle, jumping saddle, eventing saddle, or all-purpose saddle could be just fine to use on home trails. That said, you may want to invest in a purpose-designed trail saddle, for optimal comfort and versatility.
Your choice of saddle will depend to a great extent on your horse and his conformation, your own conformation, your ambitions and goals, and the trails on which you ride or plan to ride.
A long-backed, leggy horse with high withers will be uncomfortable wearing a saddle that would be well-suited to a shorter, more compact, low-withered animal. Similarly, your own body build will influence your choice. Test various saddle models to determine your and your horse’s preferences.
Traditional Western saddles offer excellent weight distribution, your choice of rigging (that is, how and where the saddle is attached to your horse’s body), a saddle horn, and multiple attachment points and latigos to carry saddlebags and gear.
Today’s high-tech, lightweight Western saddles are especially suited for trail riding.
Western saddles also offer great versatility. You can use your trail saddle to participate in open shows, team penning, and even join in a parade. Expert tip: Watch for any changes to your horse’s shape. A saddle that was perfect for last year’s trail rides might not be perfect this year. Riding profile #2: Frequent traveling to overnight trail-riding and horse-camping destinations. Saddle specs: As you saddle shop, consider not only the trail demands, but also ease of care. For instance, today’s lightweight, waterproof synthetic saddles are ideal for equestrian travel.
A lightweight synthetic saddle is easy to load into the trailer and place on your horse’s back. It can be especially helpful if you have shoulder or neck problems, back problems, or arthritic hands.
And you’ll sleep better knowing your saddle isn’t being harmed by that surprise rain or snow shower. A wet leather saddle can stain, become heavy, hold dampness for a long time, and require hours of careful cleaning and reconditioning when you get home. Heavy leather saddles are also more
difficult to handle when you’re tired or sore from a long ride.
You might also appreciate a flexible tree that will allow you to use the same saddle on several different horses and that can contin- ue to fit your horse comfortably throughout the year, even if he changes shape with the seasons (most horses do).
Synthetic and other trail-ready saddles are also available with adjustable trees; there are even treeless saddles for those who prefer them or have extremely hardto-fit horses.
Among the many comfort-promoting features of the newer saddles are pre-twisted fenders, adjustable stirrups, and special stirrup hangers that fit be- tween the fenders and the stirrups, allowing your stirrups to hang perpendicular to your horse, while the fenders rest flat against his sides. Expert tip: Saddle fit is important for your and your horse’s comfort, soundness, and safety. Learn as much as you can on your own, then enlist the help of a reliable professional saddle fitter. Pay close attention to your horse, and believe his reactions. Only he knows for sure whether a saddle fits him. Riding profile #3: Long, challenging rides over steep terrain. Saddle specs: If you’re already trail-savvy and planning to increase the duration of your rides and the difficulty of the terrain you cover, you’ll be even more demanding when you select your new saddle.
Consider an endurance saddle or an Australian stock saddle (with or without a saddle horn). These saddle types are specifically designed to allow horse and rider to travel long distances in balance and comfort over rugged terrain, with a lighter weight than traditional saddles, a padded
seat, no horn, and less skirting, both to lessen the weight of the saddle and to help the horse cool. Broad stirrups offer optimal weight distribution for comfort on long, grueling rides.
Australian stock saddles also feature poleys in the front, which look like wings. These are extremely practical. They were designed for hard use by riders who chase cattle at a gallop over extremely rugged terrain.
Poleys enhance rider stability and can help you stay in the saddle as you go up and down hills. Poleys can also be helpful if your horse sees a snake — or a scary rock — and makes a sudden turn or a sideways leap. Note that you can also get an Australian stock saddle with a saddle horn.
Trooper saddles, based on military designs, provide yet another option. These saddles are designed to distribute the rider’s weight over a greater surface area. Many are also made from shock-absorbing materials in the seat and skirting, making those long hours and longer miles easier on both you and your horse.
If you’ll be putting in a lot of trail miles, look for plenty of rings to attach all your necessary gear, including auxiliary equipment.
And if you’re placing serious demands on your horse and tack, you’ll want to have options when it comes to saddle stability and rigging. For the sake of your horse’s safety and your own, make the necessary adjustments to keep his tack steady. This will also help keep those rides pleasant for your horse. If his saddle is constantly shifting, he’ll be chafed; if you try to stabilize the saddle by tightening the cinch until he squeaks, he won’t like that either.
Consider accessories to help keep your saddle in place while going up and down steep hills. Consider a double-rigged saddle — that is, one with both a front and back cinch. Be sure to have a connecting strap between the two cinches for stability. (In terms of cinch material, find one that offers maximum friction grip, breathability, and comfort for your horse.)
Also consider a breastcollar to keep your saddle from sliding back while going uphill. A sliding saddle can cause discomfort, an impaired gait, and sores. Look for a smooth, wide leather breastcollar
Another handy saddle add-on is a crupper, which runs from the back of the
saddle to under your horse’s tail to help prevent your saddle from shifting forward while going downhill. When your saddle shifts forward, the bars of the saddle’s tree (that run along either side of your horse’s spine) can crowd and bump against your horse’s shoulders, making him sore. It can also drift painfully forward onto your horse’s shoulders. Expert tip: If you plan to add saddle accessories (such as a rear cinch, breastcollar, and/or crupper), introduce your horse to those new items at home first. Lead your horse around wearing each successive piece of his new equipment. If he has a strong reaction to any of it, you’ll be able to observe the problem at close range, but without the risks of being in the saddle if your surprised horse balks, rears, bucks, or sits down. Riding profile #4: Gaiting or hacking on broad, mostly flat trails. Saddle specs: Before we can address saddle types for this kind of riding, a bit of background is necessary. Smooth-gait- ed horses can make lovely trail horses. A well-fitting, comfortable saddle that suits your horse at home should be equally suitable on broad, flat trails. However, this won’t necessarily apply to special saddles meant to show off a horse’s exaggerated show gaits in the ring.
Most horses, whether smooth-gaited or not, have a “trail gait” of some sort — running walk, singlefoot, pace, jog — if they’re allowed enough time on the trail to discover and practice it in the interest of their own comfort.
Smooth-gaited horses with enough experience on trails will also demonstrate trail versions of their show gaits, but with some key differences. A gaited horse performing show-ring gaits on the trail will typically move with a higher head and flatter back. This will cause his hind legs to be more “out behind” than under, which is bad for balance and would cause him to tire more quickly.
This way of going also causes bridging (when the saddle tree’s bars only contact in the front and rear of the saddle, creating instability). This puts a great deal of pressure under the pommel and cantle, which lay over the tree in these areas.
Show gaits are not the same as natural trail gaits. Whatever natural trail gait your horse demonstrates, he should move with his back lifted, his head and neck reaching freely forward, and his hind legs underneath him. The saddle should be comfortable for you both when your horse is moving like this.
Any good, well-fitted saddle should be wide enough in the shoulder for your horse to move easily and correctly, without shoulder impingement, but a saddle designed for gaited horses may be a good start. Make sure the saddle is comfortable for your horse. Investigate various types of trail saddles. TTR
The Imus 4-Beat Saddle, by Phoenix Rising Saddles, is designed for complete freedom of movement to accommodate the gaited horse’s back. The Border Tooled Trail Rider from Sports Saddle, Inc., offers a medium oil finish, border-tooled skirt panels,...
Synergist Lightweight Trail Saddles are not only light, they’re also highly customizable. Such features as free-swinging fenders and wide-based E-Z Ride stirrups help ensure rider comfort.
WILLIAM J. ERICKSON PHOTO Cashel’s Trail Saddle features soft, supple leather and a streamlined design. Stirrup fenders are positioned to give the rider a comfortable leg angle for stability, comfort, and security. The double-padded, ultra-soft seat...
Wintec’s ProEndurance Saddle features FlexiContourbloc, an external thigh block anatomically contoured to the shape of the rider’s leg for maximum comfort and security.
The Marielle, available from SmartPak Equine, featuree a medium deep seat, medium twist, and the innovative Genesis adjustable gullet system.
Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd. has introduced Devin, an innovative, lightweight Western trail saddle that’s fully adjustable for horse and rider and made specifically for women riders and their horses.
This Australian stock saddle, by Down Under Saddle Supply, is deep and soft seated. The saddle is finished in rich nubuck leather, which has the beauty of a smooth leather with the grip of a suede.
Saddle manufacturers are offering more options than ever before, with trail saddles for just about every horse, every rider, and every kind of terrain. Shown are saddles made by Circle Y Saddles, Inc.
Julie Goodnight’s Blue Ridge Model, by Circle Y Saddles, Inc., provides a correct seat, narrow twist, close-contact feel, and enhanced comfort for both you and your horse, making it an ideal multiuse performance saddle.
A good, flat spot with a centered balance point, an out-of-the-way pommel, and a deep cantle for extra security all make up Timberline Saddle Company’s Simple-Innovative-Riding-Accessory (SIR A) model.
The Steele Mountaineer Trail Saddle, made by Custom Tree & Saddle, comes with many customizable options, providing the maximum in fit and comfort.
The Wood Post Wade Trail Saddle, by J.J. Maxwell Tack & Saddle Company, is a lightweight option with a balanced, close-contact seat that helps ensure a secure, comfortable ride.
Specialized Saddles’ new Trail Light features a classic Western pommel, a short equitation horn, and an adjustable fit for both horse and rider.
The classic Teton Mule/Horse Trail Saddle, by Wyoming Saddlery, comes in either a narrow or wide gullet size, and is fully rigged for a breastcollar, breeching, and crupper.