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.

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