How to Choose a Saddle

Buying a Side Saddle

(Written by a side-saddle enthusiast Julia Perry)

The best advice I can give you is to gather as much information about side-saddle as you can from everywhere you can, books, the internet, (the Yahoo Side-saddle Group is VERY informative, Various Sidesaddle Organisations, THE Sidesaddle Association, and other riders etc. I wish so much that I were able to say "here, speak to so and so, they will find you a saddle and Make Sure it fits both you and the Horse", but it's not that easy. Learn as much as you can and then trust your instincts. Why do I say that? Because I consider myself to know, well, not very much at all about side-saddles and horses, but over the years I have found I know far more than I thought I did, and a Lot more than some people who profess to have knowledge on the subject!

Some years ago I had a lesson with a SSA instructor, and I'm very sorry to say that I heard her tell another student that it "doesn't matter if the saddle is too long, all your weight is carried forwards". Wrong! If the saddle doesn't fit....the saddle doesn't fit! If it would be too long as an astride saddle, by that I mean sitting too far back on the horses kidneys, it's too long as a sidesaddle! It doesn't miraculously stop crashing about on a horses kidneys just because it has the name "side-saddle".

Some saddlers know nothing about side-saddles and will tell you so. Some know nothing, and think they do know. Side-saddle is, unfortunately a bit of a "black art" and there are very very few saddlers around today who know this art. Such a shame! If a saddle (sidesaddle) fits you and your horse it is a dream to ride in. If it feels uncomfortable, or you feel like you are hanging off the side of the horse, there IS something wrong. Chances are it is something simple, like the fixed head needing a queen - a small, padded cushion that fits between your right thigh/knee, and the fixed head (the "horn" of the saddle that your right knee/thigh rests on, or the saddle may need re-flocking on the near side rear. I am 5'8 and (on a good day!) under 8 stone, I'm very tall and thin, and I have ridden in approx 14 different sidesaddles now, and only 2 have been OK. One with a huge queen, and the other...perfect as it was! Oh how I wish I'd bought that saddle! It was a Champion & Wilton and fitted me and the horse like a dream!

The horse Must come first in saddle fit. Imagine walking for 40 minutes in a badly fitting shoe with a stone in. It would be agony! You wouldn’t do that to yourself, so don’t make a horse wear a badly fitting saddle! One of my instructors (a champion rider in England) trusted one of her saddles to a saddler for re:flocking. She rode her horse for only hour. This saddle had been poorly flocked and just that short time caused the horses back to blister and he was out of work for weeks. (The stuffing was lumpy, and she hadn’t noticed - always check! Run your fingers over the surface of the re-stuffed panels, do they feel smooth? If you feel hard, lumpy bits, well tell the saddler and get it put right).

How it used to be

Sidesaddles used to be made to measure to both the rider and the horse. Unfortunately today, they're very few of us who have that luxury. In an ideal world, it would still be the case, for our saddler to call out to our stables, make the saddle, fit it to the horse, let us ride on it, and then come out again to re-flock the saddle when the stuffing has settled.

A new saddle would have a serge lining, which made it possible for the wool flocking to be moved around and packed down through the fabric. It is also quite soft and flexible, and unlike leather, is able to be stitched and re-stitched without tearing holes in the leather. When the flocking has settled a linen is put on top. This still has the benefits of being able to be stitched and re-stiched, but is firmer than serge, and will more easily hold flocking in place.

I feel you are better buying an "old" saddle than a new one. Why? Old saddles (and most were made before the 1930's, when ladies were still ladies, and before the girls got the vote, and before they started doing the jobs that the men would have done before they went off to war), were made by Craftsmen who knew side-saddles inside out. Unfortunately, a lot of these old saddlers went off to war....and were sadly lost before they could pass on the skills that they had taken lifetimes to learn.

What to be Wary Of

Any saddle that says “New”. There are of course exceptions, but, there are more Bad new saddles than good ones! One exception to the ruleare Elan side-saddles sold by Marti Friddle of Hundred Oaks Saddlery*. Marti holds the patent for this design of New Saddle, and has put years of work into perfecting it’s design and sourcing good manufacturers to make it. Not only that but every single Elan side-saddle is checked by Marti herself. They are a budget saddle, but if this is what you are looking for then my advice would be to not bother with anything else and buy one of these from Hundred Oaks. Several independant saddlers custom make sidesaddles to order. Lillian Chaudhaury is one, and I can recommend her Western Side-saddles.

*Many of the modern side saddles sold by Marti Friddle are made by Pete Harry, the oner of this saddlery. [edit by webmaster]

What makes a Bad saddle?

Tree - Side-saddles need to be made on a special tree. These are NOT symmetrical like an astride tree, but have a typical “paisley swirl” asymmetric shape. Trees like this are ESSENTIAL for good balance and good fit, for both the rider and the horse. There are a lot of new saddles being made but most of them are badly designed and poorly made.

Horns not in the right place. Take a look at as many pictures of “old” saddles as you can. Some new ones look wrong, with the leaping and fixed head looking “different”. those old saddlers knew what they were doing and perfected their designs over years. Those horns are in those places for a reason! To keep the rider safely and comfortably and balanced on the horse. If the “new” saddle has leaping and fixed head placed differently it is very likely they are “wrong” and will give you a very uncomfortable at the least and possibly Unsafe ride!

Billets/Girths too far back, too far forward and too many are things to look out for as well. There was recently a side-saddle on eBay with a balance girth on the near side, where it is just NOT needed. They'd buckled it under the horse and it was so far back it was like a bucking strap! Down right dangerous! I wrote and told the shop that was selling the saddle, but of course, they didn't care. Very poor! The balance girth is the strap that goes from the back of the off-side of the saddle and either down to a special buckle on the girth, or under the horse to a strap on the near-side point. I'll get photo's of this up asap. Very early saddles are likely to be very narrow. Horses were a different shape many years ago! Better feeding, better wormers and different breeding means that modern horses, as a rule, take a much wider tree. It is likely to be very hard to find a horse to fit a very early (pre 1910) saddle.

Linen vs. Leather It is preferable to have linen panels - Why? Enables saddle to be re-flocked regularly without stitches tearing as they would through leather. Cooler for the horse maybe too. Although in hot countries, leather panels were specified for ease of cleaning.

Saddles to Look Out for

Champion & Wilton - some say The Best Side-Saddles. Owen, Mayhew. There are many other good saddles, made by saddlers who were not so well known, but these are known as the best. If you find one by Passier, keep hold of it!