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May 28, 2020

Horse Saddle Safety - Guide for Beginners

Whether you are new to the equestrian world or an experienced veteran that has practically lived your life in a saddle, there are some things that must be remembered. Saddles are not something that can be skimped on and knowing what kind of saddle you need is one of the keys to success.  But what is the safest way to proceed?

Saddles, Tack, and Safety are tied together and cannot be separated.  If your saddle and tack are not properly made, cared for, and handled then you will not be safe when you go riding.  The materials that are used to make your saddle are important and contribute to how safe you will be.  

Besides safety when you are riding, the origin of the saddle and what types of saddles there are, contribute to your overall knowledge of equestrian matters. Having a solid base of information can only help you, especially when you are just starting out.  Becoming a good student of this craft is advisable. 

Origin of the Saddle

Where the saddle first originated is very interesting for those that enjoy history.  People that enjoy combining their love of riding with their love of historical topics will really like this section.  Even if you find history and details like this tedious, keep reading you won’t regret it. 

The origins of the modern-day saddles are not widely agreed upon and there are several different ideas about where they came from and who did what. 

The First Saddle

For hundreds of years, people rode on horses bareback, even when going on long journeys or fighting in battles.  Some say that the saddle can from Asia, which is where it is generally believed other parts of saddle tack originated.  However, others say that the primitive saddle was created by the Samaritans in the Middle East. 

No matter who created the first saddle, it is generally agreed upon that people from Mongolia took them to Europe where they were eventually adopted and perfected.  


The modern-day western saddle is most closely related to the Spanish Vaquero.  While the Spaniards were making the ancestor of the western saddle, the French and English were using the primitive saddle brought from Asia and the Middle East to make the English Saddle that we know today.  

Of course, with many modern advancements over the years, the saddle has been improved upon repeatedly. 

Who Invented Stirrups?

Even though there are some variations in the story of who created the modern saddle and where it came from, there is a general consensus when it comes to who made the stirrups and first horse collars. 

These tack items are said to have come from China and other parts of Asia.  They eventually made their way to Europe and then to North America.  What we know as a saddle has origins in different parts of the world. 

Types of Saddles

There are two main categories of saddles that are recognizable to even the novice equestrian and those are the English saddle and the Western saddle.  But what some beginners don’t know is that within those very broad categories there are more specialized types of saddles. 

Choosing the right saddle for your needs is extremely important and if you choose the wrong one, your safety could be in jeopardy.  This is just as important as the materials used to create the saddles.  It all works together to give you a safe riding experience. 

English

When the term English saddle is used it doesn’t mean just one type of saddle.  This is a broad, overarching term for any saddle used for an English riding discipline.  There is however an all-purpose saddle that can be used across many of the disciplines for beginners but once you get serious about one or two sports then you should get a specialized saddle. 

  • Dressage is a discipline that focuses on training the horse to have fluid and harmonious movements.  This is an Olympic event and has gained popularity and momentum over the years. The horses are trained to respond to signals that only the horse and rider know are happening.  The type of saddle that is used bears the same name and has longer flaps and a deeper upright seat than some of the other English saddles. 
  • Close Contact saddles do what their name says they do.  The idea is to keep the rider as close to the horse’s movements as possible so they function as one unit. These are typically seen on jumpers.  The saddles have shorter flaps that are more forward as well as a smaller seat with a lower back. 
  • Cross Country saddles are used for a long period of time since the riders are typically taking a type of trail ride.  These are also called eventing saddles.  In the Western world, these would be thought of as trail saddles due to the purpose, not the look.  This type of saddle typically has a deeper and more comfortable seat as well as a larger knee roll. These features offer added stability for the rider.   
  • All-Purpose saddles are great for beginners that maybe don’t have a specific type of riding in mind. They are designed for any kind of English riding or eventing. 
  • Endurance saddles are just designed with the comfort of the rider in mind when they are on a long ride, but the horse is a consideration as well.  These saddles boast extra padding for the rider while they are actually lighter than typical English saddles.  This lightness helps keep the horse comfortable and safe as well. 
  • Synthetic saddles are budget-friendly but they won’t hold up in the long run. If you are just trying out horseback riding and aren’t sure that you will be sticking with it, then this may be the way to go. 
  • Lead Line/Pony saddles are specially made to fit the small seat of a child, which is the typical pony rider but also to fit the stocky body of the pony. These are made from a variety of materials and can be found to fit most budgets. 

Western

Western saddles are what are most often used by ranchers, cowboys, and those that participate in rodeos.  There are people that simply love to ride on trails and for pleasure.  Most of the time they will use a Western-type saddle for that as well.  All though they could choose another type if they wanted to.  

The Western saddle was introduced to the United States by the Spanish Vaqueros or cowboys and has changed some since that first meeting.  Just like the English saddle, the term Western saddle is a broad term which encompasses a wide variety of specific saddle. 

  • Roping saddles that are made well will make the job of chasing and roping cattle at a rodeo event much easier and safer.  The seat is usually made of rough material like suede to keep the rider from sliding out of the seat as they take hard corners or stop suddenly.  Because the rope is tied to the horn, the tree has to be well made and the horn has to be properly anchored. 
  • Cutting saddles are made with tall thin horns and are designed to keep you from getting in your horse’s way as they cut the herd. This is a versatile saddle that can be used for more than just cutting events.  You can use it during training and penning as well, among other things. 
  • Reining saddles may be hard for a new rider to get used to as well as a rider that has trained with a different type of saddle.  These saddles give closer contact between the horse and rider so they can be good for training.  However, the stirrups are set up further to force the rider to the back for sudden starts and stops.  Riders that are used to having their legs further back may find this adjustment uncomfortable.
  • Barrel saddles need to be small and lightweight.  Competing in barrel events requires the horse and rider to have maximum maneuverability when it comes to the saddle.  
  • Ranch saddles are designed for long days in the seat herding cattle and working on the ranch.  They tend to have deep seats that have some extra padding for the comfort of the rider.  These saddles are generally heavy and well made. 
  • Pleasure/Trail saddles are made for comfort.  Not just the riders comfort but the horse as well. A typical pleasure saddle will be lightweight but have extra padding in the seat. 
  • All-Purpose just like with the English saddle, the Western all-purpose saddle is great for beginners and can be used for any of the events above.  If you are trying to decide what sport to get into seriously then start with this type of saddle. 

How a Saddle is Made

It may seem like this is a matter for the manufacturer of the saddle to be concerned with but that is not true.  If you are a serious equestrian then you likely spend a lot of time in a saddle.  You rely on the saddle to be made appropriately with good materials because if the saddle fails then you and your horse could be seriously injured.

Saddles also tend to cost a lot of money and if you are knowledgeable about the materials and process of making what you are investing in, it is unlikely that you will be taken advantage of or make a poor purchase.  Knowing how anything you buy is made is always a wise decision. 

Materials

Saddles can be made from a variety of natural and synthetic materials but the most common material is leather. The bodies of the saddles that we see are generally made from leathers that could come from different parts of the world. But that is not the only materials you will find on a saddle. 

  • Saddle Trees are basically the skeleton of the saddle, this is the foundation for the final product.  It can be made of a variety of materials such as beech wood, fiberglass, steel, aluminum, and iron among other things. Without a properly made tree, the saddle will not be safe and it won’t last. 
  • Stirrups, girth straps, flaps, and the outside of the seat are made of animal leathers, most commonly cowhide.  The seat also has materials on the inside such as canvas or wool for padding.  Each craftsman makes his saddles differently so this can vary from workshop to workshop.

Where does the Leather Come From?

When we are making a purchase of any kind, not just saddles, it is important to know where the materials the items are made of come from.  Ethical sourcing, especially of materials that come from animals, really does matter on a global scale. Whether the leather is Indian leather or US leather could make a difference for some buyers. 

  • Indian Leather does not necessarily mean that the leather comes from Indian cows.  More often it means that the saddle was manufactured in India but the leather was sourced from Europe or Australia.  Until just last year, there were only a few states in India that allowed cows to be slaughtered and sourced for leather.  So, the cows were not treated ethically before they were killed.  This caused a lot of controversies.  However, last year all slaughter of cows and production of leather was banned in India. Leather can still be sent in for them to make saddles and other goods, though. 
  • US Leather is made in the US and is often exported to other countries to produce goods.  Even though the animals do have to die for leather to be produced, the US industry claims to treat the animals ethically until their death. While the quality of the leather is similar to European or Indian leather, there is an advantage to using “homegrown” resources to make saddles in the US. 

If you want a saddle that is made from US leather then you may have to do your research to find out which saddle manufacturers use US materials.  For a long time, you would be hard-pressed to find leather saddles or tack that were not made in India with Indian leather, so make sure you are reading labels if you don’t want that.

Parts that Wear Out

If you ride often, you may notice that parts of the saddle start to wear out and may need to be replaced.  Wear and tear on a saddle that is used regularly is to be expected and does not in any way mean that you need to go buy a whole new saddle.  Unless of course, you want to. 

There are some parts that are more likely to wear out on your saddle just because of the way they are used and the location of the part. 

  • Girth Straps are likely to wear out because they are constantly being adjusted.  If you ride for a long time then you may notice the saddle is loose.  This means that the horse has relaxed and you need to hop down and tighten things up.  Sheer use will send you for a replacement long before your saddle wears out. 
  • Flaps tend to rub on your legs and the horse while riding and may need to be replaced at some point. These are easy to find or you can have custom flaps made to match your old ones. 
  • Stirrups are made of metals and strong materials but can wear out and need to be replaced.  This won’t happen as quickly or as often as the girth straps but keep an eye on them for excessive wear. 

Saddle Safety Gear

While horseback riding is a great sport that gets even the most novice rider outside and active, if safety measures are not taken, injuries can happen.  A fall from a horse can have a devastating effect on the life of the person that fell, at worst, or frighten them enough to keep them from riding again, at best. 

But all of this can be prevented with proactive steps and training as well as the proper equipment and safety gear. Taking a backpack or saddlebag with extra items in them would be wise.  When you are out of the trail you may be miles away from anyone that can help you so don’t be caught unprepared. 

There is also safety gear that you should wear even if you are practicing in an arena or round pen to make sure unnecessary injuries do not happen. 

Emergency Equipment

When you are out for a ride emergencies can happen and you may be in an area with no cellphone reception and no way to yell for anyone.  That is why emergency equipment is important. 

  • First Aid Kits should always be kept in a backpack or saddlebag in the event someone is hurt, stung, or needs anything medically related. 
  • Leather Belts should be worn in case you need a quick tack repair. 
  • Flashlights and whistles are handy to have in case you get lost or separated.  The whistle will help people find you and the flashlight will be a great thing to have if it starts to get dark. 
  • Snacks and water just in case.  You don’t want to be out in an emergency with no provisions. 

Safety Equipment

Because riding can be dangerous without the proper equipment, it is important to have safety gear that you wear anytime you are on a horse.  There are four safety items that should be worn or used when riding. 

  • Helmet if you get no other piece of safety equipment, get a helmet.  A head injury from falling off of a horse can be catastrophic so don’t take any chances. 
  • Crash Vest this item helps protect your ribs and internal organs from injuries that could happen while riding. 
  • Riding Boots serve two purposes, the first being to keep your foot from sliding in the stirrup and the second to protect your toes from being hurt if the horse steps on them. 
  • Safety Stirrups are designed to keep your feet from sliding forward and getting stuck if you happen to fall. It will be easier to free your foot in the event you fall from your horse. 

Proper Care and Keeping of Saddles

One of the best ways to keep your saddle functioning properly for years to come is by maintaining it properly.  Cleaning your saddle with the proper products for the material it is made from is just one way to care for it.

Spanish Saddle

Storing the saddle when it is not being used is important as well. If you clean it with the best products and use a preserving agent but leave it out in the elements or leave it sitting out uncovered in a dusty barn then all of your work has been for nothing. 

These two aspects of care, along with preserving the leather, work together to make sure you have your saddle for years to come. 

Cleaning Products

Making sure you have quality cleaning products is the first step to properly caring for your saddle. But how do you choose from all of the products on the market? The best way to make a choice is to ask around.  If you have friends that ride or a great local tack shop, they will definitely have a recommendation.

The best way to clean a saddle is to use quality saddle soap, water, and a sponge or soft rag.  Don’t apply a ton of pressure, you don’t want to scrub too hard.  The goal is to work the soap to a good lather.  

Once one section of the saddle has been lathered, use a sponge and water to lightly wipe away the soap and flush out the crevices.  You don’t want to soak the leather with water, use just enough to remove the soap. 

Once the leather is completely dry you will want to apply a leather conditioner.  You can choose this in the same way you chose the soap, ask for recommendations from your experienced friends. 

Preserving the Leather

Preserving the leather is what the conditioner does.  Applying a conditioner will keep the leather in great condition and prevent it from drying out and cracking.  It will also keep it pliable and easy to work with. 

Proper Storage

The best way to store a saddle is on a saddle rack or saddle stand.  The reason this is the best way to store it is that it will prevent the saddle from being misshapen and damaged from lying on the ground.  It is also best practice to cover the saddle especially when it is not going to be used daily. 

If it is at all possible to keep your saddle from extreme temperatures and humidity that would be best, however that may not be possible for all riders. 

Pre-Ride Inspection

Before you take off on your ride it is advised that you do a pre-ride inspection to make sure that everything is as it should be and there are no obvious dangers. This inspection will also ensure that your tack is in good working order and nothing is broken or malfunctioning. 

Check your saddle pad before putting it on the horse.  Have you ever heard the phrase “burr in your saddle?”  Well, it isn’t a good phrase and if the horse has a burr or anything else in the saddle pad you will be in for a rough ride.  Also, check the saddle for wear and cracking that could cause problems with your ride. 

One of the best ways to make sure that the saddle is on properly and is tight enough is to lunge your horse for five minutes or so after the horse is saddled.  Horses tend to bloat themselves because they don’t want the tight girth strap on.  Lunging them will relax them so you will see if anything needs to be tightened.  

Once you know that the saddle is on correctly and tight, go ahead and get your bridle ready.  Go over the whole bridle looking for weaknesses and cracks.  Make sure the keepers are in good working order, the bit is free of debris and there is nothing that will poke the horse.  Check the curb straps and the reins.

Making sure there is no excessive wear or cracking in your equipment will set you up for a safe ride. 

Final Safety Takeaways

When it comes to horseback riding one can never be too safe.  This is a great sport that is wonderful for people of many different ages and abilities but the fun can be ruined if safety is overlooked.  Here are some final takeaways. 

  • Always care for your tack properly and have the correct saddle for your riding needs.  
  • Safety equipment, as well as emergency equipment, should be used and taken on rides. 
  • Properly caring for and storing your saddle and tack contributes to the safety of the horse and rider.
  • Always take the time to do a pre-ride inspection.  This will keep you safe and point out any potential hazards. 

Whether a novice equestrian or a rider with years of experience being safe while riding is the top priority. 

Gary Thompson

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