The saddle enables the horse to carry more weight for longer. It creates an even, large surface area to spread the weight and reduce pressure. For the rider the saddle provides comfort and security.
It's important to keep this in mind when looking at saddles
The saddle has a structural component, called a tree, which is dressed in leather to form the seat, the flaps and the panels. To learn more about the parts of the saddle click here
The tree is the underlying structure of the saddle. It is essential that it is an appropriate shape for the horse it is going to fit. For this we need to think about the structure of the horse. A popular misconception is that the horse has a curved back and therefore the tree of the saddle should be curved. This is not true - the apparent curve is created by the spinous processes of the spine but the muscles on which the saddle sits (mainly the longissimus dorsi) are long and flat. The saddle should never touch the spine but should contact the back muscles evenly along its length so the tree should be shaped accordingly. Clearly horses come in all different shapes and sizes and the trees will differ by width and wither height but the tree's bearing surface should always be flat. A curved tree creates a fulcrum effect so all the weight is felt through the middle and this restricts the back muscles and the movement of the horse.
It is rare to come across a horse with a genuine dipped back - often a dip is due to lack of muscle development caused by a curved tree! See Tree Check for more details. Fortunately it can be easily and quickly corrected by using a saddle with a flat tree.
When measuring a horse for a saddle we take a wither trace and the saddler can then select the appropriate tree and set it up for the horse.
Once the tree has been set up to the wither pattern the saddler will dress it. If it is a laminated beechwood tree he should wrap hide around the rails and steel springs to create an even surface area on which the panel will sit.
They will fix webbing lengthways and crossways and this forms a hammock which will become the seat. This is how the weight of the rider is distributed over the whole saddle. It's very important that during the process the saddler does not overstrain the webbing and create a curve in the tree or introduce any asymmetry. Asymmetry at this stage will be impossible to correct and will get worse with each layer. Also the girth straps will be stitched onto the webbing so they must be aligned equally.
Here are some easy checks for you to do on your saddle. Click on each link to find out more
Next the seat is created on top of the webbing - usually a foam based layer covered with leather. Then the flaps and skirts are prepared, stitched and attached to the tree. Again the saddler must ensure that everything is symmetrical. He also must ensure that the underside of the tree is neat and tidy and that there are no lumps and bumps created by the layers of leather or nails or screw heads sticking out. See panel check for more details
Finally the saddler will prepare the panels - the cushioning layer between the tree and the horse. Again it's essential that the panels are symmetrical equal in size and stitched in straight and that there's an adequate size gullet. Note that the panel will not stop the horse feeling lumps under the tree - think wearing an extra pair of socks if you have a stone in your shoe.
Assymmetry is mentioned a lot here but it's a common problem and the effect on the horse and rider is often brushed aside. The fact is if the saddle is not straight the rider will be sitting out of balance which will in turn put the horse out of balance. The horse will not be able to move freely and so not be able to perform at his best.