Whilst in the UK the English saddle is still the most common, there are some riders who prefer the heavier and more substantial Western saddle, particularly for trekking or trail riding. Another option is the Australian Saddle.
Whether you are currently riding English or Western, moving to an Australian saddle, particularly for longer rides, may be the perfect option both for rider comfort as well as for the performance of your horse.
The Differences in Western, English and Australian Saddles
With Western riding, the saddle is much more substantial and features a pronounced horn to the front of the seat and a higher cantle at the back, literally holding the rider in place. This saddle was originally designed to provide support for the rider with sudden changes in direction on working horses, having to respond to sudden lateral movements and very sharp, immediate turns. The horn is also used as an anchor when roping cattle and it is very much a necessary part of the saddle.
The English saddle, which is more common here, is not just one type of saddle but a general term. From the front of the saddle to the back instead of a horn there is a low pommel and then the slight rise of the twist into the seat and then a well-formed cantle.
Different forms of English riding will require a longer or shorter leg, but typically shorter overall than the Western style. The saddles are positioned on the horse to allow the full range of motion through the shoulders, particularly in dressage. Saddles used for jumping have additional pads and knee rolls for the rider, but overall the leathers are short and minimal as compared to the Western saddle, which actually uses the term fenders for the leathers.
The Australian saddle is not a true hybrid of the two, but rather its own unique saddle designed for the specific needs of the rider. These saddles can have a horn or they may not, it is really all the preference of the rider as well as a factor of how the saddle is to be used.
In general appearance, especially without the horn, it is more like the English saddle but more substantial. The cantle and the pommel are more pronounced, the girth is wider, the seat is deeper and the flaps (leathers) are wider and longer, more like that of the Western saddle.
The stirrup leathers are more like that of an English saddle and there is a knee pad for additional rider support. The longer leg riding style is used with this saddle, which makes it more comfortable for many riders. Additionally, the legs sit to the front of the body, more like that of a Western riding style, making it a more natural position. This is just one of the reasons why these saddles are often favoured for long hacking outings or for endurance riding.
Fitting the Saddle
The fitment of the Australian saddle is more like the English saddle and less like the Western style. The saddle is more to the front of the horse’s back, not slightly further back as found in the Western riding style.
As a simple guide, the girth of these saddles should be no more than about 7 to 8 centimetres behind the front legs and no less than 2.5 centimetres. This more forward position is more efficient for the horse, allowing the weight of the rider to be more over the shoulders rather than through the centre of the back.
When on the horse, the pommel and cantle of the saddle should sit in a relatively straight line that keeps the rider’s weight and position from shifting. The seat also should sit level, which is a very natural position for the rider that can be very easily sustained for long periods of time.
The saddle chamber should rest about five to ten centimetres (2 to 4 inches) above the withers of the horse. A simple and easy measurement is to turn your hand sideways and insert your fingers between the saddle and the withers. This should be a comfortable fit with at least three fingers, four if you have a smaller hand.
For the rider, choosing the right seat size is based on the rider’s weight and waist size. Different saddle manufacturers may have slightly different standards, so always refer to their guidelines when making a selection. Keep in mind the sizing is different than either Western or English saddles, so working with a saddlery to get a good fit for both you and your horse is important, especially for a first purchase.