Understanding Saddle Value & Saddle Price
Understanding how the price of a saddle relates to its value is one of the challenges in the saddle fitting and saddle buying process. Elsewhere on this site we describe some of the variations in the design, construction and the materials that determine the cost of producing saddles. There are many elements in the matrix of trade-offs: cost, availability, custom fit features, quality of construction, how well a saddle hold its value over time, access to expert guidance. Figuring out the relative value to you of these factors is the key to long-term satisfaction with your saddle choice, whatever your budget.
Ultimately the most expensive saddle that money can buy is one that disappoints. We hope that the Advanced Saddle Fit guide to the cost of equipment will shed some light on what your money might buy at a range of price points.
On this budget, you can expect a saddle built on a wood spring tree with high-quality, pure wool flocking. It should be constructed by a highly-skilled bench saddler, possibly formally accredited by Britain's Society of Master Saddlers, which is the industry gold standard worldwide.
Your saddle will probably have been chosen in consultation with a highly experienced, independent saddle fitter, likely also accredited in the UK by the SMS. The fitter who guides you through the process should have many years of experience and a deep grounding in the technical aspects of saddle design technology.
In this price range, all custom options to enhance the functionality of a saddle should be available to you if needed.
Many horses do not require custom fit features if the range of saddles on offer is very well designed in the first place, but there are exceptions, and technical modifications are available to address particular conformational challenges of horse or rider. A range of luxury leathers and custom trim details are usually on offer.
$3,000 - $4,500
$2,000 - $3,000
$1,200 - $2,000
$800 - $1,200
Less than $800
High-quality, well constructed saddles on wood spring trees can, if lovingly cared for, retain value for well over a decade, and there are oldies-but-goodies out there for the lucky and the patient. Saddles that are traditionally bench-made by hand on webbed wood trees may lead longer useful lives than saddles built on synthetic trees, where the leather might become stressed along the edges at a younger age.
Perhaps you don't need a new saddle right now
If you are looking to improve your horse’s comfort in his current saddle, there are a few great pads that can be very helpful, provided the tree is fundamentally the right shape for the horse – not too narrow, and not too curvy.
We at Advanced Saddle Fit have vast experience with a number of pads that have helped many riders on a budget increase their horse’s comfort. Questions? E-mail us.
Finding a saddle that is right for both horse and rider can be a baffling experience that sometimes results in an expensive disappointment -- or worse, a series of them. The array of saddles on the market today is vast, if not particularly deep, and even an exceptionally determined shopper will be hard-pressed to try them all. So what can riders do to reduce the randomness of this process?
Several years ago, a horse owner presented me with a meticulous spreadsheet of 28 saddles she had tried without finding a single one that worked for her horse. She was sure that she wanted a dressage saddle with a deep, secure seat, a narrow twist, and a flap that would help her maintain a perfect leg position. She had tried every saddle of this type that she could identify in a wide or extra-wide width for her thick-backed young warmblood. But the saddles rocked, they rolled, they slipped, they pinched, they bounced, they pitched, they yawed, they tottered, they wobbled, they cost a fortune to ship back and forth, and in every case, they shut this sensitive young horse right down.
Unbeknownst to this data-driven buyer, about 26 of the 28 saddles detailed on this epic document were, from the horse’s standpoint, essentially the same saddle wrapped up in 26 different skins. The owner was frustrated, and wondered at this point whether there were any options other than a fully custom saddle, though frankly, if this were an ironclad solution, internet bulletin boards would not be wallpapered with cautionary tales about dashed hopes in that department.
The crux of the problem was that this saddle shopper had begun by filtering her choices through a set of parameters based almost wholly on rider preference. This lead her to return again and again, unwittingly, to a specific shape of tree -- a shape of tree that is fairly curvy with closely-spaced, steep, vertical rails. Were she riding that shape of horse -- angular, slab-sided, high-withered, and scoopy-backed, this might not have presented a big problem. In reality, her horse had a short, broad back, with low, dome-shaped withers, more closely resembling a propane tank than a peeked roof.
Had she been able to see the actual bearing structure inside the saddles she was trying, and to compare the shape of these trees to the actual shape of her horse, she would immediately have realized that getting these saddles to be stable on that back would be like trying to clip a clothespin to a billiard ball.
All of these saddles were at least a wide, and some were extra-wide -- but that didn’t help. All 28 of the deep, curvy, steep, narrow-twisted saddles that data-lady tried were built on trees far more suitable in shape for ovoid, steep-withered, roof-shaped horses. The thick-backed warmblood horse she actually owned was more akin to your better class of Thelwell.
Riders commonly presume that a wide horse necessarily needs a wide tree; what he may need is a flat tree, with widely spaced rails set at a flat angle, and short tree points on a head with a lot of diameter in the arch. Shape isn’t such a hard concept to get hold of, but it isn’t the way we are used to describing trees, which is unfortunate since tree shape is so critical to a successful saddle fit? A Thoroughbred-type tree shape in an extra-extra wide (which, let me assure you, is guaranteed to be a very peculiar tree indeed) will not fit a wide, flat back as well as a Cob tree in a medium-wide. A better plan is to identify some saddles built on a likely shape of tree for a particular horse, and then determine what width is optimal.
If saddle buyers were well-positioned to approach this problem with at least some understanding of what actually distinguishes one saddle from another -- on a technical, reality-based level rather than what is dimly seen through the gauzy mists of marketing -- it would be easier to reduce the randomness of the process.
In defining their dream saddle, riders may assume that all the features that the human wants in a saddle are somehow completely distinct from the specifications that affect horse fit, and on the whole, the saddle industry does little or nothing to discourage this misconception. Saddle companies are, after all, in the business of selling saddles to riders, not to horses, and most of what they have to say about the superiority of their products in their advertising is quite vague on exactly how it is possible for a given saddle to put every rider in a perfect position on whatever shape of horse they ride.
I have yet to see a saddle ad that highlights the very real constraints of geometry in tree engineering, or the tradeoffs that might sometimes have to be made for technical reasons when trying to fit a single bearing structure to both human and horse. Saddle marketing -- and for that matter the “rules” in common use for fitting saddles -- are pretty slack in their handling of hard subjects like gravity, force, tree geometry, and those pesky laws of physics that can be so awkward in the saddle biz.
There are many challenges in making a single piece of equipment fit and function perfectly for two individuals of completely different species. A very basic one is that our vocabulary for describing saddles – and horses too, for that matter – is inexact to say the least. The term “wide” is so vague that it’s essentially meaningless, and the more exact-sounding “36 centimeters” is no better at describing tree fit, since this numerical measurement describes only the distance spanning the bottom end of the tree points, not the diameter of the head, not the length of the tree points, not the angle at which the rails are set on the fore arch, not the spacing between the rails, not the diameter of the seat, nor any of the other varied and complex dimensions of a tree that determine it’s overall shape and fit.
In reality, tree shapes are immensely variable front to back, side to side, over and under. It is futile to put a nominally wide but steep and curvy tree on a stocky horse with a nearly flat back, because nominal width as a tree measurement is pertinent only to a specific tree, and each shape of tree has a distinct geometry.
Imagine mathematics with a comparably primitive lexicon, in which the definition of a triangle is “three lines joined by pointy ends,” and equations are “numbers separated by symbols that tell you how to get the answer.” Does this sound far-fetched? Then consider the sentence that people who are looking for a saddle frequently use to describe a horse: “He always measures wide.” Always. Measures. Wide. The only real information conveyed in that sentence is that the horse is male.
Let’s start with Always: If we really could measure horses always, it would involve measuring them while they are loaded with a rider and working through a full range of motion. There is no dearth of interesting tools and devices in use by saddle fitters to measure a stationary horse's back with such precision that this contour can apparently be replicated back in the factory in order to produce a saddle perfectly suited to the shape of the horse. The problem is that the horse's back changes shape when weighted with a rider, and it changes shape throughout the range of motion. So measurements taken in the crossties are of limited use in understanding what happens to the shape of a horse's back when it's loaded with weight and in motion under saddle.
We don’t know all that much yet about how horses’ backs change shape when carrying a rider through a full range of motion, but we do know that the shape of a dressage horse’s back is different in piaffe than in free walk or extended trot. In a jumper’s back, the changes in shape are even more extreme between the approach to the jump, the bascule, and the landing. Therefore, it seems to me, the back that is being so assiduously measured for a precise custom-fit can never really replicate the shape of the horse’s back when it is carrying a rider in movement.
Measures: Unreliable! Whether a horse is being measured with a bent coat hanger or an antique sextant with magical properties, what is being evaluated is the external contour. This can sometimes be deceptive, since it reveals nothing about what lies underneath the surface of that contour, whether it’s flabby or hard; whether there’s a high platform of bony support from the rib cage, or a great, long plunge from the peak of tall wither bones to the rib cage far below.
Wide: Many saddles are sold as wides, though some go by a numerical measurement like 36 centimeters, without regard to the shape and dimensions of the arch or the overall fit from front to back. This conveys about no more useful information about the vital characteristics of the weight-bearing structure or the fit of the saddle than saying, “It’s brown.”
In saddles, as with trousers, the best fit for unhampered performance through a full range of motion is not necessarily the most precise fit; it’s a fit with enough tolerance to allow the horse’s back to change shape in motion without being trapped between the rails of the tree at the base of the withers, or blocked by an encounter with too much curvature in the structure of the tree when the well-engaged back wants to rise up round. And no matter how precisely the tree and panels conform to the shape of the static horse, the fit cannot be equally precise under all conditions of use.
The key to a tolerant fit seems to be to find a blessedly happy medium for a given shape of back: a tree that is spectacularly average for a particular shape of horse; a tree that isn’t “too anything” for the back it’s sitting on: not too steep, not too flat, not too curvy, not too wide and not too narrow, like a marvelous pair of hiking boots that support and protect your feet without either crowding your toes or letting your heels slosh around. Do any such trees exist? Oddly, yes, and many of them are old-style trees, dating back to a time when wood trees were made on forms that somewhat resembled horses’ backs, as opposed to many of the trees in wide use these days that are -- let’s be real -- largely driven by rider preferences.
Once you strip a saddle down to its foundation, it becomes apparent that what keeps a saddle stable throughout the full range of motion starts with a good match in shape between the bearing structure in the saddle, which is the tree, and the shape of the back that tree is going to be used on. It is futile to put a nominally wide but steep and curvy tree on a stocky horse with a nearly flat back, though this is a shockingly common practice.
In the best of all possible worlds (as determined by me, of course), data-lady of Part 1 should first have narrowed her universe of choice for this tubular, flat-backed youngster to saddles built on trees of a suitable shape for a wider, flatter back. Some of these trees are generically known as Highland and Cob trees (H&C), or these days are sometimes called hoop trees (though this term is execrable -- please don't use it). There is a fantastic new-ish tree in the Détente Bossa Nova monoflap dressage saddle that is probably the single best tree I have ever used -- in the sense of being most neutral -- for today's flatter-backed warmbloods. That tree doesn't fit neatly into any named category, but it is more like sweatpants for many modern dressage horses than any other single tree I have come to know over the past 15 years.
The takeaway is that rather than being fixated on either rider feel or tree width or panel features that can be evaluated extenally, the real foundation of saddle fit is tree shape. If you are able to make an educated guess about what basic tree shape will probably give the horse enough tolerance in fit to move his back through its full range of motion, you can then move on to determining the best width, panel configuration, etc. Once you have a selection of saddles that are likely candidates for your horse, you can address rider preferences, confident hat riders almost always DO learn to like – even love -- a saddle that really and truly fits their horse.