How Do YOU Buy a QUALITY Saddle?

This is likely to become a multi-part series, but one of my frustrations as a trainer has long been horses suffering with ill-fitting tack.  Sometimes it’s a cheaply made saddle, or a saddle that needs a repair, or it might be a really expensive “custom” one that just does not actually fit correctly.

So how do you, as an equestrian without a saddler’s education, determine whether or not a saddle is of decent quality?

First, educate yourself on the basics.  Learn how to check a tree, and make sure to check the tree of any saddle you put on a horse.  Recently we disassembled what felt like a broken tree in a fairly lightly used saddle and found that the problem was actually a manufacturing error- two different lengths of springs!  If the buyer had flexed the saddle before purchasing, she would have felt something very wrong.

Second, learn to recognize basic signs of quality leatherwork.  Is the leather on the panel supple and strong, or does it feel like old cardboard?  Are the billets in decent condition? Ask what the tree is made of, and expect a good explanation from your fitter.  If your fitter does not know or cannot explain the materials, that should be a red flag. Buying used is always risky; it is pretty much guaranteed to be broken in asymmetrically, and without a saddler’s education it is next to impossible to determine how good past repairs have been.  I would never buy used a saddle without getting my hands on it first, to check the quality of the leather, stitching, and flocking.

Speaking of fitters, asking about education is always important.  There are some great programs that teach fitting, such as the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK.  But there are also many fitters who are well educated from working with other well-educated fitters and saddlers.  Most saddle brands have their own fitter courses, typically between a weekend to two weeks long, and some of them are better than others.  The important thing is knowing how the trees of each saddle are shaped, so a fitter who has only done a single brand’s bootcamp is probably not well educated outside of that brand.  Your trainer may likewise have a solid grasp of basic saddle fitting, but they are not going to be comparable to someone who has studied saddle fit in-depth.

Beyond the initial fitting and sales, it’s IMPERATIVE that your saddle can be routinely serviced.  Most saddles need to be reflocked every few years, and rebalanced as often as every six months.  Horses change shape frequently, so having a local fitter and saddler who can check the fit and make adjustments is extremely important.  Buying a saddle without local support can become an issue!  I frequently hear from people looking to have their very expensive saddle repaired or reflocked, but there is no local brand representative.  Most saddlers will not touch a saddle from a brand they do not represent, and we are all plenty busy with our own clients.  So be sure to ask about repairs and reflocks when buying a saddle, and make sure you have good access to both.

Finally, remember that quality saddles require quality materials and workmanship, which is going to cost a bit more.  In my experience, a new saddle under $2k is probably not going to be decent quality.  My next post on this subject will be about what exactly that $2k+ buys you, but for now just remember that a bad saddle can cause expensive, sometimes irreversible back problems for your horse, put you in an incorrect and/or crooked position, will not hold up to routine use, and is less likely to be repairable.  In the long run, a cheap saddle can end up costing you more in vet and training bills plus the hours of frustration spent attempting to correct issues that could have been avoided with a better saddle up front.

Saddle Care 101

Since I get asked this a lot, I thought I should make a post containing all the basic information on saddle care in one place.

Products I Use

  • Effax Leder balsam (any brand is fine, look for beeswax/lanolin)
  • Effax Leder combi
  • VeruGreen Naturals Leather Cleaner, or any other pH balanced soap specifically designed for English tack (Lexol also makes one)
  • Hydrophane oil

Products to Avoid

  • Any oil except Hydrophane
    • Other oils will weaken/wreck vegetable tanned leather
    • Neatsfoot and other tack oils are for Western tack
    • Only hydrophane oil will preserve English tack
    • In a pinch, you can use corn oil!
  • Glycerine based soaps
    • Again, they are for Western tack
    • They may strip the dyes from you tack
    • They may leave a nasty residue on your tack
    • They will shorten the lifespan of vegetable tanned leather

Brand New Saddle (or Bridle, Girth, etc):

  • Wipe with a barely damp cloth
  • Using your fingertips, coat the entire thing with leder balsam to condition and protect it

After Every Ride

  • Wipe off all the sweat, dust, and moisture with either a barely damp cloth or leder combi
  • Do not store your girth on top of your saddle; the sweat left on the girth with erode the seat
  • Hang your bridle nicely to prolong its useful life
  • Wipe gunk off the bit to prevent it from building up

Once a Week

  • Clean thoroughly with a barely damp sponge and your pH balanced soap, wiping away all soap residue
  • Clean the billets weekly, but only oil or balsam them monthly or they will stretch
  • Using your fingertips, apply a very thin layer of leder balsam
  • If the leather is very dry, use your finger tips to apply a small amount of hydrophane oil instead of leder balsam

Please let me know if you have questions or want more information by leaving a comment.  I intend to keep working on the video series as I have time, including tips for oiling, for show boots, etc.

Weekly Tack Deep Clean

Once a week, all your nice leather needs to be cleaned with a properly formulated soap and then conditioned with a balsam.  I personally like VeruGreen’s spray soap, and of course use Effax’s Leder Balsam to protect and condition my leather.  DO NOT use a glycerine soap on your English tack!  Those products are formulated for Western tack, which is tanned using a different process and requires different care.  The wrong soap will fade the leather, and destroy the stitching holding your tack together.

If you do a good job wiping the sweat and dust off after each ride, then a deep clean will only take a matter of minutes.  Cleaning this very dirty girth only takes me ten minutes total!  So put on your favorite podcast, playlist, or tv show, and get cleaning!

Wiping Down Your Tack

Wiping down your tack after every ride is essential for the longevity of your saddle, girth, bridle, and all other leather parts!  If it is made of leather, sweat and dirt will erode it over time.  A quick wipe down also prevents sand from scratching the leather, and in more humid climates an anti-mildew formula can be used.

Wiping down your tack- so easy, even a preschooler can do it!

Effax makes a very nice leder-combi daily cleaner/conditioner for a quick and easy wipe down, and they make a mildew formula in a spray bottle too.  But even a damp, clean cloth is fine!  The important thing is that you remove the dirt, sweat, and excess moisture before putting away your tack.  Plus, it makes your weekly deep-clean and condition a lot easier!

Riding in the Rain

It’s monsoon season here in Colorado, and lately I have gotten caught riding in several tremendous downpours.  I hear Copper Penny, the big hunter/jumper show in Estes Park, got drenched last week as well!  Fortunately for my clients, their saddles are well coated in laderbalsam from their cleaning routine and can withstand a bit of moisture without damage.  My friend and I jumped for about 45 minutes in the pouring rain, wiped off our saddles with a soft rag, and the next day you would never know either saddle got wet and a little muddy!

Laderbalsam is a beeswax and lanolin based leather conditioner and protector that I, and many other professionals, recommend using on a weekly basis.   After cleaning your tack thoroughly, you should apply a very thin layer all over.  I like to use my fingertips for this.  The heat from my hands helps thin the balsam, I can feel how much the leather needs to absorb, and it works well as a lotion!  When applied correctly, there is no need to wipe it off.  Some people like to use a rag or sponge, but I find it’s too easy to glob on too thick that way.  I prefer the Effax brand, and it is what we sell at Singing Cat Saddlery, but there are many great laderbalsams on the market.  Look for a natural product that is thick and waxy.

In addition to helping make your leather water-resistant, laderbalsam conditions, prevents and fills minor scuffs and scratches, and makes your saddle a little bit stickier.  If you have never ridden in a saddle with a good coating of laderbalsam, the tacky feeling of the seat is typically a nice surprise.  I compare the grip level to slightly broken-in full seat breeches.

So next time your horse is mud-colored and it’s threatening to rain, worry not!  If you are keeping up with your tack cleaning regimen, your saddle will be just fine!  Just watch out for the lightening, and hail!




“But How Well Do They *Really* Hold Up?”

One question I’ve been getting about the Competitors lately is how well does the calfskin hold up to regular, hard use. So I’m sharing this pre-ride picture of my personal saddle so you can judge for yourselves. It’s ridden in six days a week, often two different horses, used by a leaser and by students, rarely wiped down and even more rarely cleaned and conditioned, trail ridden in, exposed to rain and snow and dust… And it still looks brand new after years of abuse! With proper care these are truly saddles you buy for your lifetime and adjust for the equine partners you enjoy along the way.