Saddle flaps are the large panels hanging down from the tree, and they deserve much of the credit for creating the characteristic sleekness of English saddles.
There’s one flap on either side of the saddle, and they fall between the rider’s leg and the horse’s flank. Thanks to this large flap, other parts of the saddle—such as the billets, buckle guard, and sweat flap—are under cover and out of sight. More importantly, with the stirrup leathers sandwiched between the saddle flap and the skirt, the horse escapes the ordeal of being pinched by the straps and buckles.
The specific shape and size of this flap says a good deal about the intended purpose of the saddle it graces. Every riding discipline adopts a particular leg position, and the saddle flap must match that arrangement of limbs.
That explains why the dressage saddle has a very long saddle flap that does not extend very far in the front. Equestrians following this tradition sit very upright with their legs stretched out quite a bit, but they do not put their knees very far forward. The elongated length and foreshortened width of the saddle flaps on the dressage saddle mirror that stance to provide protection where it is needed.
At the other extreme, a saddle used for jumping requires shorter stirrups and a forward-facing seat. Its saddle flap reflects these needs in its shorter length and frontward position.
As you try on saddles, notice the different saddle flap designs and try to get a feel for which ones best suit your usual riding position. You don’t want a saddle flap to fall short in protecting your legs, so one that is a bit too large is better than one that is too small.
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