If you’ve ever suffered through a movie or concert in an uncomfortable chair, you’ll understand how important it is to ride in a saddle with a seat that fits properly.  In an English saddle, that all-important seat is an extension of the saddle tree.  Saddle makers build the seat by adding layers of molded padding to the saddle tree and covering the resulting form with leather or a synthetic.

There is a good deal of variation in this construction process, as English saddle seats come in a range of styles intended to serve different purposes.  The seat on a dressage saddle will be deeper than one on a jumper saddle, and the angle of the seats will not be the same.

Despite these differences, all English saddles must meet the same inescapable goal.  Every time you climb into one of them, you need a seat that not only feels good but also keeps you in a balanced riding position.

To achieve that balance, you should comfortably fit in the lowest part of the seat.  As you ride, you should remain centrally situated with your shoulders, hips, and legs properly aligned.  If a saddle places you too far behind or in front of the horse’s center of gravity, the position will disrupt your own balance.

Pick Your Seat with Care

The level of comfort and safety you derive from an English saddle seat depends on many factors, and here are some to look out for when shopping around for the best ride you can get:

Pommel-to-Cantle Relationship: If you’re accustomed to riding a western saddle, you may expect all saddle seats to look higher in the front than in the back (thanks to the western saddle’s hard-to-miss horn).  English saddle seats, however, have no horn, and a general guide is that the cantle in the back should be higher than the pommel in the front.  This prevents the rider from tilting too far backwards, which would force the legs forward and upset the proper riding balance.

Twist or Waist: This is the narrowest part of the saddle seat, and it should match the rider’s pelvic structure.  Age, weight, and gender all influence a rider’s individual needs, but in all cases the waist must be neither too narrow nor too wide.An overly narrow twist does not support a rider’s bones, instead causing a teeter-totter effect that does little for riding enjoyment and safety.  A twist that is too wide will likewise create a poor riding position by causing the pelvis to shift around and by disturbing the alignment of the legs under the body.

To maintain proper balance, the twist should occur at the lowest part of the seat.  The exact shape of a seat varies widely from saddle to saddle, depending upon the activity for which it is designed, and a deep seat will feel very different from a shallow seat, even if the two saddles are identical in every other respect.

Saddle Flaps: The purpose of these pieces is to support the knees and prevent them from rubbing against the horse.  If the flaps are too far behind, the knees will clear them and remain unprotected.  If they are too far forward, they will push the lower legs backwards and throw off the rider’s balance.

Stirrup Bars: These must support the stirrups in a way that is comfortable and safe for both sitting and rising (as when jumping), so check their positions to ensure that they do not fall too far forward or behind your legs.  The stirrup bars should also be recessed enough to keep any buckles safely tucked away to prevent them from rubbing against your legs.

Seat Measurement: Saddle makers measure the seats of English saddles differently than those on western saddles, with sizes running about two inches larger on English saddles.  This makes things a bit tricky for anyone who is switching from a western saddle to an English one, as you cannot simply purchase the new saddle in the same size as the old one.

To obtain the seat size of an English saddle, measure the distance from the nail (or rivet or screw) at the side of the pommel to the center of the cantle.  As with most measurement methods, there is considerable wiggle room among manufacturers, so expect to find as much as a ¼” difference between one brand and another.

Even if these measurement discrepancies did not exist, seat size would still not be the only dimension affecting fit and comfort.  Rider height, weight, hip width, and, especially, thigh length are very individual-specific traits, and each one affects different aspects of a saddle seat’s fit.  For instance, the length of a saddle relates to leg length and not hip size, so someone with very long legs may need a longer seat to accommodate them.

The (somewhat) standardized seat sizes for English saddles run from about 15” for small children to about 18” for large adults, with most grown-ups using seats in the 17-18” range.These are very broad generalizations, as some saddle types run much larger than others.  Dressage saddles may run 1 or 2 inches larger than hunt seats.  A saddle-seat or cut-back-pommel saddle may run as much as 4 inches larger than the sizes mentioned earlier, with some children taking a 19-20” size.

With so many variables affecting seat measurement, it is understandable that anyone choosing a saddle would yearn for a simple formula for determining proper seat size.  The folks at know this and offer a sizing guide based on leg measurements.  Sitting with your upper leg at a right angle to your lower leg, you measure the distance from the tip of your knee to the back of your buttock.  You then match that measurement to its corresponding seat size on the following chart:

If Your Upper Leg Length Is:
Your Seat Size Is:
Up to 16 1/2″
Up to 18 1/2″
Up to 20″
16 1/2″
Up to 21 1/2″
Up t 23″
17 1/2″
23″ and larger

This is a good starting point for figuring your seat size, but it is by no means a precise, sure-fire way to do so.  You must consider all of the factors listed above and follow the advice given below to get the best-fitting saddle you can buy.

Sit Up and Take Notice

The expression “by the seat of your pants” takes on a whole new meaning when applied to saddle seat selection, for that is ultimately the best way to discover which saddle fits and feels right.  Sit yourself down in as many saddles as you can, and you will soon get a good sense of what features, sizes, and styles work best for you.  No matter how good-looking or low-priced a saddle is, it will not serve you well if it does not fit you and your horse.

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