The two main styles of horse riding are called English and Western. They both have different types of saddles made to perform different functions. Both types of saddles basically consist of a wooden or similar “tree” frame to act as a seat and the padding around that frame to help protect the horse’s back. There are many variations of both English and Western saddles.
Historians believe people first used blankets to help eliminate chafing on both horse and rider and to help the rider stay on. Eventually, they began stuffing the blankets with padding such as dried grasses. The first saddle with a tree was thought to be made by the Sarmatians around 1 A.D., according to “The Ultimate Horse Book.” The oldest known saddle was found in a Pazyryk tomb of people and horses dating from 3000 B.C. The cool, dry Siberian air kept everything from decaying. Both English and Western were derived from cavalry saddles, but went through radical changes when the horses needed to perform different tasks.
Modern Western saddles derived from saddles used by the Spanish Conquistadors. Because riders like cowboys had to spend all day in the saddle and live off of the land, they needed as comfortable a saddle as possible and places to put equipment like ropes, food or a bedroll. In contrast, English riders only ride their horses for a couple of hours a day, whether for foxhunting, other horse sports or other casual riding. English saddles needed to be as light as possible to help the horse jump and gallop.
Western saddles are far larger and heavier than English saddles. Although heavier for the rider, Western saddles are made to help evenly distribute the weight of a rider and his equipment across the horse’s back. This requires more padding, more places to hang equipment and two girths or cinches rather than just one for English saddles. In contrast, the English saddle is just a seat and has no areas to place added equipment.
Western saddles make sure the rider is secure. They have a high seat, a horn at the front nearest the horse’s neck and long, thick stirrup leathers, often called “fenders.” In contrast, English saddles lack a horn, have very thin stirrup leathers and encourage the rider to perch more forward in the seat. An all-purpose English saddle or a jumping saddle also has round knee flaps completely lacking in Western saddles. Western riders sit further back on the horse than an English rider.
The main gait used by horses is the trot. It is fast enough for exercise or for working stock but does not wear the horse out like cantering or galloping would. Riders of English saddles have a very hard time sitting the trot, so they post, or rise at the horse’s every other stride. This helps cuts down on painful bumping. In contrast, trotting or “jogging” in Western saddles is a comfortable affair because of the size and construction of the saddle.