Both the horse and the rider benefit from a saddle. A saddle prevents the horse’s spine from digging into the rider, and spreads the rider’s weight evenly across the horse’s back, avoiding the spine. Saddles are built around a frame called a tree. The tree should be protected by being stored on a rack; if the tree breaks, the saddle is useless and hurts the horse. It is important to purchase the best saddle you can afford. The best ones are made of leather or a high-quality synthetic; cheaper saddles will not last as long. If you purchase a saddle secondhand, make sure that the tree, stitching, and leather are in good repair.
There are different types of saddles for different purposes, such as jumping and dressage, or general-purpose saddles for non-specialist riders. Western saddles are ornate and decorative because they served as a cowboy’s status symbol. They are heavy because they were originally designed to withstand the stresses imposed when a lariat was attached to the horn in front of the rider.
Saddle pads are intended as a protective measure and for comfort. Rectangular saddle pads keep the underside of the saddle clean and absorb sweat, which would otherwise cause the saddle to slip, slide, and rub the horse. It can be made from a variety of materials, although some synthetic materials do not absorb moisture as well as others. Fitted pads are designed to protect the horse’s back as well as absorb sweat. It is usually cut in the shape of a saddle. They should not be used as a permanent padding for a poorly fitting or badly stuffed saddle; these ill-equipped saddles should be replaced or restuffed. Gel pads are made of thermoplastic elastomer gel that ensures an even contact between the horse and the saddle; they are ideal for a horse with a sore back. The gel distributes pressure so that it is applied evenly all over.
Leather girths are strong, durable, and do not stretch much; they do, however, collect sweat and dirt. This makes the girth hard and uncomfortable for the horse if not kept clean. There are several types and styles available. A nylon string girth lets air through, and grips better than leather, making it less likely to rub and cause sores.