Someone new to the 4-H program once asked me about buying an English saddle for her daughter to show in, and when I asked her what kind she was thinking about, she looked at me strangely and said “how many kinds are there?” Just off-hand I could think of 3 types – hunt seat, saddle seat and dressage – but then when I really started thinking about it, there are also 2 different kinds of hunt seat saddles. It can be confusing and hard to know where to start when deciding on an English saddle purchase.
Hunt Seat Saddle Types
Hunt seat saddles are either a close contact type or an all-purpose/eventing type. The close contact saddle has a somewhat flat seat and short, forward-placed flaps with knee rolls to hold the leg in position. This saddle is mainly used for jumping.
The all-purpose English saddle has a deeper seat with slightly longer flaps – also with knee rolls – which are not placed quite as far forward as the close contact. This saddle can be used for flat work and jumping.
A dressage saddle has a deep seat and longer, straighter flaps as the rider rides with longer stirrups. This saddle puts the rider a little farther back than a hunt saddle, so the rider doesn't have the typical forward seat of a hunt rider. Since this discipline of riding never goes over fences, the saddle doesn't need support for the rider like a hunt saddle.
Saddle Seat Saddles
The saddle seat saddle has a very flat seat, a cut-back pommel and wide, long flaps. The rider rides back on the horse to facilitate a freer movement of the shoulders and encourage a high-stepping movement. Much like the dressage discipline, saddle seat saddles don't need much support for the rider.
Before any English saddle purchase, the rider needs to know which type of riding they'd like to participate in, since that will determine (mostly) the type of saddle used. After this is determined, it's time to get the correct saddle and English bridle for that specific discipline.
My advice to the 4-H mom was to invest in an all-purpose saddle since it is better suited for hunt seat beginners due to the better security of a deeper seat. I also advised her, as I tell anyone who asks, to spend the money to buy a good saddle which will last, put the rider in the correct position and is comfortable.