Saddle-making dates back to somewhere between the third century BC and the first century AD (depending on which historian you ask). It’s an art steeped in tradition; many master saddlers working for modern saddle manufacturers are actually involved in the trade because they are following several generations of saddlers before them within their own families.
At a time when every other sporting industry has moved forward, embracing the latest technology and textiles, riders have been relying on the same methods and materials employed by saddlers for centuries. And herein lies the difficulty: how to uphold tradition while still catering to the demands of the modern sport.
This is the question driving modern saddle designers to achieve more innovation in saddle-making over the last decade than has been accomplished in centuries. Saddle companies are finding themselves in a race for technology and innovation never before seen in our sport and the industry is rapidly changing. I am privileged to be part of Albion England, an international research and design team in the industry, and I can say without reservation that it is undoubtedly a very exciting time to be involved.
The tree, or inner structure of the saddle, makes up the bulk of the weight of most saddles. English saddle trees are traditionally made from laminated wood reinforced with steel (and webbing and tacks and staples and rivets and glue…). Wooden spring trees are strong and durable and have the ability to flex front to back and in a limited lateral sense due to spring steel reinforcement holding a set amount of tension in the structure. Some can be adjusted; however, they are also very heavy.
Trees have been a main focus of innovation for years. Recently, manufacturers have experimented with trees made from various plastic and composite materials with and without steel reinforcement. Some trees are now made from fibreglass, others with lighter, stronger technological materials such as carbon fibre. However, every material has its limitations for the application. Plastic trees, while they can be strong, also tend to be heavy. They are prone to warping or changing shape, especially in extreme climates and under intense stress. Plastic trees are formed from a mould and therefore very consistent; however, they have varying flexibility depending on their chemical makeup. Composites such as fibreglass and carbon fibre are lighter and stronger, but notoriously brittle and prone to breakage when extremely flexed. They cannot be adjusted.
Some new steel tree designs include spring hinges embedded on either side at the front to automatically adjust to fit wide or narrow-backed horses, while flexing as the horse moves to prevent impeding the shoulders.
Saddle Filler Material
Wool-stuffed panels have excellent shock absorption and heat dispersal. They have an added bonus as well, as they can be restuffed by a saddler in order to adapt to a horse’s changing structure and needs. But they are heavy and reliant on the skill of the saddler stuffing them. Wool stuffing packs down and must be maintained every six months or so.
Foam panels are consistent and lightweight, but they have a tendency to hold onto heat and they break down over time. Even the lifespan of modern, multi-density foams can be less than a year before compressing. Once the foam breaks down, it cannot be adjusted and must be replaced.
The leather covering we have all come to love and admire has perhaps the most problematic properties of all the saddle’s many parts. Apart from the obvious ethical considerations and the toxic chemicals that go into the tanning process, leather is expensive. It cannot be produced in the quantities demanded by the enormous automotive and luxury goods markets and is becoming difficult to source in high quality that is remotely affordable to saddle companies. It is very heavy. It is damaged by regular use. It takes on more weight from the oil we use to keep it from drying out.
There are many viable synthetic materials available which can perform better than leather with less weight, less cost and less impact on the environment. For example, Albion Saddles have been offering synthetic saddles for over a decade. Olympic riders Laura Tomlinson and William Fox-Pitt both rode in Albion’s 98% synthetic saddles during the Beijing Olympics 2008 in Hong Kong to overcome the extreme humidity, and William continues to use the synthetic option.
The trend toward ‘vegan’ tack which appeals to those who prefer to use animal-free products is a growing segment of the industry. Despite the leather-like look and feel of these synthetics, much vegan leather is produced from plastics using chemicals. It won’t decay, cannot be recycled, and may have a longer life than leather.
“Biofabricate” vat-grown leather may be an answer in the future, although it is not yet affordable or produced in huge quantities. A strain of yeast is engineered to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives leather its strength. It is purified, pressed into sheets, and tanned into leather without using any of the petrochemicals needed to make pleather or vegan leather.