The International Equestrian Federation describes dressage as “the highest expression of horse training”, it can be seen as a combination of art and training, often pursued purely for the sake of mastery, and performed in competition and exhibition. Competitions are held at all levels to the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games, its rich history and ancient roots however dates back to the writings of Xenophon.
The discipline requires a saddle specifically modeled for the sport. Designed with a long and straight saddle flap, a deep seat and usually a pronounced kneeblock. They feature longer billets and a shorter girth. Their purpose is to keep the rider off their horses’ back and to distribute weight evenly, balancing comfort and control.
Charles de Kunffy, in the book Dressage Principles Illuminated, places the foundation of classical dressage at the 1773 publication École de Cavalerie, written by François de La Guérinière. In his time the saddles were made on a wooden frame, with high pommels and cantles. Saddles like these can still be seen in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School. In the 1800s the popularity of eventing and fox hunting brought on more changes and saddles diversified to meet the needs of specific disciplines. Dressage Saddles moved more and more in the direction of what we see today however their style remained reflective of military times, minimalistic. As time went on consideration was given to the practicality for horse and rider, gender came into the discussion with both men and women involved in the discipline plus differences in horses. The changes were made to increase comfort and performance, particularly noticeable at higher levels but also at local competition.
Freedom of movement for the horse and control for the rider have been primary considerations in improving dressage saddles, materials vary with some made in the traditional manner on steel and wooden trees while others are made from synthetic materials. Now they can be adjusted by a saddler and some have ‘do it yourself’ adjustable gullets. Along with the trees the saddles themselves come in a variety of materials, whilst the most common is still leather, synthetic materials have provided a cost-effective alternative. Another noticeable change is the padding, more focus has been placed on volume and distribution again with comfort and control at the forefront of the design process. Materials have progressed from the sole use of wool to incorporating foam, felt and even advanced polymer materials or air.
The dressage saddle, like its other discipline counterparts, has undergone significant change whilst maintaining a number of original features, its simplicity, its elegance and of course its effectiveness for the sport.