English or Western?

Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in January 2012

I’m often asked why we use English saddles in our Cavaliere program.  After all, doesn’t the western saddle, with it’s high pommel and cantle, better mimic the shape of the mediaeval jousting saddle?  Isn’t it easier for beginners to stay secure in the embrace of all that extra leather?  The short answer to both these questions is yes, but let me address each issue separately.

Historical Accuracy

There are many modern saddles that are even more similar to mediaeval saddles.  These include the Portuguese, Camargue, Australian stock, and several types of cavalry saddles.  With the exception of the Aussie, they’re all much more difficult to find here in BC, and quite expensive

The main benefit of a high cantle (the back of the seat) in jousting is that it helps keep the rider from being thrown backward out of the saddle.  However in our program we mainly do swordplay from horseback, which is best accomplished with a slightly forward seat.  A rider who uses his stirrups to brace against the cantle of the saddle will actually deliver a less powerful cut than the rider whose weight is directly over his stirrups; so the cantle really doesn’t help the mounted swordsman the way it does the jouster.

Beginner Security

Without a doubt most beginners feel more secure in a western saddle:  it hugs the seat, and there’s that handy horn and all those latigos to grab, just in case.

The western saddle, like the Camargue and Aussie, is designed to support and keep the rider comfortable during long days, and sometimes nights, out on the range.  In other words, it allows the rider to rest in the saddle, which is an admirable feature out on the trails.  However, this also means it’s much easier for beginners to develop an ‘armchair’ seat and other posture habits that are hard to break.

A good rider is a good rider, regardless of the tack she uses, and an accomplished Western rider uses the same basic body and leg position, with minor variations in stirrup length and hip angle, as an English rider.  But I maintain it’s easier to develop a good seat in the relative insecurity of an English saddle. 

In fact, it would be even better if I could start all riders without a saddle at all — but I’m not that cruel.  A flat saddle, with stirrups for easier mounting, and padding between seat bones and bony whithers, makes a happy compromise.

Personal Preference

I grew up riding western, and I still own the ancient stock saddle that came with my first pony.  But ever since I was a teenager I’ve preferred my extremely close-contact English saddle — even a jumping saddle with knee rolls makes me feel as if I have too much leather between me and my horse.

However, there’s more to English and Western riding than just the saddle.  Next week we’ll take a look at the bridle and reining styles of each, and their pros and cons.

Same horse, different tack:





and the best way of all …


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