Buying a used saddle is an excellent strategy for getting better quality for less money. It used to be that you were limited in your choice to local ads or local tack shops, but with tack shops now posting saddles on line and many people selling through eBay, your choices are many! However, if you do choose to buy on eBay, it’s important to buy from a reputable seller as you generally do not have the opportunity to return a saddle that doesn’t fit or isn’t as described.
Evaluating a Used Saddle
A well-made saddle will last for 25 years or more if it’s been cared for and stored well. When buying an older saddle, you need to consider the integrity of the tree, the construction of the panels, the state of the stitching and the quality of the leather.
Saddle trees are made from wood, fiberglass, or plastic/resin materials such as polypropylene. While saddle trees are strong, they can crack or twist which renders the saddle useless. You should never ride in a saddle with a broken tree as it can cause damage to your horse’s spine. The tree size determines the width of the saddle. While some saddles have adjustable trees, most saddles come in standard measurements. Some manufacturers use narrow, medium narrow, medium, medium/wide, wide and extra wide; others refer to a centimeter measurement, such as 30 cm.
How to Check the Integrity of the Tree
The tree of the saddle is the part of the saddle that maintains the structure of the saddle and keeps the rider’s weight from creating pressure spots on the horse’s spine. To check whether a tree is sound first hold the saddle with the pommel toward you, then grasp the cantle and pull toward you. There should be a slight amount of “give” but if you hear any cracking or popping sounds, or there is excessive movement, the tree is damaged or broken. Repeat the same exercise flexing the arch of the tree from side to side. Once again, any noises are not good news. Finally, turn the saddle over and inspect the channel of the saddle. The channel should be straight and show no damage. If the tree is twisted, you will see it during this part of the inspection. Do not buy a saddle that has a damaged tree; it is almost impossible to repair a tree and even if you can get it done, is more than a saddle is generally worth.
Most saddles today incorporate a “spring” tree. This type of tree is narrower and more flexible than older style, more rigid trees.
Take into consideration the width of the gullet. A very narrow gullet can put pressure on the horse’s spine; a wider gullet is generally more comfortable for your horse. You can read more about how gullet width influences saddle fit here: Evaluating Saddle Fit: Gullet Width.
Evaluate the Panel Construction
Saddles are made with either wool flocking or foam in the panels. Wool is used because over time it conforms to the shape of your horse’s back. In addition, wool panels can be adjusted to the shape of our horse by a professional saddle fitter who can add or remove wool. This is particularly useful with young horses or horses being brought back into work as the shape of their bodies will change in ways that will affect saddle fit.
Foam panels are made so that they mold to the shape of a horse and then return to its original shape. While newer, and more expensive, saddles have foam panels that should last for many years, in older saddles the foam may have completely compressed leaving no internal padding. Foam panels can also be replaced, but often only by the original manufacturer. They can also be retrofitted for wool (which is only worthwhile for a nice saddle). If you are buying a used saddle with foam panels make sure that the foam has not compressed and that the saddle fits properly without the need for adjustment.
Leather and Stitching
Next check the panels for wear and cracking to the leather. The leather should be smooth and supple and the panels should be the same shape. Older saddles may have show some surface cracking and some dryness, but the leather should not be excessively stiff or worn, nor should there be wrinkles. There is generally some wear on the panels under the stirrup leathers, but the panels should not be worn to the point where the stitching has been worn through or there are any holes in the leather. You should also check the wear on the billet straps.
Billet straps are critical to the safety of your saddle and should be replaced if they are stretched or ripped. This is an inexpensive repair.
Check the stitching to see if there are any areas that have come undone. Pay particular attention to the stitching on the panels. If the stitching is loose under the panels, it they can burst, causing the wool to come out.
A good saddle fitter can fix stitching issues, replace billets or reflock a saddle where the wool has become compressed, but it’s a good idea to get a quote for these services before purchasing a saddle so that you can include these fees into the total cost.
Here are some of my favorite online tack stores with a strong selection of used saddles. The advantage of buying through them is you get the chance to try the saddle first, usually for a week. If you want to try your luck on eBay, you might want to read this first: Avoiding eBay Saddle Scams.