Saddle Seat

Western Horse UK takes a look at the discipline of saddle seat – a US phenomenon with European roots. Although saddle seat riding falls into the category of ‘English’, it was developed in the US to show off the extravagant gaits of certain high stepping breeds. Saddle seat emerged from two trends; the plantation tradition of the American south and the European trend of showing off the flashiest, highest-stepping horses by riding them in city parks on Sundays. A flatter English show saddle was developed and the term ‘park’ or ‘park action’ is still used today to describe competitions where the action of the horse is of paramount importance.

Saddle seat differs considerably from other English styles of riding. The rider appears to sit well back in the saddle, carrying his or her hands high. This helps them to get behind the horse’s center of balance so he can step higher and use more front leg action.


Saddle seat classes are divided by the gaits the horse can perform and are often breed specific. Horses are usually shown with a very long, flowing mane and tail.

Three-Gaited: (Saddlebreds) horses are shown at the walk, trot, and canter

Five-gaited: (Saddlebreds) horses are shown at the walk, trot, and canter, as well as the four-beat ambling gaits known as the rack (a fast, showy gait), and slow gait (four-beat gait with great suspension).

Plantation Walker: (Tennessee Walking Horses) horses are shown at a walk, running walk, and canter.

Park: (Arabians and Morgans) horses are shown at a walk, trot, and canter while being judged on their action.

Pleasure: (All breeds) horses are judged at the walk, trot, and canter more on manners and smoothness than action.

Classic / Country Pleasure: (All breeds) an even greater emphasis is put on manners in the horse. The horse still has to show a high-set head and animated gait, but animation is of less importance.

Equitation: (All breeds) here the rider is judged on their posture and use of aids.

Fine Harness / Pleasure Driving: (All breeds) horses are shown in harness usually at a walk and two speeds of trot.


The Saddle

The saddle seat saddle is unique to the discipline and if properly made and balanced, allows the horse to move with animation. It has the following features:

The cut-back pommel makes room for the withers and neck of a horse which carries its head high.

The saddle has little padding, a very flat seat, and is placed further back on the horse to allow for extravagant front end movement

It is a few inches longer than other English saddles and deliberately places the rider behind the motion, which makes it easier to influence the horse’s headset and gait.


Saddle Seat Classes

The saddle seat discipline was developed to show off horses with a naturally high head carriage and animated gaits. Popular saddle seat breeds include:

American Saddlebred

National Show Horse (American Saddlebred cross Arabaian)

Tennessee Walking  _Morgans _Arabians

Paso Finos

Missouri Foxtrotters

Rocky Mountain Horses


Bridle and bit

A double bridle is traditional with both a curb bit and a bradoon. This allows fine-tuning of the horse’s head and neck position. A single curb bit with a long shank is used for gaited horses such as the Tennessee Walker and Missouri Fox Trotter. The browband is commonly brightly coloured leather or vinyl, red being the most popular. The cavesson is sometimes plain leather, and sometimes coloured to match the browband, depending on breed and fashion trends in tack. Junior classes, limited to horses under four or five years old, may allow horses to wear a snaffle bit.


Rider attire

In all classes, riders wear Kentucky jodhpurs, which have knee patches and bellbottoms worn over jodhpur boots. Kentucky johnpurs also have a strap that goes under the boot to prevent them from riding up. A long, fitted coat, hat (usually a derby for women and a fedora for men), a vest and tie are also required.