What is Saddleseat Riding?

by David Mikosz

Chances are even if you have some involvement with horses you may not have heard of the Saddleseat style of riding. Even if you have, you may not think of it as an equestrian discipline. This uniquely American style of riding was developed in the southern United States very early in our national history. The Saddleseat method of riding developed from plantation owners needing a saddle and manner of riding that was suited to the type of horses they were breeding. These horses were used to survey and inspect their expansive plantations. The property owners wanted mounts with comfortable gaits, speed, stamina, beauty and style.

With any type of riding the saddle is designed to allow the rider to best utilize the horse for the job at hand. Most people are familiar with two kinds of riding, English and Western. There are actually several sub-categories of each. Although western saddles may look very similar there are many subtle differences between the saddles used for working cattle, barrel racing, reining, pleasure riding and the showing. The visible differences between English saddles are somewhat easier to detect. Racing saddles are very small and lightweight. Hunting and jumping saddles are built to position the rider for comfort and safety while traversing across obstacles. Saddles for dressage are designed for close consistent contact. Finally, Saddleseat saddles are designed to allow the rider control and enjoyment of a spirited horse with fancy gaits.

Saddleseat riding does not receive the publicity racing, rodeo or the Olympic equestrian sports do. This is most likely because Saddleseat competitions are judged subjectively as part of Breed specific competitions. The previously mentioned disciplines have finish lines or timers and obstacles or tests that make placing these competitions easier to understand by the general public.

Despite the lack of media exposure Saddleseat riding is attractive to a large number of enthusiastic riders who enjoy a truly American alternative to other riding forms. Saddleseat riding is an excellent recreational activity that encompasses many of the principals of dressage with a less complex long-range objective. This gives a Saddleseat participant the opportunity to compete successfully with a shorter investment of time.

Saddleseat showing is done using many well-known breeds of horses including the American Saddlebred, National Show Horse, Morgan, Arabian, Show Horse Alliance and many others.

Saddleseat horse showing competitions probably started the same way other equine competitions did, most likely two fellows on horseback with one stating mine is better than yours. With racing the better was faster, with jumping the better was higher, with Saddleseat the better was fancier movement. The term fancier required a third opinion. This introduces subjectivity and the need for a judge comes in to play.

Gradually these challenges developed into the organized competitions and shows of today. Saddleseat competitions take place in an arena or riding ring where the horses and riders perform the required gaits in each direction around the ring. They compete collectively. These groups are usually divided into classes for specific breeds of horse, age and experience levels of riders and age and ability level of the horses. Shows range from local academy competitions, to Class A, Regional and highly competitive National level events. The winners are chosen by a single judge or panel of judges at larger shows.

Saddleseat showing combines the equestrian arts with the performing arts. The proper execution of the equestrian arts is of primary importance. The inclusion of the performing arts can have a significant impact on the judge’s perception. Although traditional, the riding attire is very stylish allowing for a great deal of personal preference in the selection of a saddle suit. Use of the performing arts also comes into play when competing in a group of your peers. This includes the showmanship skills needed to position yourself and your horse for best advantage in the arena. Also using your demeanor to radiate confidence in yourself and your horse’s ability to the judge(s) requires performing arts abilities as well.

Whether you want to hone these skills to National level competition or use them recreationally to increase your ability and confidence while riding, Saddleseat provides a very enjoyable and truly American alternative to other equestrian disciplines.