When you’re shopping for an English saddle on a budget, used saddles are a great option. You get more bang for your buck than you would with a new saddle, you get to skip the break-in process, and most used saddles are still in great shape.
But just like with cars, there are certain pricey repairs that can turn a saddle deal into a saddle nightmare. The bad ones can easily cost you $500+ in repair bills. That might be worthwhile for an expensive high-end saddle. But even for high-end saddles, it’s nice to know that what you’re getting into.
So let’s talk about which problems you should always check for before you buy a used saddle. These repairs could cost you big bucks.
1. Worn-out panels that need to be replaced
Foam panels, and wool flocking, both degrade over time. Foam tends to get smushy and lose its support. Picture the padding in an old sneaker, or a worn-out pillow on a foam-stuffed coach.
Wool flocking tends to get lumpy, bumpy, and compressed. Picture a child’s stuffed animal after being hugged and played with for years: things aren’t quite in the right place anymore!
So when you’re evaluating a used saddle, gently squeeze and poke the saddle’s panels. Squeeze and poke and slide your fingers deep into crevices. Look for lumps, bumps, uneven spots, and soft spots.
If you find any of these problems, you should be worried.
If it’s a wool-flocked saddle, the cost to fix lumpy or collapsed panels is anywhere from $75 to $400. In a minor case, the fitter may be able to just pull out the problematic lumpy section and “overflock” that section with new wool.
But if the panel is really a mess, or the lumps and bumps are in certain hard-to-reach places on the panel, you might need a full strip reflock–and that’s the one that’ll cost you $250+, and typically more like $350 to $400. The reason it’s so expensive is because it’s time intensive and requires a lot of focus and care. The fitter needs to completely un-pin your panels from the saddle, pull out all the old wool, and stuff the panels with new wool. A good saddler will make sure your two panels are evenly flocked so that the saddle doesn’t sit asymmetrically on the horse. They’ll also insure that the wool is inserted in ways that discourage lumps and bunching. Finally, they’ll make sure that the panels are re-attached to your saddle without being crooked, which is important for your balance, your horse’s comfort, and for keeping the saddle tree from warping.
You can see now why a full reflock typically has to be done off site, not in your barn aisle! It can take hours to do it right, and it’s best done in a space where the saddler can concentrate and reach their full set of tools.
Repanelling a foam saddle is even more expensive, but foam panels also tend to last longer than wool flocking. The typical replacement cost for foam panels is $500 to $900. If your saddle has foam panels, the best candidate to replace them is usually the saddle company that made the saddle. So if in doubt, contact the company for a quote on replacement costs.
In some cases, you can get the foam stripped off the saddle and replaced with wool for about $300-$400. Many saddle fitters and repair places around the country do this procedure. If you’re thinking about doing this, always consult the repair person before you buy. Not all saddle brands are good candidates for wool conversion. So before you buy, you’ll want to be 100% sure that you’ve found a repair place that is willing to do the job.
In terms of age, I recommend that you check panels on every saddle, even brand new ones. Why? Because in the wrong conditions, wool flocking can start lumping or compressing within a few weeks. And a pro rider who rides 6–8 horses daily can wear out foam panels in 6 months flat. In rare cases, a saddle can arrive from the manufacturer with panel problems.
And just like people, some saddles age more gracefully than others. I’ve seen some saddles that were 10+ years old and their panels were still in great shape. So it just depends. Focus on the saddle in front of you and feel what you can feel.
2. Wear and tear on the seat
When it comes to seat damage, the danger zone is right under the rider’s crotch, especially where your pelvis and thighs meet the saddle seams that hold the seat onto the skirts (see picture below). That’s a common area for seat wear, especially if a previous rider wore jeans or the saddle has a delicate seat that’s covered in calfskin.
If the damage is fairly small and limited, you may be able to use a leather patch to fix the problem. That’ll cost you for roughly $50-$150. On the upside, this is a cheap way to slow down the damage. On the downside, patches are unsightly and lower the resale value of your saddle.
Some people use super glue or a seat saver to limit the damage, but in most cases, you’ll pay for that decision down the road. If the seam wears through the super glue, or keeps spreading at the edges of the super glue, you’ll eventually need a full seat replacement. That’s because it’s very hard to patch a saddle that’s already been super glued. So if the seam wears through or the damage spreads after you’ve used super glue, you usually have to proceed to a full seat replacement. You can hide the damage by using an after-market seat saver that covers the seat, but the damage is still happening behind the scenes–and in many disciplines, a seat saver isn’t legal for showing.
This brings us to the nightmare repair, in terms of cost: a full seat replacement, which can easily run $700-$1000. It’s a pricey repair because the saddler has to completely disassemble your saddle. They take off the panels, take off the flaps, they even take off the skirts that cover your stirrup bars. Basically, they have to strip your saddle all the way down to its tree, which is like stripping a car down to its chassis. Then, after they take off the seat, they fashion a pattern for your new seat, cut the new seat, sew it to the skirts that cover your stirrup bars, stretch that whole thing over the tree, attach it…you can see how this becomes a really labor-intensive repair. And when they finally get the seat squared away, the saddler re-assembles your entire saddle, which requires a lot of precision to ensure that everything was exactly as it was before. Between the cost of a good piece of leather for your seat, plus the labor time, plus a reasonable profit margin to make it worth the saddler’s while…you can see how we end up with a big-bucks repair estimate.
3. A broken saddle tree or compromised tree
Ugh, this is the worst. If your saddle tree is broken, it can easily cost upwards of $800-$900 to replace it. And that’s if you can cajole the manufacturer into sending your repairperson another saddle tree, or get the manufacturer to replace the saddle tree for you. With some saddle manufacturers, this is already a difficult thing. (Some of them just don’t like to do it, and others might want to help–but if your saddle is older, or the tree design has changed substantially over time, they might not have it in stock.)
And sometimes, saddle trees can be “compromised” rather than truly broken. Maybe you hear some suspicious squeaking, or the saddle keeps throwing your body around in a particular weird way. Or maybe it didn’t pass the flex tests I describe below, but it also doesn’t seem truly broken. That’s often a compromised tree, and it can really hurt your horse.
Compromised trees are also a huge hassle because you’ll have to pay a saddler to drop the panels, assess the damage, and tell you what you’re really dealing with.
If you’re lucky, the compromised section can be reinforced or replaced.
If you’re super lucky, it’s just a loose rivet that can be replaced or screwed back in tighter.
But much of the time, a compromised tree is really a broken tree.
Real talk, ladies and gents: given the cost and hassle of tree replacement, it’s often not worthwhile to replace a saddle’s tree. If you’re getting the repair for free, under a warranty, that’s one thing. In that case, knock yourself out. But if you’re looking at paying for a whole new tree in your saddle, that (generally) only makes financial sense if your saddle is worth quite a bit of money.
But if you’re looking at paying for a whole new tree in your saddle, it (generally) only makes financial sense if your saddle is worth quite a bit of money. Personally, if I were paying for the repair out of pocket, I’d be reluctant to drop a new tree into a saddle whose current value on the used market was less than $2000.
And keep in mind, most of the time, you will not recoup the cost of a tree replacement at resale time. If you have a $3000 saddle with a broken tree, and you replace the tree for $850, your buyers won’t suddenly think the saddle is worth $3850. In fact, in my experience, US buyers balk at the idea of buying a saddle with a replaced tree. It’s like buying a high-mileage car with a new transmission: some people are like “yeah, what a deal” but a lot of people are like, “Nah, I’d rather have a newer one.”
Personally, I hate to see people throw away good tack–and I wish more people would invest in repairs rather than replacing their otherwise-useful stuff. But when it comes to broken trees, being repaired out of pocket with no warranty…think long and hard about whether the investment is worth it. Especially for a used saddle that you don’t even own yet.
Anyway, moving on to how you can tell if you’ve got a broken tree. Alas, this is a hard thing to assess without dropping the panels and looking. You can do some basic tests by flexing the saddle in various directions. See below–thanks, YouTube!
But even those tests aren’t foolproof. A saddle that passes those tests might still have hairline fractures in the tree. And in my experience, unless the damage is pretty serious and obvious, your average saddle buyer can be fooled by these flex tests.
Spring trees, for example, are designed to flex a little. And unless you’ve flexed a lot of tack, you may have trouble distinguishing a spring tree from a broken tree.Also, saddles sometimes squeak for benign reasons, like leather rubbing up against leather. So how do you know if it’s “just” a spring tree or a real problem? If you’ve flexed hundreds of saddles, you can probably go with your gut. But most buyers haven’t flexed hundreds of saddles.
Also, saddles sometimes squeak for benign reasons, like leather rubbing up against leather under the skirt or by the stirrup bar.So how do you know if it’s “just” a spring tree or a real problem? If you’ve flexed hundreds of saddles, you can probably go with your gut. But most buyers haven’t flexed hundreds of saddles.
So how do you know if it’s “just” a spring tree or a real problem? If you’ve flexed hundreds of saddles, you can probably go with your gut. But most buyers haven’t flexed hundreds of saddles.
And of course, how do you do any of this if you’re buying online/from a distance?
In theory, you can have a saddler drop the panels and look closely at the tree to find damage. Saddlers can often mitigate tree damage by reinforcing a compromised section of the tree. But the cost for dropping panels and looking at a tree is typically $300-$500. So most people don’t invest in that for sub-$2000 saddles.
So, are you freaked out yet? Here’s five ways to minimize your risk:
- If you can, buy saddles that you can inspect in person.
- If you can, buy from an experienced consignment vendor that sells lots of English tack. These vendors have experience looking for expensive repair problems. And in many cases, they also have insurance to cover problems with the tack they’ve sold. It’s not a foolproof solution, but at least if the saddle arrives with damage, you can usually send it back.
- If you buy from a private seller, always use a credit card and/or PayPal. If the saddle arrives damaged and the seller won’t cooperate, you can make a claim through PayPal, or dispute the charge with your credit card. It’s not a foolproof way to protect yourself, but it’s something.
- If you get a saddle shipped through the mail, pay for shipping insurance. Read up on the terms and conditions of this insurance. The insurance terms differ between the US Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS. If in doubt, I recommend FedEx. None of these shipping services are perfect, but in my experience, FedEx has the best track record for saddles. Many online saddle consignment dealers use FedEx exclusively for their saddle shipping, and that says a lot about how FedEx handles saddles.
- If in doubt, get professional help with evaluating the saddle. Enlist a saddle fitter, your trainer, or saddle-savvy friends, vet, or chiropractor to look over a saddle that you’re considering.
Now some homework for everybody: Check your saddle billets! That’s a cheap and important repair.
Billets, which are the straps that attach your girth to the saddle, are fairly cheap to replace. And that’s great because a) they tend to wear out over time and b) when they do, your saddle is literally dangerous. A snapped billet–or worse, two snapped billets on the same side–can lead to a very dangerous accident where your saddle slides right off your horse.
In most cases, you can get new billets for $100-$200 total. For most saddles, the billets are attached to nylon webbing that hangs down from the saddle tree. Replacing these billets is as simple as ripping out some stitching, taking off the old billets, lining up new billets, and sewing them on. It’s worth getting a qualified saddle repair person to do it, so that they tack on the billets straight and line up the holes in logical places.
So do yourself a favor and check your billets the next time you ride. If they are worn, soft, or cracking, it’s time for new ones. Get some. Your safety is worth it.
In many cases, your local saddle fitter is trained to do this repair. If not, you can ship out to a reputable repair facility. (Psst: there’s a PDF list of repair places in the next section, “Over to You”).
And another billet pro tip: don’t try to oil your billets, or use cream conditioner, to bring your very-worn-out billets back to life. I’m usually a fan of hydrating your leather, but when it comes to billets, strength is way more important than suppleness. And the more oil or conditioner you add, the weaker your billets will get. So personally, I never oil my billets. I keep them clean, and I use roller buckles on girths when I can, but otherwise I let my billets do their hang-on-for-dear-life job.
Over to You
So that’s it: watch it for worn-out panels, damage that could lead to an expensive seat repair, and a broken or compromised tree. If you avoid those, you’ve avoided some of the most expensive saddle repairs out there.
And if you still think you might need a repair, here’s a list of popular saddle repair facilities in the US (in PDF format). You’re welcome!
If you love resources like that, by the way, you should totally hop on The Saddle Geek’s mailing list and nab a copy of our free English Saddle Brands List. My mailing list members are my VIPs, and they’re always the first to know when I make new stuff.