This post is the first in a series. The broke girl’s gonna get richer as we go along, so if you have more than $1000 to spend, read this post for some useful general context, then stay tuned for future posts. And wool-flocked saddle lovers who are clutching their pearls that I’m talking about (gasp!) French saddles, don’t hate: there’s some wool-flocked saddles in this post series, too.
Hey there, broke girl. I see you. You’ve stared for hours at your friend or trainer’s fancy French saddle. Maybe it’s a Devoucoux, or Antares, or Voltaire, or CWD. Or maybe you’re lusting after an Italian brand, like Amerigo, Prestige, or Selleria Equipe.
Love happens. And unfortunately, so do heart attacks. Like the one you had when you found out the price tag on these saddles. But still, even knowing the price tag, you can’t shake the crush. You’re tempted to take out a second mortgage, or eat Top Ramen for the rest of your life.
And if this sounds like you, gurrrrrrl we need to talk. Because today, I’m gonna show you how to get some of that French and Italian saddle action on a Mega Broke Girl’s Budget. Like maybe $500-$1000.
And even if you’ve got more than $1000 to spend, we’ll talk about basics that will help on any budget:
- How to spot the saddle features that define contemporary French and Italian saddles
- Which lesser-known saddles to keep your eyes peeled for
- What you can, and can’t, expect from a cheaper version of a true high-end French saddle
If you’re like “Oh this is gonna be gooooood,” you should join The Saddle Geek’s mailing list so that you don’t miss the whole post series. You’ll get the occasional free goodies I give out, like my English Saddle Brands List for DIY saddle shoppers. It’s the same one I use, myself, while doing Digital Saddle Fitting Consultations for clients.
How to Spot a Unicorn: Defining Features of French and Italian Saddles
French and Italian saddles are a lot like cheese or wine: they’re distinguished more by their characteristics than by their country of origin.
Here’s what I mean by that. Picture a bottle of Merlot wine, or a wheel of Brie cheese. These are famous products that you can buy from France, and people associate them with France.
But guess what? They also make good Merlot and Brie in California. People covet the French versions, for various reasons, but the California versions are also excellent.
The same goes for French and Italian saddles. If you can afford the real deal from France and Italy, then go ahead and buy the original. We’ll talk about some originals in this series.
But if you’re on a very super tight budget, like under $1000, you should know that some saddles are French and Italian in design even if they’re actually designed and made elsewhere. As this post series will reveal, there are French- and Italian-like designs coming out of Britain, Germany, Argentina, the United States. Other countries, too.
In fact, many of these other brands hired “real” French or Italian saddlers to help them nail the French or Italian aesthetic. So just because it’s made somewhere else, don’t hate. What matters is that the saddle’s got the right design provenance. You would know a Merlot if you tasted one, even if it were made in California. And by the time this post is through, I want to convince you that there is such a thing as a French-style saddle that’s made in Argentina or the US or whatever.
So how will you know that you’re looking at a saddle that’s French or Italian in influence? Here’s some common, although not totally universal, features of French and Italian contemporary saddles:
1. A forward balance point for the rider. This means that the seat is designed to place the rider’s pelvis close to the pommel and saddle front. With some practice, you can actually learn to see this. If in doubt, roll a pencil on a correctly balanced saddle seat, and see where it lands. If it lands closer to the pommel than the cantle, you’re probably looking at a forward-balanced saddle.
2. A close-contact feel through the thigh and leg. On French and Italian saddles, that’s often achieved by recessing the stirrup bars deeply into the saddle’s tree.
3. A broad base of support across the seat bones. You know that broad, flared-out part of the saddle seat where your pelvis and butt parks? On popular French and Italian saddles, that base of support is often as wide as 26 to 28 cm, or roughly 10 to 11 inches. That’s much wider than it is on old-fashioned saddles from the 1980s and 1990s.
4. A high pommel arch. These saddles tend to have high, vee-shaped pommel arches. That’s good for accommodating bigger withers, but remember that it’s only half the battle. The real work is done down in the panels, filling in gaps behind the withers and lifting the saddle up away from the spine.
5. Thin-cut, luxurious leathers. Ah, this is a tricky one for a budget. For super-high-end saddles, saddlers can choose the very finest hides. They can afford expensive curing processes that make for strong, but relatively thin, cuts of leather. In the lower price ranges, you see a lot of shortcuts that look the same as these high-end leather tanning processes. But they aren’t the same at all.
I’ll save my full rant on this topic for another blog post, but my point is, you’ll notice something missing in my list of saddle recommendations below. It’s the cheapie brands’ doubled-leather saddles, the ones that I equate to toilet paper. In the $500-$1000 price range, I truly think your money is better spent on grain leather.
If you just have to have decent quality doubled leather, that’s do-able with a slightly bigger budget, perhaps $1000-$2000. So I’ll see you in the next blog post and we’ll talk. Until then, let’s stick with grain leather.
Option 1: Hold Out for a Real Deal, High End French Saddle…for less than $1000
I won’t lie to you. In rare cases, when the moon was in the House of Vega, I’ve bought an Amerigo for $900, a Devoucoux for $844, a Childeric for $700. It can happen if you’re super patient, shop extra hard, and are ready to pounce. But know that the magic mix for a finding high-end French/Italian saddle under $1000 is not all wine and roses. It’s usually this:
- a much older saddle, like 10+ years old
- a private seller, not a tack store, who needs cash fast
- a buyer who will buy without a trial or return period
- a buyer who’s willing to move fast.
In short, these are high-risk, high-reward transactions. And in general, the older the high-end saddle brand, the more likely you are to see it in this price range. For example, Butet and Hermes have been popular for a long time. You see them a lot in the sub-$1000 range.
But Devoucoux and Antares became more popular around the turn of the millennium. You see those less often in the sub-$1000 market. Ditto with Amerigo, which only became “hot” in the last 10 years or so.
And CWD, Voltaire, and Meyer are all very new kids on the block, so they’re extra exceptionally unicorn-y in the sub-$1000 range. The exception might be a model with a broken tree or other damage that will quickly raise your repair bill over $1000.
The Real Deal You Might Actually See Under $1000, Pretty Often: Older PJ Saddles
You’ll see quite a few older PJ saddles (sometimes called PJ Delgrange saddles) in this price range. They’re a good pick for a Broke Girl. But there’s three persnickety things you should know about PJ brand before you buy, because otherwise you’re gonna get hella confused when you shop:
- The PJ name has been sold to another saddler, so these older PJs I’m talking about have little/nothing in common with the newer PJs. If you need a contemporary “comp” for the old PJs, the saddle maker who used to make the PJs is now selling under the brand name Bruno Delgrange. Delgranges are lovely, but they’re very hard to find for less than $2000, even on the used market. Here’s the equivalency between old PJs and new Delgranges:
- Old PJ Lite = Delgrange Athena
- Old PJ Pro = Delgrange Partition
- Old PJ Original = Delgrange Virtuose
- You’re gonna see newer PJ saddles, and they’re a totally different brand and beast than the older PJs. Have you ever had a favorite food, and then it got sold to some big food conglomerate like Kraft or whatever, and suddenly it didn’t taste the same? Yeah, that’s sorta what happened with the new PJs. The newer PJs are interesting saddles in their own right, but they are not similar in ride experience to the old PJs and the newer Bruno Delgranges. But on the upside, the new owners of PJ introduced some nice budget options that were designed to retail around $2000, so you do occasionally see the cheaper new PJs (like the PJ USA) in the $1000-$2000 range. We’ll talk about those in the next installment of this series, where the Broke Girl gets a little richer. But for now, let’s get back to sub-$1000 saddles.
- Suppose you’ve found one of these marvelous old PJs under $1000. BE CAREFUL with the seat and flap sizing! The seats on the old PJs tends to run very very small, so if in doubt, buy up a size or two. Also, in the old PJ line, the flap lengths are relative to the seat size. That means a number 3 flap on a 17.5″ saddle isn’t the same length as a number 3 flap on an 18″ saddle, even though they’re both called number 3 flaps. Yes, weird, and totally diferent from some other brands were a 3 is a 3 is a 3 no matter the seat size. For more on this, check out the Delgrange section of High End Used Saddles’ Saddle Brand Guide.
Option 2: Buy a Lesser-Known High-End European Brand, like Tolga or Zaldi
Over in Europe, there are gobs of French- and Italian-style saddle brands that rarely appear on the US market. And that means they don’t resell well in the US because most buyers don’t know what they’re looking at…but they’re every bit as nice as the famous French brands.
For example, the Belgian brand Tolga is crazy nice for the price and is styled like a French saddle. From a distance, or even up close, you could mistake a Tolga for a French Butet or Luc Childeric. But US buyers haven’t generally heard of Tolga. So they’re cheap on the US used market. Google ’em. They’re out there, and they’re nice.
Zaldi, a Spanish brand, is another lesser-known player on the U.S. market. The Zaldi Star, in particular, is a sleeper hit with some hunter/jumper riders. The older Zaldi’s often go for $1000 or less and tend to be much higher quality than the newer stuff. The new stuff is okay for the price, but the old stuff is comparable to the much-storied early Pessoas, the ones that were luxurious and marvelous.
There’s also Verhan, which somehow hasn’t caught on much in the US and can sometimes be found under $1000. Although Verhan is technically an American brand that manufactures in England, the saddles are very Italian in design. No surprise there since Verhan was founded by people who use to work for the Italian brand, Prestige (more on Prestige in the sub-$1000 range, in a moment.) The Verhan Todd Minikus, in particular, is pretty common on the used market. It’s a nice choice for shorter-legged riders who like a medium-deep to deep seat. Verhans tend to be wool flocked, too, if that’s important to you.
…but here’s one knockoff brand that should make you go “hmm”
In this price range, though, look carefully before deciding to buy a Pariani. A real Pariani is an exquisite Italian saddle brand that sells for $4500+ when new. But a few years ago, Pariani made a contract arrangement with the saddle brand M. Toulouse, to sell cheap Toulouse saddles under the Pariani name. So if you’re shopping in the $0-$1000 range and you see a “Pariani,” there’s a very good chance that it’s one of these Toulouses branded as a Pariani.
They’re a step up from the usual Toulouses,–better leather and better construction, comparable to the Toulouse Pro lineup that is currently being retailed between $1500 and $1800. But it is not, under any circumstances, a $4500+ original Italian saddle. Buy a “Pariani by Toulouse” if it suits your tastes, just buy it with open eyes, knowing that it’s not the Italian deal of the century.
Option 3: Buy a Discontinued Saddle Gem that Looks, and Rides, like a French or Italian Saddle
Saddle brands come and go…and when they go, they tend to plummet in value. That’s good for sub-$1000 buyers because you can get a lot of saddle for your money. And it’s doubly good because discontinued saddles don’t always catch other buyers’ eyes.
Discontinued Gem I: The Old-Style Philippe Fontaine Saddles
To be clear, I am talking about the Philipe Fontaine Diane, Renee, Danielle, and Taylor. I am not talking about the later-issued Philippe Fontaine Lyon or Orleans. For this conversation, all you need to know is that the Lyon and Orleans are more Swiss/German in design. But the earlier Diane, Renee, Danielle, and Taylor were French in design.
So before we talk about the saddles, let’s talk about Philippe Fontaine. Philippe Fontaine is a contract product line owned by Stubben. Stubben is a German brand that builds mid-to-high-end saddles that are very, well, German. But again, Philippe Fontaine is a contract product line, so they are not “Stubbens” in name or in build.
It’s sort of like how Pepsi owns Tropicana Orange Juice. Tropicana Orange Juice doesn’t taste or look like Pepsi. Right? Same idea here with Stubben and Philippe Fontaine. Stubben owns Philippe Fontaine. But Phillipe Fontaine saddles are not Stubbens.
Anyway. This first run of Phillippe Fontaines–the Diane, Renee, Danielle, and Taylor–were blatant knockoffs of high-end French saddles. They were designed to capture a piece of the entry-level market that lusts after true French brands, like CWD, while retailing at $999-$1200.
And how close did they get? Well, I don’t know if Stubben purposely designed the PF Diane to look like a $4500+ Delgrange Virtuose. But, uh, just look at the pictures:
Now granted, like I said, the Philippe Fontaines were still $1000 saddles. And if you picked them over with a fine tooth comb, you could where costs were cut. For example, these Phillippe Fontaine saddles were made with a thick, sturdy grain leather that had been sanded smooth, not a thin high-end cut of hide that didn’t need to be corrected with sanding. The girth billets were cheap stamped Indian leather. The foam in the panels wasn’t the high-end latex memory foams that you’d find in a true high-end saddle.
But for the price, the Philippe Fontaines of yore were a heck of a bargain. The leather was very serviceable and broke in to be nice and supple, and they nailed the overall architecture of a high-end French saddle. If you’ve ever had Trader Joe’s Four-Buck Chuck wine and compared it to a really good $30 bottle of wine, that’s how a Philippe Fontaine Diane compares to a Delgrange Virtuose. They’re both nice to drink on a Friday night, and one may remind you of the other, but you don’t kid yourself that they’re in the same league.
The Diane, in my opinion, was the best of the bunch. It was a fantastic saddle for long-legged riders with withery horses. Most people I know who own a Diane will not part with it.
The other Phillippe Fontaines in this original run had the same tree and panels as the Diane. Each of them, however, had a different cut to the flap. For example, the Danielle:
When you see these older Philippe Fontaines on the used market, they generally go for $600-$1000. The Diane is generally the most expensive of the bunch, because it’s such a fine saddle for high-withered horses and long-legged riders.
One thing to know about these old-style Phillippe Fontaines: the trees ran pretty narrow. I would advise most folks to look for a Philippe Fontaine in “wide,” which fits more like a medium-wide in most high-end French brands. Don’t buy a Phillippe Fontaine “medium” unless your horse is actually a medium narrow in most other brands.
Discontinued Gems, Part II: Dominus, Cobra, Porsche, and Jaguar by Harry Dabbs
So there’s this guy, Peter Menet. You may have heard of him. Or at least you’ve heard of his opus magnum, the $5000+ premium Italian saddle brand Amerigo. Or maybe you’ve heard of Amerigo’s cheaper cousin, Vega by Amerigo.
Before Peter Menet designed Amerigo and Vega, he designed a few saddles for Harry Dabbs. Harry Dabbs is a British manufacturer that’s been in business for 35+ years. They make some saddles under their own name, like the Harry Dabbs True Brit (<–not a French-style saddle). But they also make product lines for other tack brands, and they sell some of their stuff under other names.
That’s what happened with Dominus, Cobra, Porsche, and Jaguar. They were all made by Harry Dabbs. The first three (Dominus, Cobra, Porsche) were designed by Peter Menet. Jaguar, which came out a little later, also bears the design influences of forward-balanced Italian tack.
In short, this is where Menet tested out certain saddle design elements. Elements that would later become associated with Amerigo and Vega. For example, excepting some of the Jaguars, most of the Dominus/Cobra/Porsche/Jaguar saddles are wool flocked. They have forward balance points. In most cases, they have a “look” that’s reminiscent of high-end Italian tack.
To be clear, these were mid-range saddles, not high-end saddles. They were never meant to compete quality-wise with the Devoucouxs or Butets of the world. But they were certainly serviceable. If these saddles were on the market today (which they’re not), I would ballpark their retail prices around $2000-$2500.
So what’s the catch? The catch is that these saddles are older–often 10 to 15 years old–and were only built to a mid-range standard, so some of them are falling apart. The ones that received good care are still alive and thriving. But the years have been very unkind to others. These are not brands that I would buy sight unseen, unless there was a great return policy. But if you can find one in good shape, and you’re convinced that the tree and wool flocking are solid, go for it.
Buy Discontinued III: The Elusive BdH (Bruno de Heusch) by Dover Saddlery
Ah, the BdH. People who know this brand are sighing wistfully as they read this section. People who don’t know this brand, prepare to dream big.
Once upon a time, Dover Saddlery sold a saddle lineup called the Bruno de Heusch saddles. They’ve been discontinued, since about 2007–2008. The Bdh line was a fantastic set of knockoffs for high-end French tack. Like, if you didn’t know better, you could have mistaken these for real-deal high-end saddles.
In reality, these saddles retailed around $2000-$2400. So they were designed for a mid-range market and built to that quality standard. Still, for the price, they were very hard to beat.
You almost never see these on the used market. But when you do, they go fast, and that’s because they’re a keeper. If you find one, snatch it up.
Buy Discontinued IV: One Prestige, Two Prestige, Red Prestige, Blue Prestige
There’s a Dr. Seuss joke in there, somewhere. Anyway, I’ll just borrow this from myself, written a few years ago on Chronicle of the Horse forums:
Once upon a time, Prestige made a budget lineup of saddles. They called it the “Hippos” lineup. That lineup included saddles called the Hippos Red Star, Hippos Golden Star, and Hippose Blue Star.
You still see the Prestige Golden Star, now and then, on the used market. Good little saddle, if you can find it.
But more likely, you’re going to see the Prestige Hippos Red Star, going under its later name: the Prestige Red Fox.
The Red Fox is an interesting little saddle. It’s got many of the virtues of a traditional Prestige, like a user-adjustable tree. But it’s built to a mid-range/entry-level standard. It has thicker and slicker leather than a higher-end Prestige. It also has a pretty straight cut to the flap.
But the Red Fox is still a lot of saddle for the money, especially under $1000. It’s a perfect storm: a high-end maker like Prestige, which made a product to mid-range standards to capture the $2200-ish price market, and then discontinued that product later. Voila, you get the Prestige Red Fox.
Incidentally, if you raise your budget to even just $1500, a few more Prestiges become available. For example, you start to see the Prestige Nona Garson and the Prestige Hunter Classic. But that’s a story for another blog post, hmm?
Buy the Stuff that People Call the “Poor Man’s Butet”: Heythrop Heritage, Judy’s Tack Shop, or the Northrun Ashland I and II
So, there’s this whole crop of saddles that people often call the “Poor Man’s Butet.” To be clear, the term “Poor Man’s Butet” is one I’ve heard from other folks, mostly in the hunter/jumper world. It’s not a term I made up, and it’s not a term I necessarily agree with.
Because while Butet is a very nice French brand, the saddles often called “Poor Man’s Butet” are not very French in design at all. To be honest, I think these three brands look and ride more like an old-fashioned high-end English saddle. Think of the Crosbys of yesteryear, the really lovely ones from the 1990s.
But the truth is, people who lust after French saddles do buy “Poor Man’s Butets” quite a bit. And some of them are pretty good deals, in terms of bang for your buck.
You’ll also notice that Beval saddles, which are made in Argentina and are based loosely on the design of Butet saddles, aren’t here in the “Poor Man’s Butet” section. They’re down below, in the next section.
Anyway. If you don’t mind owning a British-styled saddle that is commonly (mis?)understood as a French type of saddle…here are your options.
Heythrop Heritage – A British-made, wool-flocked saddle. Excellent quality; you will probably be blown away when you open the box and see what you got for $1000 or less. The design is, indeed, somewhat reminiscent of a high-end Beval saddle, like perhaps the Beval Natural. But I wouldn’t say it’s reminiscent of Butet, personally. It’s designed for a horse with a very straight topline. In short, great saddle, but not what I’d call French or Italian in influence.
Judy’s Tack Shop – Judy’s Tack Shop is an actual place, in Tennessee. But at one point, they ordered a contract lineup of saddles that many compared to Butet in design and ride experience. Again, I personally think it’s more like a great old-fashioned British saddle. But suit yourselves, kids.
Incidentally, if you Google this brand, you’ll read about a nasty legal kerfuffle with the purveyor of Judy’s Tack shop in 2012. But since we’re talking about used saddles that you’d probably be buying from a third party, not from Judy’s Tack Shop, you won’t be caught up in any of that nonsense. If in doubt, buy your Judy’s Tack Shop saddle used.
Northrun Ashland I and II – Northrun is a good little tack brand based in Ashland, Virginia. They still manufacture new saddles, but on a sub-$1000 budget, we’re talking about used Northruns. People who buy this brand are very loyal to it–and to their credit, the quality is great for the price. Like I said above, I personally think these fit and ride more like a British saddle, but they certainly have the surface aesthetics of old-fashioned French saddles, a la Butet. This brand’s saddles do vary in their fit and curvature over time, so be sure to evaluate the saddle in front of you, not assume that the one Northrun you saw “that one time” will look like the one you buy sight unseen off Ebay. Also, just FYI, the tree on Northruns tends to run quite narrow. If in doubt, size up.
Buy The Stuff Everybody’s Actually Heard Of: Pessoa, Butet, and Knockoffs Thereof
I won’t go too deep here, but the truth is, most people who want a French-like ride under $1000 end up buying a Pessoa or a Beval. They’re both Argentine-made brands. For the record, there is nothing inherently wrong with that–in fact, stay tuned for my next post, where I fangirl all over a particular Argentine-made saddle that is a dead ringer for high-end French saddles. But meh, honestly, this post was about lesser-known gems. And since most people are well versed in Pessoa or Beval, I’ll save the geekout about those brands for another day. If you really want it, you’d best join the mailing list and pester me to write about your brands of choice, mmmkay?
So there you have it! A bunch of lesser-known gems that may help you achieve a French-or-Italian-like ride on a very small budget.
Whew, that was quite a geekout. Time to go riding!
But before you and I head out to the barn, you should make sure you don’t miss future posts like this at The Saddle Geek by getting on the Saddle Geek mailing list and nab a copy of our English Saddle Brands List. That way, you won’t miss any of our new and awesome content here at The Saddle Geek. Thanks for reading!