There are numerous different types of saddles, all designed for specific purposes. Within the two broad families of English and Western saddles, saddles can be found for everything from equitation to police work, and there are other types of saddles which do not belong to these families. It is important to select the right saddle for a task, and to ensure that it is fitted well for both rider and horse; the wrong saddle can be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
Most people divide types of saddles into two families: English and Western. Western saddles are characterized by the high saddle horn and broad seat, with big stirrups and a wide tree, or support, which is designed to make the saddle comfortable for the horse. English saddles tend to be more flat, with a reduced or absent horn and long saddle flaps. English saddles are also more padded than Western saddles, allowing for the use of a light pad, rather than a bulky pad or blankets.
The basic English saddle is known as an eventing or all-purpose saddle. It is designed to balance the rider in a position which will work on the flat and over fences, with long saddle flaps, but no padding at the knees, in contrast with a jumping saddle, which has padding to protect the rider's legs over fences and a design which brings the weight of the rider forward for better balance. A dressage saddle is lightweight and thin, maximizing contact between rider and horse and ensuring more control, while a racing saddle is extremely small, more like a postage stamp than a saddle, so that it takes up a minimal amount of weight.
A cutback or saddle seat saddle has a design which positions the rider in the back of the saddle, encouraging the horse to move dynamically with the front legs. These saddles are used to show gaited breeds. Polo players use the polo saddle, a type of English saddle designed to allow horse and rider to maneuver quickly.
Among Western saddles, the basic saddle type is the pleasure or ranch saddle. It is also possible to see roping saddles, which provide more support for roping, along with barrel racing saddles, which keep the rider secure as the horse moves around an obstacle course at high speed. Cutting saddles are small and lightweight so that the horse can twist and turn with ease, working with its rider to separate livestock from a herd.
Some specialized types of saddles fall into neither of these categories. The Australian Stock Saddle, for example, has a design similar to that of a Western saddle, but no horn. Military and police saddles have a similar design, intended for long wear and comfort for horse and rider. Some endurance riders use special endurance saddles which distribute the rider's weight across the back. Treeless saddles lacking the central support of classical saddles are also available, along with bareback pads, which provide lots of contact between horse and rider.
It is also possible to find pack saddles, saddles designed specifically for horses, mules, and donkeys who carry goods, rather than people. In some parts of Asia, people use Asian saddle designs, which often include wood in a chair-like design which provides support and stability to the rider, although it may be less comfortable for the horse. These types of saddles are often highly ornamental, with decorations made in lacquer and precious metals for formal riding.
Finally, the sidesaddle is a saddle in a class of its own: it has two horns, allowing the rider to loop his or her legs around the horns to sit sideways, rather than riding astride. Sidesaddles may have horns, but they most certainly are not Western, sharing many more traits with English saddles. Sidesaddles also come in different styles for jumping, equitation, and pleasure.