Everyone has an opinion on what feels comfortable to them in a saddle seat. Some folks like a plush cushy padded seat to make their ride more pleasurable. Some prefer the other end of the extreme and want nothing between their tushy and the ground seat but a piece of skirting leather.
I believe the latter is the way to go. As a craftsman, I spend quite a bit of time applying pieces of leather and sculpting/skiving each piece to insure the best possible balance and feel in each and every one of our saddle. The last thing I want to do is cover up my hard work with a thick layer of synthetic foam that will completely change the way the saddle rides.
For the most part, consumers have grown accustomed to seeing saddles of all style with padded seats. This has become the norm and because of that many folks judge the quality of the ride by the type of padding used instead of the quality of the ground seat the saddle has… in fact, many consumers have a limited understanding of what a ground seat even is much less what a properly crafted ground seat feels like.
If the ground seat is so important then why do so many manufacturers cover them up with padded seats? The answer has two parts. First of all, many manufactured saddles’ ground seats don’t get much attention in the build process. Sometimes there isn’t even any kind of leather ground seat installed at all and the balance and feel of the saddle seat is left up solely to the tree maker… This seldom creates a seat that is properly fit for the rider. With that, the padded seat is used to cover up poor craftsmanship in the ground seat and hopefully create a feel that is good enough to get the saddle from the sales rack into your tack room before the padding breaks down and you’re left with a poorly seated saddle.
The second reason so many saddles have padded seats is due to the more economical way manufacturers cut and install the final seat in their saddles. The seat of a saddle is the biggest piece of leather that is cut in the entire saddle build and therefore the most expensive. In order to cut cost some, the majority of manufacturers cut and install what is called a “three piece” or “split” seat. Basically, instead of one big piece they cut two seat jockeys (left and right) that they skive and sew together in the middle of the saddle seat and then sew the padded seat over the top of the junction giving the finished product the appearance of a full seat. Again, the padding they use covers the overlap and any bumps where the two jockeys come together… at least until the padding breaks down.
Padded seats definitely have a place in certain types of saddles and many manufacturers have a great seat in their saddles despite the three piece seat. We often install padded seats in our saddles (no three piece seats allowed in our shop though) if the customer request it. My only issue with them is the fact that the seat will change some over time due to the padding breaking down and also its something else to wear out and need replacing. Since I work so hard to insure the quality of the ground seat in my saddles, I use a very thin foam that limits the change initially in my ground seat.
Many folks think the more padding the seat has the more comfortable it will be on longer rides. This is not true at all. A thick amount of padding lifts the rider out of the saddle to a position of being on top of the saddle instead of “in” the saddle allowing for a more balanced ride. If the ground seat is done correctly, a hard seated saddle is much more comfortable and allows consistency over the life of the saddle.
If you want some proof of my opinion, look at the saddles that full time cowboys ride on big ranches where they ride from morning till night… you won’t see padded seats in many of those saddles. Cowboys who are in a saddle all day seven days a week swear by hard seats.