1. Light - under 25lbs
2. Under $2,000 (preferably under $1,500)
3. Built for a gaited horse
4. Deep seated, no horn, English stirrup placement & no extemporaneous leather
5. Somewhat customizable
6. Reputable Company
I looked at: treeless saddles (all different varieties), Trail Masters, Tuckers, Crest Ridge Saddles, Sycamore Creek Saddlery, and many more. I put hours into comparing, reading reviews and investigating the options available with each company.
I tossed treeless out after a few weeks of reading - they're Murphy's Law magnets. Being moderately to completely adjustable, there are too many integral components to fiddle with to get the saddle to fit. IMHO that's the saddle maker's job, not mine & I'm not about to make a muck of it! Also, if the saddle was reasonably priced, it had lukewarm reviews and warnings regarding poor distribution of weight - or - if the price was sky-high, it had rave reviews but similar warnings regarding back protection. If I have to buy a +$200 pad to ensure my saddle will stay on and not harm my horse, then the technology just doesn't support the theory yet. (YMMV)
Trail Masters... I yearn for one of their saddles but the >$2,000 price tag is simply unobtainable. I like their rigging style with the cord running the perimeter of the tree creating equal tension on the entire saddle. The styles are appealing and the thought of a saddle made with a woman's structure in mind was extremely tempting. I couldn't find any egregious reviews and most folks were thrilled with their saddles. So, I've filed them away amongst my "WANT!" bookmarks for better days.
Tuckers... pass. I just couldn't get into the hype about Tucker saddles. They're moderately customizable, pricey - for a mass produced product - and just didn't do anything for me when I tried them at tack stores.
Crest Ridge Saddlery... almost had me, but just didn't pan out. They offer a nice variety of saddles within the $900 - $2,000+ range that are customizable. They have consistently good feedback and are American made. What's not to like, right? Well, I had the opportunity to check out the saddles at Equine Affaire this spring and my original top pick fell a little flat. The saddles were as nice as advertised & the staff was courteous. However, I wasn't 100% comfortable in the saddle I could afford and I didn't relish settling on the 1/2 cordura version. So, I spent a bit of time talking with them about options and such. Then they asked me who else I was looking at... the owner wasn't overly couth regarding her opinion of her competition. She was dismissive and fairly condescending when I asked her to explain how her saddles' were better. It was truly disappointing. I firmly believe that if you say your product is superior to a competitor's then you should be able to defend your position. The rest of her staff did a nice job of damage control but it just put me off, so I tabled them to second choice.
Sycamore Creek Saddlery ... I cannot say enough good things about this company. Their saddles are light, comfortable, utterly customizable (i.e. I sketched the saddle I wanted & now I've got it) and affordable. Tony was wonderful to work with and made sure I got what I wanted. Heck, the hardest part was the waiting - which you'll have with any custom saddle, so that really isn't a complaint. The saddles are made in Columbia but the quality and workmanship are excellent; I've already put 40ish miles on the saddle and I can't find any faults. It fits Freedom extremely well and I no longer have the grinding knee pain I had when riding in my western. I've even used it on Gambler and it fits well - so custom doesn't mean "one horse only". Final price? ~$700.00 for the saddle, breast collar, girth, crupper & shipping. Yes, I was skeptical regarding the quality with that price tag, but it really is a nice saddle. Regarding the comparison to Crest Ridge: I could buy 2 complete rigs from Sycamore for the price of 1 saddle (no accessories) of similar style by Crest Ridge - I just couldn't ignore that side of the equation.* Plus, Tony's attitude & return policy / satisfaction principles made the choice easy. So, I'm tickled pink with my saddle but pissed as hell that the weather won't cooperate so I can get on trail!
*For the gunnies reading this that may equate this to buying a really cheap holster vs one of Dennis' really nice custom ones ... it's more like having Dennis' twin set up shop outside the US and making holsters with the advantage of cheaper overhead.
** Again for any .gov out there - I paid for my gorram saddle - so bugger off!