Do you have a preference? I'm saddle hunting for the first time. I'm currently horseless although I have the opportunity to ride several different horses that are very differently built. I would like something that's got decent quality and a little easy on the pocket book and can fit a wide variety of horses.
I have two wintec saddles for my horse. One all purpose and one dressage. I don't have a big budget and also am hoping he will build up some muscle so will need a different size. I can change the size without replacing the saddle, which I could not afford to do. Since they are mostly synthetic material I was somewhat unsure of how that would work out at first, coming from a more Western backround, but now that I have been riding in them for a while, I am happy with them. They are pretty low maintenance that way and are fine for what I am doing, which is schooling shows and lessons.
I have a Collegiate leather convertible tree dressage saddle for Miss Mare. I purpously bought a convertible due to the fact I have no idea How.Big. She will get. One year we had no withers now we have almost shark fins. It's totally good enough for now, maybe not as padded as the fancy saddles but I have my own padding.
I have the Pessoa GenX with the exchangeable gullet. I got it for similar reasons - I was leasing a horse from a trainer who really wanted me to have my own saddle (which, obviously, had to fit that horse) and I had sold all of mine when I was horseless. I didn't want to spend a ton of money working around a horse that wasn't mine, but also wanted a decent saddle that had some hope of fitting another horse or two down the road. For those purposes, it's great, and I love the saddle. It's certainly true that the gullet isn't the end of saddle fit, so bear in mind that there's no promise of it fitting everyone.
As far as changing the gullet, I'm not sure it's not something I'd want to do multiple times a day. It's not especially difficult, but it is sort of time-consuming and not how I'd want to spend my time between rides at the barn. I've also only done it a couple of times (when trying to figure out which one fit the dang QH with the high withers and wide shoulders) so maybe it gets faster with more practice.
And for the record, it never really fit the high-withered, wide-shouldered QH all that well. Owner/trainer had me keep using it but ride with a zillion pads under it like I was the damn princess and the pea.
If the pony spits venom in your face or produces a loud roar, it is probably not a pony. Find another. -The Oatmeal
I have a Pessoa Nelson (it's an oddball model) with the exchangeable gullet and I am very happy with how it fits my narrow TB. It's easy to exchange the gullet plates. I have ridden in others at the barn and found them comfortable for me.
A helmet saved my life.
2014 goal: learn to ride like TheHorseProblem, er, a barn rat!
Note: Changing the gullet size does not guarantee fit in other areas.
That said, if the panels and general tree shape are appropriate, the opportunity to switch out or adjust the gullet width can be nice, especially if your horse changes condition/weight throughout the year.
The M. Toulouse Genesis tree is particularly easy to adjust (no taking the saddle apart, just reach under a flap in the channel to rotate a wheel).
As a general answer, the Collegiate Convertible Diploma. It's the leather cousin to the Wintec Close Contact and also a cheaper cousin of the Bates Caprilli Close Contact, although it more closely resembles the medium-deep-seated Bates Caprilli CCs of yesteryear than the current shallow-seated Bates Caprilli CCs.
The runners-up would be the Pessoa GenX XCH and the Ovation Competition Showjumper XCH. As someone has already mentioned, they are not quite as generous in their fit as the Wintec CC and the Collegiate CC. I don't mean to imply that the Wintec CC and the Collegiate CC fit everything well--they certainly don't!--but they have a slightly higher pommel arch and slightly thicker panels that make them a little more forgiving of big withers. They are also more flat from side to side whereas the GenX and Competition Showjumper are a liiiiiiiitle more angular in the panel shape.
I am splitting hairs here, and they're all great saddles for a horseless rider. But if it were my problem, I'd be choosing between two saddles: the Collegiate Convertible Diploma at around $1000 retail + the Kent and Masters Jump at around $1500 retail. The Kent and Masters is a really nice saddle, but you said "easy on the pocketbook" and I'm trying to be respectful of that. I also think it's wise to budget for a shimmable sheepskin half pad to complement your adjustable gullet saddle.
Finally, ditto SweetMutt's advice that these saddles are not designed to be adjusted frequently or easily. Most people take about 10 minutes of annoyance and irritation to get it done, and even if you master that process, the saddle tree points can only take so much in-and-out over the course of their lives. They just don't build $1000 saddles to a survive-a-beating standard. Indeed, the one thing I can say in defense of the Pessoa GenX XCH and the Ovation Showjumper XCH is that Pessoa offers a lifetime tree warranty and consistently stands behind it. Wintec/Bates has a 5-year guarantee on their tree, but their warranty claim process is cumbersome and you'll definitely want to have your original receipt to make it happen. So if you intend to buck the advice given here and adjust the gullet all. the. time, a Pessoa/Ovation saddle might pay for itself in warranty work.
I have a Collegiate Alumni, which has fit the horses I've ridden in it fine. I do like the adjustability, although it's not easy to do. Another rider at our barn got a Toulouise adjustable as she outgrew her other saddle before selling her old horse, and it's fit both of her boys well. I think they're a good option.
I have the Bates Caprilli CC. I was riding for a lady with several arabs and my horse was really narrow. Obviously one saddle wasn't going to fit all. Or was it? I searched and searched. I didn't have much money to spend. I looked at all the brands available, I knew of the wintec but I wanted a leather saddle and more importantly, chestnut or whatever they call that color. This was about 4 years ago and there weren't as many choices, in my probe range anyway. I selected a bates, tried saddles at my local tack shop and then scoured EBay daily for THE saddle. It popped up one day, of course the owner was asking a couple hundred too much. Luckily no one bought the saddle and I talked her down a bit. The saddle was barely used, she was just getting out of horses.
Lucky for me the medium tree seems to fit most, even my narrow warmblood! I have never had a problem and love this saddle. Now it's no Pessoa, but it's far better than my Wintec dressage saddle. I figured if I was going to have a saddle for ten years but not necessarily the same horse, I needed something that was adjustable. Best buy. I've ridden several horses in this saddle and it looks as good as the day I got it.
I have the wintec close contact and i love it. I agree with the people who caution about not changing the gullet on ANY of them too much. But I like that I can put the wide gullet in for the spring and have it fit everyone I need it for (although some of the narrower horses get some shims) and then once everyone is fitter and fuller, I can put the extra wide gullet in. I plan on getting a winctec dressage saddle later on.
Chestnut Run Stable & Zeltt Racing Stable www.Zeltt.com
Standing "Tiz Brian" at Stud, 16.1 h bay TB by Tiznow
The Collegiate Alumni, which three at our barn have now and all love, might work best for those with a shorter hip to knee as the flap is straighter. I wouldn't want to change the flap every day, but once in awhile is really no problem. You can find them barely used for $6-700 if you look.
The Alumni had the cheapest leather of any I have seen. If you are tall forget it. I tried one and sent it back.
They take an unbelieveable amount of oil, but after mine was well conditioned and broken in, it's quite OK, soft and durable. I admit that when I first saw it it looked like beige cardboard, but now it's glowing, between oakbark and havana (thanks, Walsh Oil) and is very grippy.