With the show ring in mind- things go in and out of 'style' based on trends. One year it is all about the light oil tack, next year it is dark oil. Tack is expensive. Not all of us can afford to drop a few thousand dollars on a saddle we may ride in a couple of times a month, only to buy another one, just to fit in next year.
Lucky enough, in the English disciplines, there is not so much going on when considering trends. A neat appearance, pretty streamlined in the look and minimal 'bling' at best. A fancy browband, maybe a few stones on the stirrups, I have seen engraved stirrups, earrings, a stock pin and that's about it. Leather color is usually medium oil or havana, dark oil or black. Sometimes you will see a lighter oil or chestnut color, but that's about as light as it gets.
In the western discipline though you often get four choices- light oil, medium, dark and black. I reccomend medium oil since it fits in with the trend of light oil or dark oil and can be used with whatever the latest trend is at the moment. I understand not everyone can change saddles on a whim.
Tooling can be everything from basket weave, floral patterns, acorns, barbed wire trim and a number of other combinations. My personal preferrances here is minimal tooling. Dust and dirt stick everywhere and cleaning saddles with a toothbrush gets old fast and is time consuming. If you have someone else to do it for you or you enjoy it- more power to you.
The seat may be padded or hard, suede, roughout or smooth leather and either flat, slightly angled or one that puts you in one spot and holds you there no matter what. I prefer a little bit of padding, no matter what the intended use for the saddle. Maybe it's just me, but no matter how much extra padding we have on our bodies- it is Never in the right spot. Suede and roughout seats bring a bit of 'grip' to the equation. If you have suede chaps on and you are sitting in a roughout cutting saddle- it is like being glued in place. This can be good if you are in the position you want and need to be in- bad if you aren't. Sometimes a little bit of 'slip' is good, other times a bit of 'grip' is good.
When shopping for a show saddle for the western disciplines, the first place you start is which discipline do you plan on showing in? Western Pleasure, Reining, Cutting, Working Cowhorse, Ranch Versatility, Trail and I'm pretty sure I may have forgotten a few more, but focus on what you want to do and where you intend to go with it. When you get into roping, barrel racing, penning and sorting as well and the many other gymkhana or speed event's- tooling and color no longer matter and neither does how much bling it carries, just that it fits your horse is comfortable to ride in, puts you in or allows you to move into the proper position and holds up for the job or intended purpose.
The next major thing to consider is how the saddle fits your horse. Is the tree wide enough, narrow enough or is it treeless? Is the tree in good shape- not warped, cracked or broken? Sometimes this one can be obvious to the naked eye, other times the minor issues can go undetected and slip past even knowledgeable people.
What is the tree made of- hardwood wrapped in rawhide, hardwood wrapped in fiberglass, just plain fiberglass, flexible composite materials??? Everyone has their preferences here too, but the bottom line is this. The saddle tree (with or without) is pretty much the skeleton or foundation of the saddle. That's where the saddlemaker starts when building their saddle. Where it goes from there is up to them and how they put all of the pieces together, determines what the final product will look like and how useful it will be.