The Western Saddle
I’ve said that, for many people, western riding is nothing more than putting a western saddle on a horse and getting on with it. But, as I hope you will see from looking around this site, there’s more to it than that. The western saddle is the result of ages of development going all the way back to the Spanish vaqueros.
The western saddle is defined by the comfortable working needs of horse and rider doing a long day’s work together. It covers a wide area of the horse’s back and so spreads the load to produce less pressure in pounds per inch. It has a comfortable seat that supports the rider in ways that an English saddle cannot. And stirrups that have a wider tread. Combined with the traditional Cuban heeled cowboy boot, they reduce the risk that the rider’s feet will slip through in an awkward moment.
It has rather a lot more to it in components than an English saddle (as the diagram below shows). But a good saddle will last its owner a lifetime and, because most of us have a lifetime commitment to our horse, it’s as well to take great care in selecting a saddle that fits your horse well. It must be comfortable for you and appropriate for the activity you intend of it. Much of that will be a matter of personal choice and it’s as well, if you can, to try out a number of different types and conformations of saddle before you make your final choice. We’ll be talking here about the key areas to consider towards that end.
Various types – saddler’s first question
It has to be said from the start that, of course, the first definition of a western saddle will be according to its type. So, you have a reining saddle, a pleasure saddle, a barrel racing saddle, a roper and so on. The first question your saddler will ask you is what you are going to do with it.
But, because we are setting out to do a lot of different things with our versatile horse, you will not get a saddle that is ideal for all disciplines. For example, if you roped a cow using a barrel racing saddle, you might well find that the horn would rip right off. Always assuming you could even dally a rope around it!
On the other hand, you can still race round a barrel course on a roping saddle but would be accepting a handicap of about 20 pounds in weight to someone using a barrel racing saddle. These things count when you are competing at the very top of professional barrel racing but you will find it will not make a great deal of difference when you are competing outside of the professional milieu. So, go for a saddle that’s fit for the most strenuous class you enter and it will be fine for all the rest.
Western Saddler’s second question
The second question the saddler will ask will be what type of tree you want. Resist the temptation to start talking about the sterling qualities of English Oak and know that, at the heart of every good saddle is a good tree. It is to a saddle what the chassis is to a motor vehicle. Everything else hangs off it and it needs to be the right shape to fit your horse’s back. It must be close enough fitting to be able to keep from moving around but not so close that it restricts the horse’s action at his shoulders. If you have got the right tree for your horse, you will be able to put the saddle up on his back and climb up into it without doing up the cinches. Although I hasten to say that I don’t recommend it to test saddle fit!
The Western Saddle Tree
There’s loads in books about tree design and this is no place to get into the detail of that. I couldn’t anyway and I take no shame in that. I’ve seen top saddle makers glaze over when a specialist tree maker starts talking about rocker, twist and flare, gullet angles and so on. I’ll make do with the illustration below and the advice to avoid at all costs buying a “treeless” saddle. No matter what the seller blandishes you with concerning comfort, a treeless saddle cannot spread the load in the way it should. And, even, think very carefully about “flexi trees”. They are a compromise that has more to do with economy and mass manufacture than safety and comfort.
Size of the seat
Your next decision is going to be about the size of the seat. Saddle seats measure in inches from the base of the horn to the top of the middle of the cantle. Your size will depend not only upon the size of your posterior but the extent to which you want to move around in the saddle while riding.
Because the position of your bottom is one of the key cues in working a western horse, a degree of room for movement is essential. After that, it’s down to personal preference. Seat size is the main factor but the depth of the seat, its slope and the cantle slope and dish are all relevant as well. Ideally, you should do some riding with someone else’s horse and saddle before you get around to buying your own and will by then have a good idea of the size and shape of seat you want.
Western saddle rigging position
Finally, the rigging position is a matter for careful consideration. This is the location and fit on the saddle of rings to connect the off billet, flank billet and latigos to the saddle. They may be rings, plates or dees and should be good quality material such as stainless steel. The important consideration is where they are attached to the saddle. See the diagram below.
Originally, the “center fire” position was the only one but few saddles are made to that specification these days since the impact of the performance requirements of the various competition disciplines.
The “measurements” here are to do with the relative distance between the center fire position and the full position so that the 7/8 is 7/8 of the way from center fire to full. These alternative positions came about when ropers required a back cinch to hold the back of the saddle down while roping and they then went to a full position for the front cinch to balance the saddle. 7/8 is the most common all around position.
While on the subject of cinches, know that when a saddle has the facility for a back cinch (a purpose built pleasure saddle or a barrel racer may not), competition rules require the cinch fitted. It should always be done up (but not tightly). Then, there should always be a cinch connecting strap in position to keep the back cinch from sliding back to where it’s likely to turn your horse into a bronc!
After that, it’s all down to the depth of your pocket and your personal preference as to the extent of the adornment you have on your saddle. A hand tooled, custom made saddle is a thing of beauty. But beware of going so far down that road that you become reluctant to put the saddle on the horse’s back. After all, a versatility competition arena can become a hectic place and it can be quite a chore after the show getting cow s**t out of all that expensive tooling!