You’ve purchased your first horse, a different horse, or want to try a new style of riding. Do you need a new saddle? Maybe. Saddles must fit both you and your horse, and be appropriate for the riding you plan to do.
Think of it as above and below. Above, the seat size and contour, the height and diameter of the horn, the rigging (the metal rings and straps or “latigos” that snug the saddle onto your horse) and the look of the saddle must suit your tastes, your body and your riding goals. Below, the saddle infrastructure– the shape and angle of the tree, the dimensions of the pommel and gullet, and the length and shape of the skirts need to be comfortable and supportive for your horse, without impeding its movement.
If you’re lucky, your local saddle shop may be owned or staffed by someone like Mont West, who owns The Spotted Mule in Bend, Oregon. In addition to an unbelievable selection of cowboy boots, gorgeous jewelry, and western décor, Mont is a master saddle fitter. Mont helped us make sense of the seemingly unlimited choices and we realized that choosing a saddle is actually quite simple, as long as you remember that you don’t know what you don’t know!
Browse through the sea of saddles in your local tack shop and you’ll see most are labeled with the rider’s seat size (14 to 17 inches, plus half sizes) and the bars which may read regular, wide, quarter horse, semi-quarter, Arab, gaited or draft. The internet is awash with explanations of these specifics and suggestions on how to accurately measure your horse. To make it less confusing, Cowgirl’s saddle experts offer the following advice.
The reality is that saddle sizing is a lot like finding the perfect pair of jeans. There are no industry wide standards and the style and fit can vary widely. A 16 inch saddle seat can feel like a 15 or a 17 depending on the way it has been contoured or padded. The only way to be sure is to try them on!
First, make sure your horse is at an appropriate weight when you start shopping. An underweight rescue horse or pregnant mare should be given time to return to his or her healthy, average size prior to saddle fitting. Second, determine what type of riding you’ll be doing.
Types of Saddles
Barrel Racing Saddles:
Barrel Racing saddles are designed for short term performance rides, and long term comfort is not necessarily a top priority. These saddles are extremely light, with tall horns for holding onto as your horse makes quick, low turns. This saddle is best suited for flat terrain. An extra tall horn may not be ideal for an endurance rider galloping up a steep hill, or a weekend rider jumping obstacles on the trail. Saddles designed for running barrels have seats that are deeper, snugger, and smaller, and are often roughed out for extra “stickiness” in extreme turns.
Saddles for cutting cows usually have a flat, open seat, with lots of room to move, but with high, wide swells to help hold the rider in during agile, lightning fast direction changes. Like barrel racing saddles, cutting saddles have tall, thin horns meant for holding onto. The rigging on a cutter (the combination of metal rings and leather straps that attach to the cinch) is affixed to the leather skirt well below the saddle tree, and it lies very flat. When working cows, the rider sits back and kicks her feet forward, so the stirrups on a cutter are made for free swinging movement, and are held by light, thin fenders.
Reining saddles may look a lot like cutting saddles but there are subtle differences. The fluid circles, figure eights, and abrupt sliding stops required of the reining horse are dependent on accurate interpretation of precise rider cues. Saddles for reining are close contact with low seats, shaped to facilitate the pelvis rollback required when making big stops. In addition, skirts feature cut outs that allow more direct leg communication. The reining saddles lower horn minimizes interference with the cowgirl’s hands and reins when making some of the most difficult horsemanship look almost effortless.
Roping saddles are strong and solid, with tall, sturdy horns. These saddles must literally hold the line when the momentum of a running cow or horse meets the lasso of a successful cowgirl. Whether she’s in a rodeo or a round up, the roper tends to lean forward and stand up in the saddle more than any other rider. The shorter, slick seat of a roping saddle ensures she’s on and off her horse as quickly as she needs to be. Additionally, the rigging of a roping saddle is hard core, with a metal D-ring attached directly to the saddle tree for the ultimate stability.
An extremely popular variation of the all around ranch saddle is the Wade saddle. Named for Clifford Wade, a buckaroo whose family came West on the Oregon Trail, these saddles are made for hard use and serious all day, every day riding. Designed for distributing weight more evenly across the horse’s back, they are an authentic choice for those who like the substantial weight and no frills, working cowboy styling. Wade saddles have a deep dish seat, always of hard leather.
The front of the saddle is minimal, with a smaller, strongly sloped “slick” fork (pommel). The Wade horn, however, is very large in diameter– a homage to the historical (and modern!) buckaroos. The buckaroos used rawhide ropes called riatas that would break if they were wrapped around a skinny horn. Traditional Mexican saddles featured a more practical, thick horn, often wrapped by the cowboy with mule hide for easier dallying. To this day, working ranch riders, and the recreational riders who can afford them, are often seen in a Wade.
If one thinks of Wade saddles like almost indestructible two-ton pickups, then modern trail saddles can be likened to Italian sports cars. Trail saddles have evolved exponentially compared to other saddle styles. Designed for day long rides, they often feature padded seats and some have high seat backs (called cantles) shaped for extra comfort and low back support. Flat rigging built into the skirts keeps tired knees from rubbing raw on cinch buckles or latigos during long trail rides.
Horns are of average height and width, and pommels (the rounded front of the saddle, from which the horn rises) are often full and wide, giving the rider a feeling of security. Options such as stylish tooling, a variety of color choices and beautiful embellishments add to the aesthetic value and are available to please a wide range of tastes.
Perhaps the most notable change in trail saddles has been the development of flexible trees, which transmit the horse’s movement more directly to the rider. An added bonus: saddles with flexible trees are significantly lighter, a welcome benefit for petite cowgirls who ride tall horses. One common misconception is that flexible saddle trees can mold to fit any horse– they don’t. All horses, including those wearing saddles with flexible trees need to be fitted properly.
(Originally published in the November/December 2009 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).