The Western Saddle: Seat

Balance: It is important to understand that to achieve a comfortable and secure seat, the classical rider position is a must. If seated properly, a vertical line can pass down through the rider’s ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle. Your inner ear balance system will tell you that this is a comfortable and secure alignment. Additionally, it allows the shock of movement to be absorbed through the critical joints (ankle, knee, hip) to soften your ride and delay fatigue. (While the rider below may not be in perfect position, she seems well balanced and comfortable on a relaxed horse)

Many riders have unknowingly spent wasted dollars and wasted time with a saddle that is out of balance, blaming their poor outcome on their own lack of skill or poor body build. Many timid or fearful riders suffer from saddle imbalance as well.

If your saddle is ill-fit to the horse and rides too high on his back (saddle is too narrow), your body will tell you that your center of gravity is too high. You will feel “tipsy” and wobbly on top of the horse. (see Saddles)

If the saddle itself is imbalanced or its rigging improper, the act of riding a constantly shifting, constantly rolling horse will cause considerable fatigue – even pain – to both rider and horse.

After deciding the proper saddle fit for your horse, and choosing a saddle that seems to fit your own body build (below), try the saddle in motion.

Check to see that it is balanced side to side. Stand in the stirrups to see that your weight is distributed evenly. Be sure that the stirrup leathers are perpendicular to the ground. Most horses are built unevenly. Adjust the padding for any maladjustment. Many riders have one leg shorter than the other. Be sure that everything is adjusted in harmony with the classical position you need to be balanced.

Rock back and forth. Does it feel secure? Is your horse high in the croup (back) and the saddle throws your weight forward. Does he have a particularly high withers and the saddle throws your weight backward? The rise of the groundseat might not be right for your particular horse’s anatomy.

If all checks out balanced, check to see that the saddle stays in position in motion. Do all of the same exercises above while moving at various gaits.

Fit a Saddle to the Rider: The most common way to fit the saddle to the rider is by seat length. It should firmly support the rider’s seat bones but not be so long that the rider feels insecure nor so short that it throws the rider’s weight forward or presses the thighs into the swells of the saddle.

Measure from the base of the horn to the top center of the cantle. A typical length is 15-1/2″ . This leaves about 3 inches of the bar behind the cantle for good weight distribution of the rider. Larger derriers sometimes need a little larger seat, but don’t use a seat so large that it requires longer bars than your horse’s back can accommodate. A seat larger than 17 inches might be best used on a larger draft-type horse.
saddle seat measurements

If you decide you want a padded saddle (not really necessary if the seat is properly constructed), add 1/2″ to 1″ to the seat measurements to make up for the area of the seat the padding will displace.

The cantle in the rear gives support to the rider’s back and buttocks. (See Saddle Cantle) Too steep and it can bruise your back side. Too shallow and it will give you no support in the case of an unexpected lunge forward. A deep cantle has many advantages. It supports your lower back better over long rides.  It holds the rider in place better which causes less “wobbling” of the rider and less unnecessary wiggling in the saddle on the horse, which can cause soreness.

Most cantles today are about 3-1/2 to 4″ high and have a gentle curve across the top. They do not hug too tightly. A 4″ cantle is usually very good for the average rider. It gives sufficient back support and security for most situations. Persons who ride for extended periods (such as endurance riders) might like a 5″ or 6″ cantle for even more back support.


The Ground Seat is the portion of the saddle you will sit over – astride. It should have a slight rise at the handhold behind the fork, sloping back gently to the cantle. If there is too much rise in the front it will force your weight to the rear of the saddle. A rise that is too steep in the rear will throw your weight forward. Both extremes can make a large saddle feel overly snug.

The groundseat can compensate for your horse’s anatomy. A horse who is high in the croup requires a groundseat that slopes more steeply to the rear so that you are not pitched forward owing to his high fanny. And a horse with an exaggerated withers might need one that slopes upward more steeply to the front to offset the way his withers lean you back.

The Ground Seat should also be carved to match the pelvic arch left-to-right to give firm yet gentle support to your sitting anatomy. An arch that is too high will be like sitting astride a fence rail. One that is too flat will be like sitting astride a whole bench. Neither is comfortable for long periods of time.

Believe it or not, the ground seat is the same for a man or a woman rider.

Saddle Swells: The swells of a saddle have significance to the fit and use. A narrow swell is preferred by most Ropers so that it won’t interfere with the action of the rope. A wider swell is desired by trail riders or riders who ride in rough country or rough horses because it gives a more secure seat to help keep the rider in the saddle. See Saddle Fork

The flaps or fenders of the saddle influence the rider’s leg position and contact with the horse. A rider should be squarely over the horse’s center of balance, and the stirrup placement should be such that the rider remains in balance (not thrown ahead or leaning behind) when putting weight in the stirrups. (see Stirrups)

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