The Western Saddle: Overview

Enlarge Image – Anatomy of a Western Saddle

A saddle is a supportive piece of horse equipment held onto the back of a horse by a cinch or girth and used to give stability and comfort to a rider as well as the horse.

The western saddle has several distinct parts, each one used to enhance the riding experience or to hold the saddle in place during different activities.

picture of a saddle tree

TREE: The most critical part of a horse saddle is the tree: Made of wood or other rigid material, the tree is the “skeleton” of a western saddle. It is used to spread the weight of the saddle and rider over the horse’s back, minimizing the pounds per square inch and minimizing pressure points so that the horse can carry the load in relative comfort over long periods of time.
(A good saddle will spread pressure of a 150 lb rider to about 1.5 Lbs per sq inch)

The tree defines the size and shape of the saddle.

Be sure to read A New Perspective on saddles, trees, and rider positioning. It is very thought provoking.

Wooden Tree or Synthetic Tree?

In recent years saddles have been developed with fiberglass trees, flexible trees, or no trees at all. Traditional saddle trees are made of soft woods such as pine or poplar, as hard woods can crack and splinter under pressure. Additionally, the various rigging straps must be screwed to the tree with considerable strength.

A wooden tree seems to do a better job of holding the rigging than most synthetic trees can. If you want your saddle to outlast your horse, a wooden tree is best. If you want to pass your saddle down as a family heirloom, a wooden tree is best. Certainly working saddles such as roping saddles that will take tremendous stress during roping of cattle are still made with wooden trees for strength.

This picture is of a Mexican saddle in it’s semi-raw state. The tree is showing under the leather strapping with just a leather seat attached over it. The horn is part of the actual tree.

Fibreglass: Saddles made with fibreglass trees are usually less expensive than saddles made with wooden trees, and that is frequently a consideration. Saddles used for trail riding, general weekend pleasure riding or other less saddle-stressing activities can give very impressive service even if made with a fibreglass tree. Sometimes, starting with a less expensive saddle is a good idea if there is any doubt that horseback riding is the sport for you. However, if you purchase a “cheap”, poorly made saddle (regardless of the tree materials) that does not fit you or your horse, horseback riding will definitely be painful and strenuous. A bad saddle could cause you to leave the sport prematurely if it makes your activities unpleasant. Check out the tree, but then check out the other features.

During construction, the wood portions of the saddle tree are covered with wet rawhide that is nailed and laced tight then allowed to dry, adding a smooth surface and strength to the tree. It is then sealed to prevent moisture from affecting the tree covering.

At that point, the rest of the leather is added and the character of the saddle takes shape.

Treeless Saddles: Recently the treeless saddle has gained many supporters. There are pros and cons to using a treeless saddle.

Treeless saddles will tend to slip more. As a barrel racing saddle, for instance, they might be too “slippery” because the tight turns provide a lot of rolling of the horse’s body. However, you can achieve very close contact with your horse owing to the lack of a wooden tree to get in your way – nearly as close as an English saddle.

Another benefit of a treeless saddle is that people often place the saddle too far forward on a horse’s back where it can interfere with shoulder movement and cause galling. A treeless saddle is less likely to cause discomfort in this situation, as it has no hard tree to bruise or gouge.

While treeless saddles are often purchased by people who “don’t want to hurt their horse”, they can be quite damaging to a horse’s back or kidneys if used by inexperienced or “bouncy” riders who bounce up and down with force. A tree helps to spread “bouncing” pressure across a larger area. Horses ridden by overweight riders and poor riders should probably have a tree.

Treeless saddles work well for many gaited horses. Bouncing is minimized by the very nature of the horse’s movement.

Rigging: Western saddles are made with different points for the rigging cinches to be attached. Some saddle have a 3-way rigging plate allowing a cinch to be placed in any of the 3 positions. (see Cinch and Saddle Rigging)

Rigging buckles are best made of stainless steel or solid brass. Lesser materials are less enduring and can rust, which will cause your cinch leathers to weaken and rot. (see Saddle Rigging)

FIT THE HORSE: There is much anxiety about fitting a horse and his saddle perfectly. While a saddle certainly should fit your steed comfortably, it is an urban myth that every horse needs a custom-made saddle. Your saddle should fit your horse for most of his adult life. He will change shape numerous times during that life. He is also less developed on one side than the other, no matter what you do. However, if you have used the few considerations below, your saddle will only need minor tweeks with a good saddle pad to accommodate most changes.

To properly fit a saddle, there are several anatomical features of the horse that must be considered and matched to the saddle. The Gullet is the underside of the saddle (in the front) that must clear the withers of the horse. (see Brief horse anatomy)

The saddle cannot sit so high off the withers that it “pinches” the horse’s back between the bars. It should also be positioned in such a way that the there is no pressure on the horse’s spine or the ligament structure that runs along the spine.

The gullet is the spacing between the bars under the fork. A wider gullet (bar width) allows the saddle to sit lower on a horse’s back because the bars are spread more. A narrow gullet sits higher. If your horse has a very high withers with narrow rib spread, a narrow gullet will work fine. If your horse has lower withers with wide-sprung ribs, a wider gullet (with flatter bar spread) is necessary. As your horse gets fatter (in winter? or just overfeeding?) his spread gets wider, but his withers do not get higher. The saddle may begin to sit too high. His usual narrow gullet might need to be replaced with a saddle with a wider spread.

The bars of the saddle should not interfere with the movement of the horse’s shoulders in the front, nor should they reach beyond the horse’s rib cage in the back. (also see A New Perspective) If your horse is short-backed (such as Arabians), you will need a saddle made with shorter bars, as they can dig into the horses rear back and cause bruising and sores.

There are different types of saddles based on horse anatomy.

A Semi-Quarter Horse Saddle has moderately steep bars (narrow gullet) and is the narrowest tree overall. However, a significant number of breeds of horses used in English riding and racing will use this saddle.

A Quarter Horse or Full Quarter Horse saddle is a little wider with a flatter pitch. Today’s horses are a little beefier in general than they were years ago. This saddle fits most grade horses as well as Quarter horses and other stouter body types – up to 65% of all horses.

A Wide Quarter Horse saddle is wider and flatter still. I find it fits my overweight quarter horse mare and the Friesian Crosses I train. (However, they are not crossed with thoroughbred or other narrower, higher-withered horses.)

The Arabian Saddle is wide and generally shorter than the Quarter Horse Saddle, as Arabians have shorter backs (They are missing one vertebrae) than other breeds of horse. It is frequently also suited to Morgans.

Haflinger Saddles are VERY wide and short. Designed for semi-draft breeds.

Draft Saddles are even wider and designed for riding Draft Horses.

Pony Saddles are narrow but flat with short tree for children and smaller ponies such as Shetland and Welsh ponies.

Place the saddle squarely over the horse’s center of balance. See also A New Perspective.

ADJUSTMENT: The fit of a saddle on a horse can be adjusted slightly by the saddle pad or shims. However, over time, a horse’s age, conditioning, training musculature etc. may necessitate the need for refitting a saddle.

It is rare that a horse would need more than one saddle over his life if a good saddle pad is used. However, horse shape does change from fat winter to hard-work summer or from young to old horse. Check the saddle fit periodically. Thermal imaging or
equine thermography
is a great help for scientific saddle fitting. However, this would probably only be available at your veterinarian.

It is not possible to make a narrow saddle fit better by adding padding. It will only cause the saddle to sit higher and higher in the air until the center of balance is completely destroyed.
A too-wide saddle can sometimes be compensated for by an extra bit of pad. However, if you are adding more and more pad (more than two layers), you are in danger of trapping dreaded heat and over-cinching.

read more about Saddle Pads

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Types of saddles based on purpose: Factors such as the width of the swells, height of the cantle, depth of the seat, height of the horn all influence the suitability of a saddle for its given purpose.

Cutting Saddle: A saddle for cutting horses whose movements are abrupt with short stops and turns. It has a deep seat with wide pommel and high cantle to hold the rider securely.

Barrel Saddle: Shares many of the features of the Cutting Saddle: It has wide swells and high cantle to hold the rider securely during sharp turns and fast acceleration. It is sometimes lighter weight than other saddles, and frequently has a narrower seat because most barrel riders are women. It has an ergonomic horn for grasping. I has a shorter length than some other types of saddles because it is important not to interfere with the horse’s hips or shoulders during tight turns.

Roping Saddle: have thicker horns for holding a rope, lower cantle that facilitates quick dismounts, and back cinches to hold the back of the saddle down during forward pressure from a struggling steer.

Trail saddle: Designed for maximum comfort of rider as well as a good fit for the horse. It features a deep, padded seat, designed for long rides at slower speeds.

Endurance saddle: Designed for long rides at faster speeds than a trail saddle. Lighter weight than most western saddles, (often without a horn). It has a tree that spreads the rider’s weight out over a large area of the horse’s back, thus reducing pounds per square inch. Often has stirrups hung slightly farther forward, to allow the rider to get off the horse’s back when travelling at faster speeds.

Show saddle: May be based on roping, cutting, or other trees, but is characterized by additional leather tooling and silver decoration. Usually features a deep, padded seat that allows the rider to sit quietly and give the appearance of a smooth ride.

“Equitation” saddle: Show saddle with an especially deep seat to help hold a rider in place.

Saddle Leather Tanning: Sheepskin Bottom:

The underside of a saddle is usually lined with sheepskin. It has little bearing on the “padding” of the saddle on the horse’s back. It is used to add “grip” to the underside of the saddle to keep it from slipping off of the blanket or pad.

Hides are tanned to prevent rotting and to add suppleness. There are two main types of tanning: Chrome Tanning and Bark Tanning. Chrome tanning employs chemicals that can be detrimental to a horse when coming into contact with a horse’s sweat. Bark tanning uses only natural vegetable compounds.

It is important that your saddle sheepskin bottom be bark tanned.

Synthetic sheepskin is often used on the underside of a saddle. While other synthetic parts of a saddle might not be as satisfactory as the older tried and true technologies, synthetic sheepskin has some positive attributes. It is not attractive to bugs and mice like natural sheepskin is, so will not be eaten up in the barn. It also has no “grain”, so it is of no importance which way it is laid on the saddle skirt. However, it is usually not as thick and will wear out faster.

FIT THE RIDER: (see Saddle Seat)

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