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How to Choose a Western Saddle: Part 1

August 2015 by Jeanne O'Malley

The late R.A. Woodworth was a master saddler when that meant master of all saddles. He could build you anything you liked and he would make sure it fit you, your horse and the work you planned to do together. 

Experienced rider, instructor and judge Jeanne O’Malley had the privilege of spending time with Woodworth back in 1975. It’s clear the knowledge and wisdom he shared with her has stayed with Jeanne as she pays it forward in this first article of a new two-part series.

The biggest mistake people make in selecting a saddle today is buying on impulse without thought or consideration. A man will buy a saddle with a great long skirt for a short-backed horse.

He rarely looks at the back of the animal and considers what that particular horse will need. Then, he assumes that because he has already paid for it, he is stuck with it and so he tries to get along with this saddle the best he can.

Of course, most shops tell their customers to return or exchange ill-fitting saddles, but this option is rarely open to customers who buy their saddles on sale or at auctions.

The tree

One of the biggest problems we have with used saddles is people buying saddles with narrow trees - and some of these old saddles are narrow! It hasn’t been that long since people started buying horses without prominent withers.

When I was young, people bought a horse to ride and chose a narrow one with a set of withers. That was a saddle horse. Nothing else was. To be a good saddle horse then, a horse had to be narrow and hold his head up so the rider could look straight between his ears. The saddles were made to fit that kind of horse.

Now, a tree that is too narrow can affect a horse’s gait. He may act lame and he certainly will be in pain. A narrow tree on today’s Stock Horse is like a ‘V’ being pressed into an orange, the only part of the tree touching the horse will be the edge of the bars. So, it is not always the feet and legs that make your horse travel badly, it might be the fit of his saddle that is throwing him off.

There are lots of things contributing to the fit of the tree. Ideally, the bars will lie flat against the horse’s back, just behind the shoulder blades. This will be tipped to give even pressure, top and bottom, while just nicely clearing the backbone. Thus, we have no edge pressure - everything lies flat.

We want the bars lying flat so the pressure of the saddle and the rider’s weight is distributed over as large an area as possible. We do not want it pinpointed on one edge.

The clearance between the bars at the cantle must be high enough so there is no chance of it touching the horse’s spine. The front of the saddle should get the most attention. I like to see it clear the horse’s back by at least two fingers, but it should never be less than one finger with the rider in the saddle.

The pad will have some effect on this clearance between the back and the saddle, but pressure on the backbone is very dangerous. The stock saddle must sit high enough in front for a good clearance and to hold the bars together in front.

As to the shape of the head or depth of the seat, the horse doesn’t care. Some people like a deep-seated saddle for security; others, like ropers, like a low-backed saddle that lets them get off in a hurry.

Perhaps the biggest problem in the Western saddle business itself is that most trees are production-line produced. I wish I could show you some of these cheap trees uncovered!

Stock seat trees are made of a pommel section, a cantle section and have a strainer or groundwork with the horn bolted right through the front section. It is built up with leather. The good ones are covered with wet rawhide, which dries tight. If they are going to be used for roping, they are covered again with rawhide.

Auction trees and cheap trees can be pretty bad if the groundwork touches the horse’s back. Sometimes, nothing more than a bit of cloth is used to cover them, other times the tree doesn’t clear the horse’s spine.

The cheap trees don’t stand much shock either. If the horse rolls or if a heavy person tries to rope something, the bars can break. Some imported saddles are very bad. This is because the trees are just nailed together. They aren’t sufficiently glued and they don’t fit anything.

The best thing that has happened to the pleasure stock saddle is the fibreglass tree. They are almost indestructible. It takes a tremendous blow to break a fibreglass tree and they are built on full quarter bars, which brings the bars closer to the horse’s back.

Full quarter bars lie farther apart and flatter than those of the narrower trees. The semi-barred saddle is not so far apart and is tilted a bit more. This is because as a horse produces withers, he also, as a general rule, has a narrower backbone.

As the bars become more nearly vertical, they are also brought in closer. Then, the saddle sits reasonably close to the backbone.

If the saddle does not fit properly, we cannot re-stuff it like we can an English saddle. There is no stuffing in a Western saddle. It is built with a skirt and a piece of leather sheepskin fastened to the bars of the saddle.

This does not leave much margin for error in fitting it to the horse. We can take the skirts off a few of them, strip down to the tree and raise the bars with a closed cell material. We cement it to the tree and then re-fasten the skirts.

Trainers and expert riders get around this problem to a certain extent by using great big thick pads under their saddles. They have an inch of hair pad, a Navajo blanket and then perhaps another pad on top. All this to try and get a cushion between the horse’s back and the saddle.

Another thing to consider is the unmade back. I know of a horse seven years old that is just being saddled. He has been walked around and sat on a few times, but has never actually been ridden and his back is soft. Now, he is four weeks into training, and he is throwing his head and twisting. They have got him under saddle four and five hours a day, and he is in such a state that if he sees a saddle he starts to squirm.

The horse has no raw spots and to look at him you don’t notice anything. But, when you put your hand on his back, you feel all sorts of strange things. This is because he has not made a back. He is sore.

This often happens to a young horse in the hands of an inexperienced trainer. They get saddled for too long. If you are going to backpack into the mountains for 100 miles, you’d get used to that pack before you started. You would not just slap it on your back (no matter how big and strong you were) and start up the hill. You wouldn’t get very far if you did and neither do these green horses...

About the Author: First it was pony rides in a Western saddle, then riding lessons in an English saddle, then 4H Tennessee Walking Horses in a park saddle, then a British Horse Society Assistant Instructors Certificate in dressage and jumping saddles, then showing in a side saddle. After that, it was sitting at a desk writing training manuals for New York State and National 4H Horse Project or standing in the middle of a sand arena teaching riding and judging horse shows.