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How to Choose a Western Saddle: Part 2

September 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 Part Two of a two-part series.

As to fitting the rider, I don’t think it does any good to have a saddle custom-made, and I will tell you why. We can get the tree and hone it to shape. We can put the rider on the tree before even putting the rawhide on the tree. We can get everything set and when you go out the door we can say, “We’ll have that saddle back in ten years”. And, we often will because people change.

For instance, you start out at age 21 and I build you a saddle that is absolutely perfect and you weigh 145 pounds. At the age of 32, you weigh 182 pounds and you no longer fit the saddle. For you, that saddle is useless. So, let’s not, with all the saddle trees that are available, go to the trouble. It’s impractical.

Now, I can customise a saddle. We cannot change a Western saddle to the extent we can an English one, but there are things we can do.

If you are having problems with your legs swinging in a Western saddle, it is usually because the seat is too long and you need a shorter-seated saddle. We can shorten the seat somewhat by padding it to bring the rider farther forward. If this is not the case, we can secure the leathers to limit the amount of motion.

In many Western saddles, the fenders are too long for the rider. They can be raised up under the jockeys and shortened to give a better fit. We cannot though change the seat of a Western saddle too much and we do not have the range of possibilities we do in flat saddles.

Another thing to think about in choosing a saddle is its purpose. What is the rider going to do with it? We speak of show ring hunters not being field hunters. I do not think the average stock seat equitation or pleasure rider is a cutter or a roper. He is a specialty man, he rides a special seat for a purpose.

The type of saddle he needs is made to hold him in a balanced position. It is not the working stock position where you used to sit down in the hole with your feet out in front and no matter what happened, when the dust cleared, you were generally still there.

Instead, they want these people to ride extremely quiet horses in an absolutely balanced position and they use all sorts of things to put them there.

The equitation and pleasure stock saddle is usually flat in the seat and the stirrups hang so the rider is directly over his legs. The contour of the saddle looks similar to that of a jumping saddle with full swing of the stirrups. The performance saddle is excellent for a lot of purposes. A cutting saddle, on the other hand, does make it difficult for a rider to win Western equitation or pleasure classes.

Now, a rider specialising in gymkhana classes has different requirements for his saddle. A good games horse is a racehorse, and so we have to think about weight and we must talk about light saddles.

There are several of these and, in fact, most manufacturers make saddles especially for games. They are generally shorter in the seat, putting the rider farther forward. Most of them are quilted in the seat, including the jockeys, and usually have flesh out or suede seats.

This holds the rider in position and gives him a better grip. Thus, you need a light saddle, holding you forward, full suede and often set up on a three-quarter rig to avoid the necessity of a flank strap, which just adds more weight.

In the old days, saddles were four-quarter rigged with a full set of rigging in the back. There was a girth in back, same as in front. This rear girth evolved into today’s flank strap. The only reason we use it is to keep the saddle from being swung up and forward when roping.

A horse has to learn to wear a flank strap. Most of the straps I see are kept so loose that it would be just as well if they weren’t there. There should be room for four fingers between the horse and the strap. If there aren’t, the strap will be uncomfortable and cause the horse to pitch. If it is looser than that, it doesn’t do any good.

Actually, the average rider does not do the kind of work requiring a flank strap. And, I have seen horses stepping through loose flank straps many times…

There are other considerations to take into account too. For instance, many parents buy big, long saddles for little children. Buy a saddle that fits the child.

If he grows out of it, you still have a reasonably good trade in and any saddler will take a trade in. So many people think they have lost money on a pony saddle. They haven’t. In five years, when the child has outgrown it, you may have lost a little money, but the way saddles have increased in price, you might even make money on it!

Children in loafers or sneakers are another danger in stock saddles. Even in boots they are in trouble if they try to use adult size stirrups. I don’t think very young children should ride in any Western saddle without hooded stirrups with a plate underneath, so they can push their feet through them.

Now, there is a difference between hooded stirrups and tapaderos. Tapaderos are the old Spanish decorated stirrups that hung down, hooded stirrups are plainer.

True, in a horse show, children are not allowed to show in hooded stirrups because the judge cannot see what the rider is doing with his feet. But, I am talking about very small children - beginners. When he is good enough to show, the child should have a stirrup that fits him and a heeled boot to keep his foot from going through.

Adults, as well as children, should consider stirrups. My biggest fear of the Western stirrup is being hung up in the saddle. Some of the fellows who ride rodeo slit their boots so if they go off, they can get their feet free.

But, this is not a new problem. Western stirrups have always given a lot of trouble. Remington even painted a picture of a rider caught and called it ‘The Turned Saddle’.

As far as stirrups are concerned, we have about three basic widths: very large and deep ropers, standard male stock stirrups and children’s. I think the deep ropers are pretty dangerous for the average rider, it is too easy for the foot to slide through them. Ladies are often more comfortable in a youth stirrup, than they are in the larger ones.

Most contest saddles have oxbow stirrups, bucking horse saddles nearly always have them. The oxbow was made to ride with the foot thrust “home”.

Novice and beginner riders rarely use oxbows. I wouldn’t really think they are appropriate for today’s rider if he plans on showing equitation as most judges look for the stirrup to be on the ball of the foot.

In caring for leather once you buy it, people generally run to two extremes. Some give their leather a bath in oil and you hear all sorts of stories about this. “Hang your saddle in a barrel of oil”. I can wring oil out of these saddles and they are so wet they cannot hold their stitching. Next, we have those who never touch their tack. One is as bad as the other.

Hot water is very dangerous to use on any piece of leather because it dissolves the natural oils. With this lubrication gone, the fibres rub together and wear out. If you use water and a hair pad to clean leather, use cool water and not very much of it.

Roughout saddles present the same cleaning problem as Hush Puppies. (Has anyone ever learned how to clean them?) If you start to oil roughout leather, you have to do all of it and very lightly or the oil will come feeding right back to you. A mild soap lather and a suede brush can be used, but one of the biggest problems with suede things is that they wear smooth.

I don’t know of a way to keep a roughout saddle looking really nice. People use sandpaper, a file or a suede brush to keep the leather rough, but eventually you are going to wear right through the leather.

With a regular, smooth side out saddle, you must be particularly careful not to scrape the surface. Many people clean the mud and sweat off their saddles by scraping with a knife. This is one of the most effective ways to wear off the surface and, once you do that, you are in trouble.

Leather should feel like leather. It should have a certain amount of substance. But, it shouldn’t be so stiff that it cracks when you bend it. Most saddles should be oiled mostly underneath and then only once or twice a year. Just put a light film of oil over the surface, but don’t overdo it.

I cannot say any one saddle is right for any one person. In the beginning, you pretty well have to depend on the instructor to tell you if you need a longer or shorter seat or if you need shorter fenders.

When you can tell what you want in a saddle and what you don’t, then a saddler can help you with the right brand and seat size. When you get to that stage, you, as a rider, know when you feel right. You have determined why you aren’t successful, if you aren’t, and what you are going to have to do to get in a position to be successful.

What would I recommend if I were buying a saddle today? I would buy a new saddle, exactly what I wanted. I would go to the nearest stable, put the saddle on the shelf and say, “Ride this thing until I come back someday to pick it up”. And, after about six months, I would go back and get it, take it home and clean it, do any minor repairs I might need and I would have a very good saddle!

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. Jeanne O’Malley knows saddles...