How to Choose the Right Saddle

Quite a few folks have problems with fitting a saddle to their horse. That’s in no way unique. Everywhere I travel around the country, doing my Training for Trail Riding and Saddle Fit for Trail Rider Clinics, I am encountering frustrated folks (like you) who love their horses and realize that the saddles they are using are not serving them (or their horses) well.

One thing that you have apparently already learned is that it is much easier to buy a saddle than it is to sell one. Each mistake (learning experience) is expensive…and discouraging.

Before we can look for an answer to the problem, you must know what you are looking for. Let me outline for you what I believe are the priorities, in order of their importance: First and foremost the saddle must be comfortable for your horse. Why? A comfortable horse is a happy horse, and a happy horse makes for a happy rider. By the way, I found a lot of things that can make my horses happy at the Utterly horses gift website.

At the heart of every good saddle is a good fitting tree. The saddle tree is the frame upon which the saddle is built. If it does not fit the horse properly, i.e. is comfortable, all your additional effort is wasted. When we are talking about western type saddle trees, they are usually made out of wood, covered with rawhide, plastic, or some other waterproofing material.

If the tree fits properly (mirrors the shape of the horse’s back when it is moving straight ahead in its natural working position) the saddle will be comfortable for the horse, unless stiff leather skirting or incorrectly placed rigging or stirrup leathers causes problems too. This all makes that the horse, and you as well, will not be fit to act when it’s needed.

Each tree has two bars, the long pieces of wood that straddle either side of your horse’s spine, from front to rear. The bars sit on the longissimus dorsi muscles. To fit comfortably these bars must mirror the shape of the horse’s back, from front to rear (pommel to cantle) when the rider’s weight is placed upon the bars through the saddle seat and the horse is standing in its natural working position, with head held straight ahead at its normal working height.

The pommel and cantle are the front and back pieces of the tree, respectively. They hold the bars in place. Provided that they do not touch the spinal processes (a bad thing and when it happens, your horse will need proper care), they will not affect saddle fit, except that the width of the gullet (the opening in the front of the pommel) will affect how level the saddle sits on the horse’s back.

In order for the bars to fit properly, they must have enough “rock”, the curvature of the bottom of the bars that changes from front to back. They must also have the right amount of “twist”, the shape that twists near the mid-section of the bars to change the bar angles from the angle of the horse’s shoulder to the angle of the horse’s back. And, the bars should have the right amount of “flair”, the tapering out of the bar ends that allows for the comfort of the horse’s movement, and prevents (or lessen) digging and/or pinching.

Obviously, no two horses’ backs are shaped the same.  Nor do they remain the same shape as the horse moves over the terrain, bends, and changes its gait or its amount of collection. You are putting a rigid piece of wood on a fluid horse’s back. Consequently, you are not looking for a “perfect” fit, like a surgeons rubber glove pulled over her hand. You are just looking for a “good enough” fit, like a cowboy’s leather work glove – something that is sadly far too often missing in today’s production western saddles. So, why do so many saddles fit so many horses so poorly?

The reason is simple.  In today’s western saddles form does not follow function; not when they are used by trail riders. Most modern western saddles are built to fit the widest shouldered Quarter Horses on a format that I will call “arena roping” saddles. If you were designing a saddle whose primary function is going to be roping cows in a rodeo arena event you’d need a horn, anchored in a strong (thick) pommel.

You’d want the horn to be far enough away from you so that it would be functional (and safe). To accomplish this you’d have to extend the bar length in the front…by many inches, to keep that horn away from your belly. But remember, to keep a horse comfortable those same bars must always sit on the horse’s back behind its shoulder blades – not sitting on them, or riding upon them.

Given the extra bar length built into today’s western arena roping saddles, the bars are too long for pleasure-trail riders. Because of this, the saddle usually ends up being placed upon (instead of behind) the shoulders, at least when it’s first put on the horse.  But, because that’s not where it’s meant to fit, it tends to slide back off the horse’s shoulders as the rider rides, thus placing the rider too far to the rear…behind the balance point (what I call the sweet spot). This almost always tips the rider forward, concentrating the rider’s weight on the front ends of the bars.

If the bars are too straight, which they almost always are in these saddles, the tree will “bridge”, making little or no contact under the rider’s seat bones. The excessive weight, loaded on the bar ends, will make the horse more and more uncomfortable over time. Eventually, this will make the horse push it’s back up into the saddle, to get away from the pressure.  When it does this it can’t carry it’s head up in a natural working position, and, consequently, especially in gaited horses, the gait quickly goes away.

This brings us to the next most important issue in saddle selection. Remember, the first is the comfort for the horse – good bar shape. But the saddle must also place the rider in the correct place on the horse’s back. This correct place I call “the sweet spot”, the place where you would sit naturally while riding bareback. That can only be achieved if the bars are short enough, especially at the front end, to sit comfortably behind the horse’s shoulders, but still seat you in the saddle in the sweet spot. Most western saddles simply don’t do that.  Why?  I think by now you already know.

As I’ve already pointed out, most production western saddles have bars that are too long and too straight. Most western saddles don’t have enough flair at the bar ends, either. Most western saddles have bars that are set too flat, at too wide an angle in the front, and consequently sit only on the top half of the bars in front (where you always see the white hair developing, due to excessive pressure).

To make matters worse (for trail riders or gaited horse riders) most western saddles are double rigged. They have the front rigging placed right under the pommel. That’s to secure the horn when you rope something. The back cinch is there to hold the saddle down on the horse’s back, so you (the roper) don’t get ejected out of the saddle when the cow hits the end of the rope!

But double rigging turns the saddletree into a back brace, interfering with the horse’s ability to bend and turn, at least if both front and back cinches are on tight. If the back cinch is allowed to hang loose (as most people do), it is an open invitation to every sharp stick along the trail to be pulled in and stuck into the most vulnerable portion of the horse’s anatomy. Is that what we trail riders really want? Of course not but when needed, proper care is required.

The rigging’s job is to keep the saddle from turning over on the horse’s back while letting the horse move as freely as possible under the saddle. Trail saddles should be single rigged, with the rigging set in the skirting, well back, under the rider’s leg, with the latigos angling forward into the cinch’s d-rings. That will let the horse move it’s freest, and prevent cinch sores.

Now, the other important issues to be considered with saddles are these. The saddle should be as comfortable and as secure for the rider as is possible, but still allow the rider to do the type of activity the saddle was bought and intended for. The saddle should place the rider’s weight in the center of the tree, where the horse can carry it the best. Therefore, if you are a speed rider (like endurance riders) or if you are using the saddle for sports like polo or roping, the stirrups should be hung over (or nearer to) the center of the bars. That’s because you’ll be standing above the horse’s back, with most of your weight in the stirrups, most of the time.

However, if you’re a gaited horse rider or a pleasure-trail rider, you’ll want the stirrups to be hung further forward. That’s because you’ll be carrying most of your weight in your seat most of the time, something I call “sit-down equitation”. For this form of riding the stirrup leathers should let your legs hang naturally, in the “rider’s groove”, the narrowest place at the sides of the horse. Naturally, the stirrup leathers should be free swinging and easy to turn… not those three-inch wide things found on almost all western saddles.

In this style of riding (my style) you do not line up your shoulders, hips, and heels. You sit on your pockets – not on your crotch. Your feet are flat and relaxed in the stirrups – not pushed down, with leg muscles tight. “Sit-down equitation” brings out the best gait in gaited horses, but it requires a saddle that is designed and built for it. Most western saddles make this sit-down position almost impossible to achieve. Consequently, most horses don’t gait very well (for very long) in these western saddles.

One other quality a good saddle must possess to please me is…quality. That’s right. You don’t put a cheap plastic and cloth interior in a Mercedes Benz or BMW. And, you don’t saddle a fine horse in plastic and synthetics either. The smell and feel of genuine leather make me aware of a sense of pride in my horse and connects me with the horseman’s traditions, thus enhancing my pleasure in riding. And my attitude (pride) is reflected in my riding, and, consequently, in my horse’s performance.