Western Saddles Are (Slowly) Changing

It's not your father's western saddle anymore, as recreational riders begin to opt for lighter weight tack that's easier to care for.

In days gone by, a cowboy toted his saddle with him everywhere. He tossed it up onto any horse that came his way-tall or small, razor-backed or mutton-withered. If the saddle was comfortable and fit the rider, it was just fine. No thought was given to how it fit the horse.

Just like every pair of boots doesn’t fit every rider, every saddle doesn’t fit every horse. For some unfortunate animals, the saddles being ratcheted down on their backs means facing hours of pain and discomfort on the trail or in the arena due to bars that pinch, forks that grind down onto withers, and rigging that digs into elbows.

Without words, the horse that fidgets as the saddle is set on his back, pins his ears, or even reaches around to nip at the person pulling up on the cinch leather, may be desperately trying to say, “That saddle hurts me!” Sadly, some riders never recognize those words, and the poor horse might get whacked in the belly for his “bad behavior.”

Western Innovations

  • With any saddle, old or new, spend the time to make sure it fits your horse properly.
  • If you’re looking for a lighter-weight saddle, think about synthetics instead of traditional leather.
  • For horses that could benefit from added range of movement, a saddle with a flexible tree or a treeless saddle might be an option.
  • Consider getting a higher fork and cantle for more security on the trail.
  • Although you don’t need to bow to every passing show-ring fad, silver is still a valued accessory in a show saddle.

Few people would intentionally put a horse through such misery. Often a well-made western saddle is kept for years-even handed down in families-to be used on all of the horses the family ever owns. Sons and daughters proudly ride the saddles their fathers rode, not paying much mind to whether that heirloom is comfortable for the horse it’s being used on today.

Fortunately, things are changing.
Today, as much attention is being paid to how the saddle fits the horse as to how it fits the rider. As the trend toward more natural ways of handling horses has taken hold, the comfort of the horse is now being taken into consideration. And if horses could talk, they’d say, “It’s about time.”

Resurrecting an Old Saddle
If you recently got a new horse and want to use your old show saddle or your beloved family saddle that has been passed down to you, check it over first to be sure it’s not going to be a pain in the back to your horse. Make sure it fits both of you. As a nation, we’ve grown a little broader in the beam over the last couple of decades-and our horses have become bigger and broader, too. That 15-inch seat that fit you fine 15 years ago could be too small today. And those semi-Quarter Horse bars that fit the horse you owned back then might be too tight on the wide-withered horse you have now.

To see if your old saddle fits your horse, put it on his back without a saddle pad and look at it from every angle. (This should be done with a new saddle, too. Just put a clean bed sheet under it to keep the underside clean and free of hair in case you have to return it.)

Years ago most riders started with the saddle way up on the withers, figuring it would slide back after a little riding. It usually did-right to where it should have been put in the first place, about two fingers behind the shoulder blade. So put it there and step back and look. The saddle should sit evenly on the horse’s back, not tilt down at the horn or cantle. Then grab hold of the horn and cantle and see if the saddle will rock back and forth. It shouldn’t.

Look at the saddle from the front. Probably the most important consideration is how the front of the saddle-the gullet-fits over the withers. Too narrow and the bars of the saddle will squeeze the shoulders, digging into them and pushing the saddle upward. Adding pads and tightening the cinch more will not solve the problem or relieve the pain and pressure of a saddle that is too narrow.

If the saddle is too big-too wide in the gullet-the front will sink down onto the withers, putting pressure on this sensitive area. While extra saddle pads can help get a wide saddle up off the withers, this saddle is also not a good choice because you end up with too much padding and not enough stability and “feel” for your horse.

When a saddle fits correctly in the front, you can put all of your fingers down into the gullet. A good test is to tighten the cinch, get on your horse, put your fingers back in the gullet, and ask the horse to walk. You should feel no pressure on your fingers. Next, carefully put your flat hand under the front of the skirt and feel if the horse’s shoulder is moving freely without any interference from the saddle.

All That Glitters Needs Polishing

Now that you’ve got a fancy, silver-mounted show saddle, that silver will need care. The problem with polishing saddle silver is that most show saddles are tooled and the polishing cream can accidentally get rubbed into the carved or stamped leather. When that happens, the white haze it leaves behind can be hard to remove and spoils the look of an expensive saddle. Here’s how to prevent that and a few other suggestions for keeping that saddle looking like new.

  • Don’t put the polishing cream directly on the silver. Instead, apply a small amount to your finger, a piece of clean, soft cloth, or a small piece of foam. (Buy a piece of foam from a craft supply store and rip off small pieces as needed.) Rub the cream carefully on the silver, taking care not to get any on the surrounding leather.
  • Let the polish dry and then buff it off according to the manufacturer’s directions.
  • If you get any black tarnish marks on the light leather surrounding the silver, Kathy’s Show Equipment, which makes top-of-the-line show saddles, suggests that you remove it with a clean pencil eraser.
  • Once the silver is shining, give it a spritz of Windex and buff it with a piece of old flannel shirt to an even more glittering shine.
  • Keep a silver-polishing cloth handy for touch-ups.
  • Store the saddle in a bag between shows to help prevent tarnishing and keep the leather from darkening.

Fitting the Rider
If you’ve had that saddle since you were a teenager, it might not fit you as well as it once did. Twenty years ago, 15-inch seats were the norm, but today you will find mostly 16- and 17-inch seats in tack shops. Saddle makers are also commonly getting requests for 18-inch and even 19-inch seats.

To determine if a saddle is a good fit for you, sit in it and see how it feels. Can you move around easily? You shouldn’t feel cramped, and your thighs shouldn’t be shoved up against the swells. You should be able to lay your hand flat in front of you between your jeans and the back of the fork. Your hips should not be pressing up high on the cantle, but only contacting the lower portion. You should easily fit two or three fingers between you and the first row of stitching on the cantle.

If you’re considering buying a saddle that belonged to a long, tall person, check to be sure that the fenders aren’t so long that you can’t adjust the stirrups properly. The bottom of the stirrup should hit you just about at the anklebone when your foot is hanging free.

Shopping for a New Saddle
If the old saddle doesn’t work and you decide to shop for a new one, you’ll find a lot more choices and innovative designs compared to what was out there 20, or even 10, years ago.

Once limited in choice between light and dark leather, riders can now select from a much wider range of finishes. If you choose a synthetic saddle, your options may even include pink, blue and lime green.

But being able to buy a saddle in a leafy spring green isn’t what the real revolution in western saddles is about. It’s all about weight and ease of care.

The lighter weight trend in everyday trail and pleasure-riding saddles (most traditional leather show saddles are still pretty heavy) comes from building them with lighter materials. Newer saddles made with synthetic leather or Cordura nylon can weigh as little as 20 pounds, compared to 40 to 50 pounds for a double-skirted, full-rigged, leather saddle.

And caring for one is a cinch. Just pull it off, hose it off, hang it up, and you’re good to go the next day. Plus they can weather a downpour or a swim across a creek much better than a leather saddle.

While the newer nylon and synthetic saddles are gaining fans, they aren’t for everyone. You certainly won’t see one on the tradition-laden Quarter Horse, Paint and Arabian show circuits. But for the serious trail rider or casual Sunday rider, such advances make it easy for the person who has to hoist one up onto a tall horse or for an older rider who might have a touch of arthritis.

If you still prefer a traditional leather western saddle, even those have shed some pounds. Some saddle makers are using fewer layers, lighter leather, and molded plastic trees to trim the weight. It’s possible today to find a leather, square-skirt saddle under 30 pounds.

Trees That Bend and Disappear
The bones of a saddle are its tree. The standard wood tree with rawhide stretched over it has stood the test of time and is still used in many new saddles today. But some newer trees are now molded from plastic or with flexible parts. They are designed to give a little all over or to flex in the middle when the horse bends. In other cases, the saddles don’t have trees at all.

There’s something else missing from some of today’s western saddles. Driven by the need to just ride, not to rope a calf and hold it by dallying the rope around the horn, a few saddle makers have dropped the most identifiable accoutrement of the western saddle-the horn. Some riders like not having a horn, while others don’t care for the look or the lack of something to grab onto in an emergency. Either way, it’s mostly a matter of choice, since a horn doesn’t affect the way a saddle rides.

Only as Good as Its Tree

If you have an old saddle you want to use again-or if you’re looking at a used saddle to buy-you need to be sure that the tree has not been damaged. A broken saddle tree isn’t common, but it happens. And if it happened to that saddle, you don’t want it. Here’s how to check.

Before you put the saddle on your horse’s back, put it on the ground and step on it. Press your foot down gently, but firmly, on the seat. Then roll the saddle on its side and push your foot down firmly on the side of the seat. Do it on the other side, too. As you press down, listen for any little popping or clicking noises because that is usually a sign of a broken or damaged tree.

Another way to check for a damaged tree is to put the front of the saddle against your thigh and slowly but firmly pull the cantle toward you. If the tree is broken, you’ll usually hear those telltale popping or clicking sounds. Turn the saddle around and pull from the fork, too. Silence is golden.

But the absence of a tree is another matter.

The tree of a western saddle is fairly rigid and contributes to its weight. Some riders feel a tree restricts a horse’s natural movement and interferes with their feel of the horse. Today’s treeless saddles grew out of the needs of endurance riders, where every ounce counts. However, treeless saddles are also becoming popular with some non-competitive trail riders.

Whether treeless is just a fad or will take root remains to be seen. But if you’re interested in going this route, try one out before you buy one. Since the bars of a saddle’s tree distribute the rider’s weight along the length of the horse’s back, a treeless saddle might not be the way to go for every rider.

And what about those Quarter Horse bars? “Standard,” “full” and “semi” Quarter Horse bars describe the angle and spread of the bars of the tree in a western saddle. They relate to how wide the horse’s back is.

While many horses used to be fine with the standard Quarter Horse bars, today many need either semi- or full Quarter Horse bars. Most mutton-withered horses need the “full” bars, which are seven inches wide across the bottom of the gullet. The “semi” Quarter Horse bars are usually a better fit for horses with high withers and narrower shoulders.

Style Follows Function
Years ago many trail riders bought barrel racing saddles because the wider, more upright fork and high cantle offered a more secure seat. Today many trail saddles are being made with higher cantles and forks. A high cantle not only helps in steep terrain, but gives some support to your back as well.

Some older riders prefer the lower cantles with the Cheyenne roll seen on show and roping saddles because it’s easier to get your leg up and over one. Banging a shin into a high, pointed cantle can be painful.

Other innovations that can make long Sunday trail rides more comfortable and less tiring are wide, cushioned stirrups that give you a steadier base and absorb shock. There are also special swivel attachments for stirrups that make keeping them in the right position much easier on your knees. (See “Stirrups: A Buyer’s Guide” in the October 2004 issue of Perfect Horse.)

$how Saddles
In the show ring things are different-and mostly the same. Show saddles haven’t changed much since the big switch from dark oil to light oil in the 1980s. Silver trim is still in-the more the better. There are little fashion changes each year, but serious innovations are few.

One, the cutaway skirts under the fenders of the top-of-the-line show saddles by Dale Chavez, have won the attention of serious competitors. This design allows for a close contact feel on an otherwise large, western show saddle.

Elaborate show saddles can set you back thousands of dollars, and they require extra care to keep them looking showroom new at every show. You need special cleaners that won’t darken the preferred light oil leather, polishing creams for the silver, brushes to keep the rough-out seat from getting shiny, and protective bags to keep the saddle out of the sun when it’s not in use. Sun and heat can darken a treasured light oil finish.

If your old saddle fits you and your new horse, and it’s still in good shape and not too heavy for you to hoist up onto him, there’s no reason to replace it. But if you plan to start showing in anything other than local open shows, or to return to the breed show ring after many years to compete in the popular amateur and novice classes of today, you probably need a new saddle.

While some minor fads might come and go, the basic show saddle hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years: a light oil saddle with double skirts, tooled leather, leather-covered stirrups, and as much silver as you can afford. Seats are suede, the forks are smooth, and the cantles are low.

Whether you want to continue a tradition and trail ride in your father’s old western saddle or buy a new saddle for the show circuit, take the time to check and be sure the saddle you select is a pleasure for your horse.

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