When we shop for a saddle we’re aware that the saddle should fit the horse. We carefully select one that won’t rub and allows the horse freedom of movement. We pick the tree and padding to ensure the horse is comfortable under the weight of the saddle and rider. This is particularly important with a western saddle, which can weigh up to 40 pounds. The right size and shape tree can evenly distribute the weight of a big western saddle, plus a rider, and help prevent painful pinching and rubbing.
But what about the comfort of the rider’
A saddle needs to fit the rider as well as the horse. Saddles aren’t like lounge chairs — as in, one size fits all. They’re more like a pair of shoes: If you want to be comfortable in them all day, they have to fit you right.
You need to get the style of saddle best suited to what the rider intends to do on horseback. A roping saddle has a low cantle so the rider can swing a leg over it and get on or off the horse swiftly and smoothly. A barrel racing saddle, on the other hand, has a high cantle to keep the rider from being launched off the back when the horse explodes in a burst of speed coming off a barrel.
The fork, horn, cantle, cinch and stirrups are positioned so they’ll help the rider get the job done in whatever event he or she participates in. But just because a saddle is labeled as “barrel racing,” “cutting” or “roping” doesn’t mean it can’t be used for trail or pleasure riding. And plenty of generic “pleasure riding” saddles out there will do, too, but knowing the characteristics of some of the better quality working western saddles, and what those features do to help the rider, can help you decide what might work best and be most comfortable for you.
As with any saddle, the size of the seat in inches is important. But with a western saddle, other things can be just as important. Other than the seat being so small it’s too tight or so big you’re swimming in it, the size and shape of the fork, the raised front that supports the horn, and the height of the cantle can be just as important. In inches, a western saddle’s seat is measured from the base of the horn straight back to the top of the cantle on the inside. While a 15-inch seat in a roping saddle, which has a lower cantle, might feel comfortable to you, the same size seat in a barrel racing saddle, which has a high cantle that often wraps around a little more on the sides, might feel too confining.
A quick way to determine the correct size seat for you is to sit down in the saddle and place your hand flat in front of you — sideways. You should have about a “hand” (four inches) of space between you and the back of the fork. You also want about a half a hand (two or three fingers) between the back of your hips and the stitching across the top of the cantle. You don’t want to be pushed up against the front of the saddle or be jammed up against the back.
Those guidelines should give you enough room to comfortably get on and off and to move in the saddle without slipping around. Before deciding if you have enough room you should have the stirrups set at the right length for your legs. In general, you should have an easy bend to the knee so when you stand up in the stirrups there should be four or five inches of clearance between your body and the saddle seat.
Some western saddles have the seat scooped out and the front part of the seat padded up. This can give you a more secure feeling, but some riders don’t like it, as it can keep you rocked back behind the horse’s center of balance. If you don’t spend a lot of time riding in the rain or splashing through rivers, a seat and jockey made with the rough side of the leather out can help keep you more secure in the saddle. If you plan to do a lot of riding where the saddle might get wet, opt for a smooth leather seat and jockey as they shed water easier and can be dried off quickly.
On most western saddles, the top of the cantle is flattened out and extended toward the back a couple of inches in what is known as a “Cheyenne roll.” A Cheyenne roll doesn’t affect the fit of the saddle much, but the flatter top can keep you from knocking your knee into a sharply pointed cantle when mounting. This little “shelf” also gives you a good place to grab onto the saddle when picking it up.
If trail riding is your main form of riding, the type of terrain you ride over can help you decide what shape saddle might work best for you. If you ride primarily in flat country, the fork and cantle can be pretty much whatever you like. But if you ride in rough country a high cantle and swept-back swells can help hold you in the saddle.
If you prefer more gently sloping swells, or “slick forks,” but ride over steep trails at times, you can purchase “bucking rolls,” semi-portable swept-back swells that can be screwed and buckled onto the front of the saddle to give you a more secure seat when needed. A horn that angles forward away from your belly can do a lot for your comfort when leaning forward as a horse lunges up a hill.
If you have lower-back problems, you might find a high cantle helps support your back during long hours of trail riding . . . but it can also dig into it when sliding down steep banks. Stirrups that swing backward and forward freely, as on a cutting or barrel racing saddle, make staying in the proper position a lot easier going up and down hills, too.
A lot is said about being sure a cinch is comfortable for the horse, but they can be a pain — literally — for the rider as well if the wad of wrapped leather that ties the cinch to the saddle happens to be under your thigh.
Look for saddles that have the point where the tie strap (usually referred to as the “latigo”) wraps around, or buckles into, the D ring moved forward out from under your leg or set lower so it is not up under your thigh. When you try a saddle, notice whether or not the rigging is in the wrong spot for you. If it is, it can become irritating on a long ride.
Some western saddles come with a second cinch toward the rear called a flank cinch. If your saddle comes with one, snug it up properly or leave it off. If you use it, be sure to attach it to the front cinch with the little leather strap provided for that purpose. An unsecured flank cinch can easily become a bucking strap. All front cinches have two small D rings in the center of the cinch for attaching a martingale at the front and a flank cinch at the rear. (Looking at those rings is a quick way to tell if your cinch is centered before you tighten it.)
Don’t be dazzled by design. Pretty patterns and shiny trim aren’t an automatic indication of quality. Be sure you get the style that suits your riding habits best and that fits both you and your horse. Look at how the saddle is made and buy the best quality saddle you can afford. It will pay you back in the long run with hours of comfort on the trail.