THE VERSATILE HORSE
~ Western Riding every which way
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Loping Bill’s Blog
The Western Saddle
To “English” riders, western riding may seem to be just a matter of putting a big
saddle on your horse, slapping a Stetson on your head, uttering a carefree “yee-
So much else about the western horse makes it what it is (as to which, look around elsewhere on this website) that it’s tempting to say you don’t need a western saddle to ride a western trained horse. His way of going, the cues and the lightness of touch needed to get him to respond are all key factors and, in all probability, you can achieve that riding bareback. So why the big saddle?
Well, of course, comfort and safety are the reasons we don’t ride bareback. And comfort – for the horse as well as the rider – is the prime consideration in the construction of a western saddle. It got that way due to the need for comfort during a long working day, often in rough country. The basics of the saddle are not a whole lot different from an English saddle although the tree in the western saddle covers a wider area of the horse’ s back, is of a much more rigid construction and carries the defining feature of a western saddle – the saddle horn. The seat is more pronounced giving the rider more the feeling that you are sitting “in” the saddle rather than on it.
Watch a well ridden western horse and you will see the rider moving as one with the horse, long legged and loose hipped. We simply don’t carry as much weight in our legs as English riders (it’s been said that if you can keep a biscuit under your foot and still eat it at the end of your ride, that’s about the right weight!) and it’s the stirrup configuration of a western saddle that offers the chance to achieve that.
And it seems to me, although I stand to be corrected, in the western riding community, we just don’t hear so much about problems with saddle fit. That’s not to say that we’re careless of such things – a western horse is just as likely to develop saddle sores as an English one if the saddle doesn’t fit. It’s probably more to do with the conformation of a good working horse. You won’t find a cowboy hauling a load of different saddles around with him to fit the various horses he might be required to ride. Those horses are all of a compact build and with some subtle padding adjustments, one saddle will fit them all.
But you must not go away with the idea that there are no differences between one western saddle and another. It can have “full quarter horse bars” or “semi quarter horse bars” (the bars being the longitudinal components of the tree) and semi being appropriate for a horse with more pronounced withers and narrower back. Similarly, the gullet depth will be relevant to the height of the horse’s withers and the horn itself will be more or less sturdy depending on whether you plan to go roping or barrel racing. And then there’s the position in the rigging of the cinch which will be “center fire”. “3/4”, “7/8” or “full”.
Originally, the “center fire” position was the only one but few saddles are made to that specification these days since the performance requirements of the various competition disciplines have had their impact. The “measurements” here are to do with the relative distance between the center fire position and the full position so that the 7/8 is 7/8 of the way from center fire to full. These alternative positions came about when ropers required a back cinch to hold the back of the saddle down while roping and they then went to a full position for the front cinch to balance the saddle. 7/8 is the most common all around position.
These are the main permutations that need to be arranged so that the western saddle fits your horse comfortably for everything you are going to ask of him/her. That and its length; so that the horse has freedom of movement in its shoulders and hindquarters.
All things considered, there’s probably more to get right than with an English saddle but, when you do get it right, both horse and rider are in for a more comfortable experience...