Evaluating The Western Saddle
by Meleta Brown
There are several points of interest when looking for a new or used saddle
to fit you and your horse. We will start on the topside for the rider
since it should be easier for you to check initial measurements without your
horse along. First of all, to determine seat size for the rider, I prefer
to have a minimum of 2 fingers distance between my thigh and the swells or
pommel of the saddle. Anything less can tip your pelvis forward making it
easier to come out of the saddle should your horse stumble. I would rather
be in one too large, than too small.
Women riders tend to carry more weight in their hips and thighs so it is
important you are honest with yourself when evaluating the overall seat.
That area where your thigh lays coming off the saddle is on the seat
jockey. That is the area I look at for fit first. Make sure you are sitting
upright in the seat and not slumped into it. Feet should be placed
underneath you so your shoulder, hip and heel are in alignment. Feet
a proper position in any riding discipline, so do line-up your seat and leg
position or you will not get a good reading on what to look for in a good
The swells or pommel also play into the seat. If your seat has a high
cantle, you may have to increase your seat size by at least ˝”. Most
saddles are 3 ˝ to 4” in height and that is considered normal. When the
cantle is 5”, you will need to adjust your seat size accordingly.
If the swells are swept back, we call that a bear trap seat. If it is cut
out for you leg to move under, that is called an undercut swell. On a bear
trap, again you need to adjust the seat you want for the swells so you
aren’t bumping into them constantly. This is not a preferred seat as it
also can literally ‘trap’ you in a fall.
The seat style can vary as well. A deep dished or a seat with a high rise
in the front of the seat will hold you in one position more than a flatter
style that allows for movement for the rider. This is when a good position
can be hard to achieve if the seat drops into a ‘hole’. The big problem
there is the seat position seldom matches the fenders so it places your
fanny back in the seat and your legs forward. I prefer a flatter seat to
maintain a better balance with your horse’s movement.
The fenders too are often misplaced on western saddles. Riders often ask
for a forward hung stirrup and the saddle makers will even sometimes use a
latigo strap to affix the fenders to the breast collar. Not a good idea.
Again it will place in the rider in a terrible position if your horse
stumbles or falls. Make sure the fenders fall directly down from your seat
or you could end up falling forward constantly.
For your horse, the biggest misconception in fit is the gullet measurement.
It has very little to do with fitting your horse properly! The semi, full
or QH fit is often used as if one will fit a horse vs. another. Number one
problem is there is NO universal size for those measurements! They will
vary from maker to maker. Once a saddle is made, you cannot properly
measure that opening either! The true fit of any saddle comes from placing
it on a horse and checking how it fits over the shoulders onto the ribcage.
That is where you get dry spots, not from the gullet!
Number 2 myth is dry spots mean your saddle doesn’t fit. That is not always
true! Dry spots can be a sign of soreness, nervousness or belligerence!
Anytime a horse changes his frame while riding, such as raising his head,
his back changes as well. Fitting is done in a stagnant position on a
usually relaxed horse. Once you start to ride, your riding ability and the
horse’s training can show up with dry spots along either side of the
shoulders. In this case, until you and your horse become better at working
together, you will continue to get dry spots. Changing saddles seldom will
help this situation if the saddle is fitting your horse well and you are
using all your equipment properly! Contact a local fitter and good riding
instructor for more information about riding and your seat!