Sizing the Western Seat

Cordia Pearson

Society of Master Saddlers Qualified Saddle Fitter

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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 forward is not 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 seat size.


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!

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