Western saddles are classified by their use (roping, reining, cutting, barrels, western pleasure), the width of the saddle tree (the wooden base to which the leather parts of the saddle are attached) and the length of the ‘skirt’ behind the seat. Saddle sizing, however, differs from one manufacturer to the other.
South African companies make general-purpose western saddles suitable for trail riding and farm work; competition saddles for reining, roping, western pleasure and barrels have to be imported. This is expensive and impractical, so saddles are usually bought second-hand. As the price ranges from R10 000 to R30 000, it is essential to try the saddle on your horse before you buy it.
A poorly fitting western saddle can injure a horse’s back and withers, and affect the rider’s performance. The rider should sit comfortably and in the right posture in the ‘pocket’ or seat of a western saddle.
At the front of a western saddle is a horn attached to the swells (pommel). On each side, a leather fender covers the stirrup leathers.
The back part of the saddle pocket is called the ‘cantle’. Behind it are the skirts, which may be square or rounded.
The seat slopes upward from the pocket to the cantle and the angle of the tilt differs between saddles. (See western-saddle-guide.com for an excellent guide to the structure of a western saddle.)
Saddle size is determined by the height and breadth of the horse’s withers, the width at its shoulders and the length of its back. Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Nooitgedachts with high, narrow withers and short backs require a small, medium or semi-Quarter Horse tree saddle, with short or rounded skirts.
Quarter horses, Paints and Appaloosas usually take a semi- or full-Quarter Horse tree. The full Quarter Horse tree with a wider gullet is generally suitable for horses that tend towards the shape of draught horses.
The two-finger test
To fit the saddle properly, put it on the back of the horse without a saddle blanket. Place it onto the withers and gently slide it backwards. Once it is in place, the centre of the cinch (girth) should hang about 10cm behind the horse’s elbow.
Check the clearance at the withers – you should be able to fit two fingers between the top of the withers and the saddle gullet. If the gullet is too narrow, the saddle will perch too high and you will be able to fit more than four fingers above the withers.
Feel down each side of the withers and onto the shoulders, making sure you can slide your hand in easily.
Next, look at the position of the skirts. In a short-backed horse, long, square skirts will dig into the pelvis as you turn the horse in a circle. This is of particular concern in a saddle used for cowboy dressage, reining or barrels, where horses are expected to be able to spin or lope in a 5m circle.
Lastly, with the cinch tightened, lift the back of the saddle. In some saddles, the cinch is too far forward and the saddle can be lifted more than 20cm. Always lunge the horse, as it will buck or move badly if the saddle does not fit.
Dr Mac is an academic, a practising equine veterinarian and a stud owner.