The Western Saddle or Cowboy Saddle

Western saddles are used in western riding and are the saddles used on working horses and on cattle ranches throughout America.

The Western saddle is designed to be comfortable when ridden in for many hours.

Its history, suitability and purpose is to be a working tool for a cowboy who will spend all day, every day, on horseback.

To a novice rider the western saddle may give the impression of providing a more secure seat.

However, this may be misleading as the horn is not meant to be a handle for the rider to hang onto and the high cantle and heavy stirrups are not for forcing the rider into a rigid position.

The development of an independent seat and hands is as critical for western style riders as it is for English style riders.

The Western Saddle

The Western Saddle is the cowboy saddle you see in western or cowboy movies.

Rodeo fans and anyone who has gone on trail rides at guest ranches will recognise a western saddle.

The saddle was designed to provide security and comfort for any rider spending long hours on a horse, or traveling over rugged ground.

The design of the Western saddle is based on the saddles of the Spanish vaqueros.

The vaqueros were the early horse trainers and cattle handlers of Mexico and the American Southwest.

The saddle was developed to work cattle across large areas and came from a combination of the saddles used in the two main styles of horseback riding practiced in Spain…

  • la jineta, the Moorish style which allowed great freedom of movement to the horse;
  • la estradiota, the jousting style, which provided great security to the rider and strong control of the horse.

A highly functional item was also added … the saddle horn.

This style of saddle allowed vaqueros to control cattle by use of a rope around the neck of the animal, which was then tied or wrapped without a knot around the saddle horn.

The Jumping SaddleThe Western saddle is different to an English saddle in that it has no padding between the tree and the external leather and fleece skirting.

The weight bearing area of the saddle is large and usually covered with sheepskin, but it must be padded with a saddle blanket in order to provide a comfortable fit for the horse.

Western saddles can be extensively decorated …

The carved leatherwork can often be a true work of art when intricately carved silver conchos and other additions are added to the saddle for show purposes.

More than any other style of saddle, the western saddle can be customized to be a true expression of the rider’s taste and style.

A fine quality western saddle, properly maintained, is intended to last for a person’s lifetime or beyond.

Today, although many Western riders have never roped a cow, the western saddle still features this historical element. Some variations on the Western saddle design, such as those used in bronc riding, endurance riding and those made for the rapidly growing European market, do not have horns.

Another predecessor which may have contributed to the design of the Western saddle was the Spanish tree saddle, which was also influential in the design of the McClellan saddle used by the American military, especially all branches of the US Army, and particularly associated with the US Cavalry.


There are many types of Western saddle available.

The Jumping SaddleSome are general-purpose models while others emphasize either greater freedom for the horse or greater security for the rider, as may be necessary for specialized work in the various Western horse sports such as …

  • cutting
  • reining
  • barrel racing
  • team roping
  • equitation and western pleasure.

Factors such as width of the swells, height of the cantle, depth of the seat, placement of the stirrups and type of rigging all influence the uses of a given design.

For example, a saddle with wide swells, high cantle and deep seat is suitable for cutting, where a rider must remain in a secure, quiet seat on the horse.

At the other end of the spectrum, a saddle with a slick fork – virtually no swells – and a low cantle is suited for calf roping, where a rider must dismount quickly, often while the horse is still in motion, and not be caught up on the saddle.


The most common variations of Western Saddle include …

  • Roping Saddle

    Heavy, sturdy saddle that usually has a thicker horn for securing a rope, low cantle and slick fork that allows rider to dismount quickly when needed.

  • Cutting saddle

    Has a deep seat and wide swells allows the rider to sit deep and securely through sharp stops and turns.

  • Barrel Racing Saddle

    Lightweight saddle with wide swells and high cantle which allows rider to sit securely but also allows the horse to perform fast sprints and sharp turns.

  • Western Endurance Saddle

    Lighter weight than most western saddles, often without a horn, has a tree that spreads the rider’s weight out over a large area of the horse’s back, thus reducing pounds per square inch. Often has stirrups hung slightly farther forward, to allow rider to get off the horse’s back when traveling at faster speeds. Designed for long rides at faster speeds than a trail saddle.

  • Western Trail Saddle

    Designed for maximum comfort of rider as well as a good fit for the horse, features deep, padded seat, designed for long rides at slower speeds.

  • Western Show Saddle

    May be based on roping, cutting, or other trees, but is characterized by additional leather tooling and silver decoration. Usually features a deep, padded seat that allows the rider to sit quietly and give the appearance of a smooth ride.

  • Western Equitation Saddle

    Show saddle with an especially deep seat to help hold a rider in place.

Consider all your horse saddle and bridle options to make sure you choose the correct type, size and combination for the sort of work you want your horse to do.