What to Look for when buying a Western saddle …
Western saddles are used in western riding and are the saddles used on working horses on cattle ranches throughout American.
Having had one bad experience in purchasing a western saddle I thought this article might offer help to anyone thinking of starting western riding and who is thinking of buying a western saddle off-the-peg.
My first horse was a western-trained Trakehner on loan from a friend
Western Saddles, The Good, The Bad & The UglyIan Cantwell
He came complete with tack except for a saddle, so I was left to find something suitable before I could ride him.
I scoured the free ads for weeks and eventually found myself buying a western saddle of unknown manufacture that had been brought back from a holiday in the USA.
Everything looked OK with this saddle and because it had taken me so long to find I snapped it up without a thought as to whether it was going to be suitable, mistake number one.
Luckily for my horse this Western saddle was a good fit, as far as I could tell with the skirts attached, but after riding a few times something felt not quite right.
So one evening I decided to take a closer look and upon examining the tree found that the seat was coming away from the bars.
I was in a panic, was my hard earned cash down the drain? Being a handy sort of person and having a father who was a joiner I decided to strip off the leather and see if I could find the source of the problem, that?s when my interest in saddle making started.
The saddle was a complete mess; the seat was split in three and had come away from the bars. The tin plate ground seat was buckled and the nails were all loose. The skirts were held to the bars with flimsy leather pockets that had rotted and the shearling was coming unstitched.
Well, to cut a long story short, it took me several evenings to fix things. I drilled and pinned the seat, screwed and glued the seat back to the bars.
I carried out extensive repairs to the leather parts and learnt a lot along the way about poor quality Western saddles.
There’s no real moral to this story but having gone through this experience I have learnt several things and wanted to share them with others, these are my own observations and opinions and may not always be in line with those of the experts.
First off, fit is the single most important consideration when choosing a western saddle and this cannot be judged accurately if the skirts are attached, it has to be the tree that fits and not the shearling.
Many people try to make a saddle fit by padding it out with a thick saddle pad, in many cases this only makes the situation worse.
Poor fit often becomes evident when the horse gets sores or white hairs appear near the withers, this is due to bridging where the bars are only touching at the front and back, no amount of padding is going to cure this and alterations to the tree are necessary.
English riders have a far simpler job of choosing a saddle.
They can take their horse to the local tack store and try literately dozens of saddles of any style until they get a good fit.
We western enthusiasts don’t have this luxury, I doubt if there is a western store in the UK that has more than a couple of saddles of any one particular style.
One sure way to get a western saddle that will fit is to measure your horse and have the tree made to suit.
There are two methods that I know of that can be used to measure the shape of a horse’s back.
The first method is using the Equimeasure …
The Equimeasure is a plastic sheet that is heated and then formed over the back and allowed to cool.
This is an American product that has a few disadvantages.
It is expensive to ship over to the UK and back again to the USA if you are having a tree made over there.
Their ovens are far larger than ours are so the plastic sheet might not fit in your oven.
And finally, it’s not always possible to get your horse close to home to carry out this exercise.
The second method, and one that I prefer to use is a product called a Flexicurve …
The Flexicurve is a flexible plastic drawing aid that can be bought from most art shops in a variety of lengths; I use the 18" version.
Again this is formed over the horse?s back in several places but then cardboard templates are made and these can be posted to the tree maker.
I use a company in the USA who manufacture to this method, they have hundreds of styles, and all their trees are wood, covered with Ultrahide.
It must be emphasised at this point that I’m not a professional saddle maker.
I took a three week beginners course in Canada with a master saddler who has over 40 years experience and who once operated one of the largest saddle making shops on the west coast.
His work is used by the R.C.M.P. and I manufacture saddles for my own pleasure and for friends on a not-for-profit basis.
My first saddle was a replica of a late 1800’s ranch saddle built on an old-style Visalia tree with Northwest bars/semi Quarter Horse. It features 8 string Texas skirts, on tree rigging, slick fork, leather-covered stirrups and a 15" loop seat.
I have noticed a growing number of outlets for buying a western saddle that usually stock factory made, brand name products.
Many of the famous old names such as Eamors, Ammerman and Simco can still be found on second hand saddles but the big factories have taken over a lot of the small specialist custom shops.
Unless you are buying a custom made western saddle, and I use the word ‘custom’ in its broadest connotation, you are likely to get a mass produced saddle of average fit and quality.
It is obvious from the price that savings have to be made somewhere and these are a few of the points to look out for when buying a factory made western saddle.
- Many are rigged in-skirt. This saves a few square feet of leather and a considerable amount of time. This might be OK if you need a close contact equitation saddle that isn’t going to be used a great deal but for working saddles there are pitfalls. All the stresses are being put through the skirt and not directly onto the tree. Remember that the skirt is only held to the tree with a few screws and the saddle strings. The
rigging plates are riveted to the skirt, these are in close contact with the horse and sweat will eventually rot these out.
- Factories will use every square inch of leather; waste means less profit so therefore you don?t always get the best cuts of leather throughout your Western saddle.
- Ever since the saddle was invented wooden trees have remained the number one choice. Many factory saddles are now built on plastic trees of an average fit and in conditions of extreme cold plastic can become brittle.
- Most factory saddles use a plastic or tin plate ground seat (I’ve seen cheap Mexican saddles utilise old bean cans). These are made to a standard shape and it is very difficult to alter them. A custom Western saddle will have at least 4 layers of leather before the final seat cover is attached. These layers can be formed to precisely the correct shape to fit the rider but this takes time and uses lots of leather.
- One way to save leather is to build a rough-out seat. By using a piece of suede for the seat the side jockeys can be made separately from small off-cuts. I’ve done this, it’s an acceptable method but the seat will not wear as well as one made from heavy leather and you have the problem of water absorption. I use the same heavily oiled leather that I use for my chinks.
- Some saddles have artificial shearling similar to that used in hospitals to prevent bedsores. The best material for a saddle is veg-tanned sheepskin. Sheepskin has a natural pile which when sewn in the correct way helps prevent the saddle blanket slipping. Artificial and chrome-tanned skins do not have this feature and in addition, when wet; chrome-tanned hides (those fluffy white ones with grey flesh) will lose their wool over time.
- Watch out for cinchas made from a cotton/nylon mix, I always try to get cinchas made from Mohair, they are much kinder on the horse. I’ve never tried the urethane type but believe they also get a good review.
So you see, there’s a lot more to buying a western saddle than first meets the eye. It’s not all pretty tooling and silver. I’ve learnt by my mistakes and I hope this insight into the manufacture of western saddles will help you avoid some of those pitfalls.