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Evolution of the Western Saddle


There is no real consensus on the origin, history and evolution of the modern western horse saddle. This page provides some generally accepted insight into the history of horse saddles. Hopefully you will find this information helpful and of interest. It is adpated from an article by Shelley Jessop.

The Evolution of the Western Saddle

The Early History of the Saddle

(Consider the word “saddle” to refer to a seat or pad used to support the rider on an animal, chiefly a horse.)

Exactly when man domesticated the riding horse is questionable. Which of the many human societies first utilized the horse as a mount is debatable. But the fact progress went from a walk to a gallop once man and horse became partners is undeniable.  However, we know the Chinese, Assyrians and Persians were skilled riders 3,000 years before Christ.

Notwithstanding that Brahmans were possibly the first "riders," there is no doubt the Chinese were the first real "horsemen." The Chinese were harnessing the horse about 4,000 BC. There is great evidence to support the idea the Chinese used the horse earlier, to a greater extent and in more ways than did any other civilization. The Chinese were involved in selective breeding and selective conformation (having several different kinds of horses for different jobs) as early as 1,000 years BC

About 2,000 BC the Hittites over in the Mediterranean were doing their thing with the horse. They were using the horse for war, and they were winning. Evidently the Hittites had it together, for it seems it was the Hittites who left the first text on the care and rearing of horses. The document was written about 1,600 BC and contains some advice about the training of a horse which is as applicable today as it was then.  For example, the Hittites said a horse needed the equivalent of about 100 miles of gallops before being asked for real speed. Most trainers today will agree the modern Thoroughbred needs about 100 miles of gallops before being asked to show some of his speed.

Some claim the Assyrians were the first of the eastern Mediterranean cultures to make use of an article resembling a saddle. All they lacked was a stirrup, but at the time, so did everyone else.

The Egyptians were also using the horse about 1,650 BC as a mean of expanding their empire. Curiously, they had no interest in riding astride, preferring the chariot. Maybe they didn’t ride because their horses at the time where not much like the Arabian of today.

The saddles mentioned in the Bible are generally considered to have been saddlecloths. The ancient Greeks sometimes used saddlecloths, but they had no saddles and often rode bareback. The Romans did not use a saddle until near the end of the empire. The Native Americans of the Great Plains of North America were famous horsemen, and usually rode without saddles. To riders accustomed to the saddle, however, its advantages are decisive. Probably saddle as we know it today, was developed either in France during the early Christian era or in the steppe region of Asia. In Europe the saddle came into general use in theMiddle Ages. The exploits of medieval knights would have been difficult without the saddle. Saddles of various types include the packsaddle, to which the load of a pack animal is secured; the camel saddle; the howdah, used by riders of elephants; and the saddle used by riders of horses. There are two main types of horse saddles, the Hungarian and the Moorish. The Moorish saddle, which was used extensively by cowboys in the United States, has a horn which is essential in using the lasso. To hold it in place under the strain of the lasso, this saddle has two strong girths, each tightened by a cinch strap. The Hungarian saddle, of which the English saddle is an example, the McClellan saddle, and the racing saddle have no horns. The English saddle has padding, and the stirrup is hung farther forward than on the Moorish saddle or the McClellan saddle, neither of which is padded. For constant use, the hard saddle is believed in North America to be better for both the horse and the rider. The padded saddle has advantages in brief and occasional rides. (The Expanded Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright© 2000.)

Historically horses were ridden bareback, or with only a blanket over their back. Riders throughout the centuries hunted, fought in wars and traveled great distances all while riding bareback. Some claim a tribe called the Sarmatians who lived by the Black Sea first invented the saddle in 365 AD, as well as the metal stirrup and spurs. The Sarmatians were well known for their horsemanship and use of horses in battle. They were a nomadic tribe that worshiped fire and often sacrificed horses to their god. Female Sarmatians may have been the inspiration for the Greek tales of the Amazons, as they were known to ride into battle with the men. The Sarmatians were conquered by the Goths at the end of the third century in the area which is nowSouthern Russia. Camel and elephant saddles were developed around this same time in Africa and Asia. The Sarmatian saddle was further improved by Medieval knights in Europe. (CBC, Copyright © 1997)

It appears that people rode horses (astride) for over 1,500 years before they had devised a method for achieving greater stability in the saddle. An early form of the stirrup can be traced to India in the second century BC. It consisted of a simple loop through which the rider placed his big toe. This was of limited value for stabilizing a rider and of no real value whatsoever as an aid in mounting a horse. Some scholars believe that the first true stirrups were devised in Central Asia during the first century BC by a nomadic group known as the Sarmatians. This innovation soon spread to other Central Asian peoples, who would have quickly noted that bracing one's feet in a set of stirrups made it much easier to shoot a bow from the saddle.

Invaders from Central Asia, such as the Huns, brought the stirrup to Europe, where it seems to have been valued as much for aiding in mounting as for stabilizing a rider in the saddle. In fact, the words for stirrup in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old English are all derived from words for climbing. When used with the contoured saddle, stirrups afforded a mounted warrior considerable stability, thereby allowing him to deal powerful blows with a sword, axe, mace, or lance. (Old World Contacts / Department of History / The University of Calgary Copyright © 2000, The Applied History Research Group)

Early History of the Western Saddle

The Western Saddle, that we know today, was greatly influenced by the Spanish Vaquero (cowboy). The following is a condensed excerpt from a highly informative and beautifully detailed article that documents the history of the Cowboy. The article is entitled 'Cowboys-Vaqueros, Origins of the First American Cowboys' by Donald Gilbert Y Chavez (

Historians are aware that America's story owes something of significance to the "western saddle," ergo the metaphor - what the motorcar was to the American 20th century traveler, or working employee, (who used a motor vehicle to make a living), the saddle was to the early American travelers and cowboys. What was under the hood, be it horses or horsepower did not change much. Rather, it was the drivers' seat and all its appearances that we have obsessed about. Henry Ford invented the first motorcar and the Spanish Vaquero invented the first western cowboy saddle.

What we term the “western saddle,” Americans of the first half of the nineteenth century generally referred to as the “Spanish saddle.” Thus they showed their awareness of its place of origin. Americans of that time commonly used the term "Spanish" to distinguish whatever related to New Spain-Mexico and her provinces to the north: TexasNew Mexico and California. And within the locus of the New World, it was specifically in Mexico, (which included modern day New Mexico), that the western saddle originated and underwent a great deal of its development. By the outset of the nineteenth century the saddle used by the horsemen of New Mexico was founded upon a saddletree incorporating practically all the elements of design by which the western saddle tree is distinguished today. By the time Spain had set sail for the West Indies in 1492, two basic styles had been adopted and brought to the Americas with the horse, a la estradiota, and la jineta.


La Estradiota
Spanish War Saddle


La Jineta
Muslem Cavalrymen Saddle

From the 11th century West European institution of "chivalry," (which originally had the same meaning as "cavalry") evolved the age of knighthood. The saddle of chivalry, (a la estradiota) consisted of two large rigid bows, the rear end couching the pelvis of the rider, connected by wooden planks. The seat was padded on both sides between the rider and the horse. The fork swell or pommel rose high in front of the rider so as to protect the stomach from the force of the opposing jouster's lance. The cantle was high enough to secure the rider from being forced over the rear of the horse and close enough to the pommel to further snugly secure the rider.

It was from the 'a la estradiota' and 'la jineta' styles and the saddles designed around those styles that the first vaqueros developed an American saddle to suit their own needs and preferences. From their research the saddle experts have a reasonably good idea how the western stock saddle evolved and appeared. However, because there are no surviving fully documented saddles from the colonial American Southwest and Mexico (1521-1821), other than a few inconclusive illustrations and literary references to the estradiotajineta and later vaquero type saddles, there is no consistent agreement between authorities on exactly what the first vaquero saddle looked like. Given the old maxim that "necessity is the mother of invention," it is a reasonable assertion that, (1) there were as many prototypes as there were inventors, and (2) they began with the examples of the Spanish import, la estradiota, and la jineta, and blended the most practical features of each and allowed the personal experience and the conditions of the deserts of northern Mexico and Southwestern U.S. to shape what eventually began to look like a "functional" prototype for what became the Spanish American, then Mexican, and later American western saddle.

The first saddle models had no saddle horn. The saddle horn was an innovation invented through necessity by creative Spanish and Mexican vaqueros. Livestock was first tied to the horse's tail. The horses surely having objected to towing anything larger than a sheep, vaqueros then tied the home end of their lariat to the "D" ring on the side rigging of the saddle. That proved less than efficient, so some ingenious vaquero invented a large wooden bulbous saddle horn cut from the same piece of saddle tree; also called a manzana or apple. The second Viceroy of New Spain claimed some credit for "la silla vaquero" the new vaquero saddle with a saddle horn for roping. It is my guess, however, that it was a "creative hands on" practical minded lesser known working vaquero who through trial and error invented the prototype of what eventually became the saddle horn. This first Spanish style (Livingston) saddle had no skirts and the stirrups were cut from one solid piece of wood. Russell Beatie, in his book “Saddles” asserts that "...this early Spanish saddle was used, with only minor modifications, for 200 years."

By the early 17th century, the modified jineta saddle utilized by the first colonial Mexican stockmen had evolved into a distinctive national form: la silla vaquero mexicana. It became famous in the mid-19th century in the western United States as the vaquero saddle or Mexican cowboy saddle. This form displayed many variations, some regional and some occasioned by the taste and uses of its owner.  One variety was sometimes called la silla charra, or charro saddle. The influences of the early Mexican saddle have been preserved in large part in one of our local saddle styles, The Santa Fe saddle even in more contemporary time.  Richard Ahlborn, in “Western Words” indicates that "by the early decades of the 19th century, the Mexican (Vaquero) stock saddle had assumed the general appearance, of the stock saddle that was to become the standard in the western part of the United States, another vast region where further regional modifications would continue to take place. The vaquero saddle was also the precursor of the "Texas" saddle which included such modifications as double rigging.

Top to bottom: CharroSanta Fe and Texas style saddles

The Saddlehorn

Many of the first generation of Anglo Cowboy Texas had missing thumbs. While novice cowboy Anglo Texans were taking cowboy lessons from their Mexican Vaquero teachers they were unable to tie the lariat around the saddlehorn like the seasoned Hispanic Mexicans. Often they were not able to rope the steer, turn the rope around the saddlehorn, and then remove their thumb between the rope and horn before the animal pulled tight.  Consequently, they lost their thumbs. This was the beginning of the Texan tradition of roping technique where the rope was first tied to the saddlehorn, then lassoing the animal. To this day on occasion you will still come across a cowboy who lost his thumb the same way. The one major change within the range of forms typical of the Mexican saddle occurred after 1875 as a result of the efforts of groups of charros – Mexican horsemen devoted to the art of the Mexicana riding style who were anxious to preserve the traditions and skills of authentic Mexican horsemanship. As a result of their efforts, charreria was organized into a national sport and is now a traditional part of the Mexican culture," as well as some parts of the U.S. Southwest.

The popularity of the American West was largely owing to the salesmanship of Buffalo Bill Cody, who in 1883 started thrilling crowds across America and the world with his Wild West show, which featured riders outfitted with deluxe western regalia much fancier than what any working cowhand would use. The show's gilded image of the frontier was so persuasive that buckskin fringe and tack with ornate tooling became part of the region's culture, inspiring genuine cowboys and dudes alike.

Buffalo Bill Show Posters
Copyright © 2001 Montie Montana Jr. (

Military Influence on the Western Saddle

While more utilitarian than civilian models, military saddles were nonetheless affected by cultural influences. Some periods were more ornate, some less, reflecting then-current fashions, concepts of national identity, and prevailing views of the military. Saddles reflected a much more significant influence as well. In the early days of the nation, American military saddles were dead ringers for English and French gear. During the expansion West though, concepts of cavalry changed, as did the conditions and needs of the fighting man, at the same time that Americans were making increased contact with the outposts of the Spanish empire. Spanish saddles and techniques learned from the Moors in ancient wars, and well adapted to use on the vast expanses of the new world, were far better suited to frontier conditions. The practical men of the fledgling United States picked them up rather quickly beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century, both in terms of a series of military saddle designs, and in the evolution of what we now call the "western" or "cowboy" saddle. The shapes of the saddles changed, as did concepts of equitation. In the first half of the 20th century, free of the demands of Indian warfare, and without much other fighting to do, the cavalry drifted back to English and French-influenced equipment and techniques, in search of European style and finesse. (Copyright ©1999 “Clinical Observations on the Collecting of Military Saddles” by Joseph Sullivan, originally published in the Texas & Southwestern Collectors' Association Newsletter via The Military Horse Forum -

The McClellan Military Saddle: As has been recounted in numerous other works, George B. McClellan developed this saddle over a number of years. This saddle has its beginnings in the Crimean War, where Capt. McClellan was sent, like many officers, to observe the activities of the combatants. During this time it is surmised that he was able to observe, and perhaps test for himself, a great variety of foreign military equipment. This seems to have been the case, as he was spurred to suggest a wide range of changes to the equipment then in use by the U.S. Army.

The Model 1913 McClellan Packer's Saddle: This odd saddle was made as a saddle for packers ("wranglers" of supply pack trains) who needed the horn for lead ropes, etc. Quite a number of other personnel in cavalry organizations were also issued packer saddles instead of the regular McClellan service saddle. Many packers relied on commercial, western-type saddles, which were later made by contractors such as R.T. Frazier and K.C. Saddlery Company for a short time during WWI. These McClellan packers were totally different in dimensions from the cavalry/artillery McClellans, as they were generally used with mules. The saddles featured a bare brass horn, and four brass rigging rings, and two horsehair or mohair cinchas. These generally had steel knife-edge stirrups. (Copyright © The Military Horse Forum -


Left to right: The first McClellan 1857 and The Model 1913 McClellan
Copyright © The Military Horse Forum -

General Information About Saddles


Hopefully you will find this western horse saddlery information helpful and of interest when you shop for top quality western saddles and tack made by leaders in the horse saddle industry: Simco, Longhorn, American Saddlery, Circle G Brand, Southern Riding, and Abetta. This is adpated from articles by Shelley Jessop and Don Blazer.

The Western Saddle



Whether you participate in riding for pleasure or competition, few things are more important than having a saddle that properly fits both the horse and rider. Saddles can be compared to shoes; and we all know the discomfort associated with an ill-fitting, uncomfortable pair of shoes!

Designed for long hours in the saddle, the western saddle needs to be comfortable for both the rider and the horse. The wide flaps of the typical Western saddle distributes the rider's weight over a large area of the horse's back, making it more efficient and comfortable for the horse to carry its rider. The wide fenders keep the horse's sweat off the rider’s legs and the stirrups are wide enough to allow the rider’s feet to rest comfortably. The horn is used for roping cattle and provides an extra aid to rider for balance.

Whereas the previous article outlined the history of the western saddle, this article summarizes the main parts of a typical western saddle, describes the main types of western style saddles available, and provides basic guidelines for fitting a saddle.

Modern Western Saddles

As time went on, saddle design continued to change to meet the needs of the working cowboy, the rodeo contestant, and the rider who was seeking a comfortable seat when heading down the trail for a pleasure ride. Saddles continue to be redesigned and redeveloped with “New and Improved” varieties appearing constantly.

The Hope Saddle by Carrico's Leatherworks of Edna, Kansas 
(Historical Reproduction of an early western saddle)

Simco® Arabian Saddle

Longhorn® Show Saddle

Simco ® Roping Saddle



Simco ® Specialty Saddle

Synthetic Saddle by Abetta®

Parts of the Western Saddle

The Tree:

The foundation of the saddle is the tree. Today saddletrees are made of a choice of different materials. By far the best tree to go for is the "bull-hide covered wood" tree. This tree is made out of Ponderosa Pine with one or two layers of wet Bull-hide or rawhide stretched over it. As the hide dries it shrinks forming a vice-like covering. This makes for a very resilient and strong tree, which however has an element of "give" in it. Inferior trees are often covered with canvas or cheesecloth or poorer quality hides (e.g., goat) and are suitable only for light pleasure use. Saddletrees are also made out of molded fiberglass and other plastics but again these generally are suitable only for pleasure use and not for Ranch and Rope work. The tree consists of:


The part of the tree that rests along the sides of the horse's spine is called the "bars." The size, shape and angle of the bars are what determine the fit. The three basic types of tree include the Quarterhorse (widest and longest bars, accommodating most "stock type" Quarterhorses), Semi-Quarterhorse (narrower bars, conforming to Thoroughbred type Quarterhorses), and Arabian tree (shorter bars, fitting shorter backed Arabian type horses). They should fit smoothly along the length of the horse's back and evenly distribute the pressure and weight of the rider and saddle. Both the length and angle of the bars affect how comfortably the saddle fits the horse.


Also called the Pommel. Fork design gives shape and definition to the front of the saddle. An "A-Fork" is just what it's name implies; the front of the saddle looks like an "A" as it rises from the bars to the horn. Other fork styles are somewhat broader in appearance, with more swell to the fork. The more swell to the fork, the more support you feel.


The design of the swell/fork, as well as the angle of the bars, help to determine the width and height of the saddle gullet. This, in turn, affects how well a saddletree fits the horse's withers. The saddle must clear the withers. Too low a fit in this area and the horse can become sore quickly.


This may be tall or short, thick or thin, and have a large horn cap or a small one. The angle used in attaching a horn to a tree also varies. The intended use for the saddle usually determines the horn design.


The term "high-backed saddle" refers to the cantle design used in the saddle tree. A higher-backed saddle can seem snugger in fit than a low one, given the seat measurement, simply because it offers more support in a higher position on the rider's back. This can come at a loss of flexibility for the rider so a lower cantle is often found in a roping saddle or when a quick dismount is needed such as in steer wrestling.

"Cuttin' Loose" by Billy Cook® Saddlery
Photo used with permission from the Simco/Longhorn Leather Co. Inc.

The Rigging:

Cinch (Front Cinch):

The cinch is the wide strap that fits under the horse to secure the saddle. Anywhere from 26”-36” long, cinches are often made of Mohair Blend material (usually 27 strands), Felt or Neoprene. The Latigo is attached to the cinch, and in turn tied to the Front Rigging Dee with a flat knot. Always secure the front cinch prior to the back cinch. Conversely, when unsaddling, undo the front cinch last.

Front Rigging Dee:

A metal ring to fasten the latigo through, which in turn is attached to the cinch.

Back Flank Billet (Rear Cinch):

The back flank billet should not hang down more than one inch when fastened, to prevent the horse's foot from becoming caught if scaling steep hills. A keeper strap should attach the back cinch to the front cinch under the horse's belly. The rear cinch is not used with all types of saddles.

Rear Rigging Dee:

A metal ring to fasten the back flank billet through.

Quick Change Buckle:

The quick change buckle is used to adjust the stirrup length.

Hobble Straps:

It is very important that hobble straps are used. This will prevent the stirrup from turning over if you fall off, which could result in your foot becoming stuck, in which case you risk being dragged!

Tie Strap Holder:

The tie strap holder is used to loop the excess length of the latigo through when saddled up. It is also used to loop the latigo through when storing the saddle to prevent the strap from dragging on the ground.

(Information provided in part by Western Horseman Magazine)

Types of Western Saddle

There are many styles of western saddles, depending on the purpose of the saddle. Some of the most popular types include:


Show saddles typically are intricately carved and often have a lot of silver. The style now is for a moderately built up seat in the front with a low cantle and a short fat horn.


Longhorn® Benchmark Show Saddle trimmed by Montana Silversmiths®

Trail & Pleasure:

Usually plainer than show saddles, they are made in a variety of horn, swell, seat, and skirt styles according to the needs of the rider. Trail and pleasure saddles are designed for trail riding with comfort and support in mind, not speed. Generally lighter in weight, a higher, slightly undercut fork assures a secure seat that is more comfortable for long rides. The cantle is higher than that on other saddles and it has a more pronounced dish. It has both a front and back cinch and is often equipped with a breast collar.


Salina's Supreme by Simco®                         Longhorn® Pleasure Saddle


Roping saddles are built strong for demanding use. Usually on a bullhide covered tree, ropers have fairly tall, thick horns to "dally" the calf or steer to. They have a front and flank cinch, average size thick swells, and a low seat and cantle. They have deep, wide stirrups. Roper saddles are designed with a strong horn, tree and rigging so it will withstand roping. A low rounded fork, low cantle and a unique horn distinguish this saddle. The low front reduces leverage against the horn and the horse's withers and allows for freedom of movement for the rider. The Roping saddle has a low cantle and deep, wide stirrups. A front and back cinch is present.


Longhorn® Matt Tyler Roping Saddle

Cutters & Penners:

Built strong like ropers, cutters have tall thin horns and a very flat long seat. The fenders are often narrower than other saddles and have round stirrups, sometimes made of wood or metal. On saddles used as cutters and penners there is less rise in the seat with the lowest point a bit further ahead, making it easier for the rider to stay centered. The swells and horn are high so the rider can hang onto the horn at a proper angle to push or pull on it to remain stable. Cutters and penners generally flat seat that helps the rider move in the saddle in response to the horse's performance. The swells are wide and cut back, to allow the rider a tight grip when the horse turns sharply. Cutting and penning saddles possess both front and back cinches.


Longhorn® Super Star Cutting Saddle


Reiners are designed to allow as much feel to the horse as possible. The horn is lower so it won't interfere with the rider's hands or reins. The seat is well shaped to allow the rider to roll their pelvis back for making those sliding stops. The reining saddle only has a front cinch, and not a back cinch.


John Lyons® Border Tooled Reiner


Barrel Racing:

Built with a low narrow horn often braided in rawhide, the barrel saddle has a deep seat and fairly wide swells to help keep the rider securely in the saddle. Barrel saddles used to always have a round skirt but the style preferred now is mostly square skirts. Barrel racers are designed for speed, comfort and safety, this saddle has a very deep seat so the rider stays put on fast runs and hard turns. The horn is higher, which makes it easier to hold onto around turns. It usually has a half-rough seat for extra grip. The fork is higher with wide swells for a tighter grip. The front is frequently built up for a secure seat and has goodDee rings or flat plate rigging for safety. Some barrel racers have moved to the "treeless" saddles, or if they do possess a tree it is made from a lightweight material, not the traditional rawhide covered wood tree. Barrel saddles usually possess only the front cinch and not a back cinch.


"WW" Half Breed by Simco®


Designed to fit the unique features of the back of the Arabian horse, these saddles feature an "A" fork and often have rounded skirts and equitation seats (built up in front).


Simco® Musada Arabian Show Saddle trimmed by Montana Silversmiths®

Rancher or "Old Time":

A resurrection of a saddle type popular in the 1800's, these saddles have roping horns, a "A" fork (no swells) and a hard leather seat, called a "slick" seat that joins the cantle abruptly, without the conventional cheyenne roll. The skirts can be either rounded or square and sometimes the stirrups leathers are on the outside of the fenders.


The A-Fork Old Timer by Simco®

Flexible Tree Saddles:

Although controversial, flexible tree saddles are becoming popular, particularly with Barrel Racers. The following is an excerpt from an article on the Tex-Flex Saddle, which outlines the basic theory behind flexible tree saddles:

This design is aimed at providing a truly flexible saddle built with a traditional look and feel. The challenge of creating a flexible saddletree was twofold. The first was a flexible tree bar that would conform to the horse's back. Experimenting with several different materials, this was achieved by bonding high-density polyethylene plastic and leather together to give flexibility while retaining structural integrity. A typical saddle seat is created by taking a preformed seat, or strainer, usually made of metal or fiberglass, and installing it onto the saddletree. The material for this seat had to be flexible, have shape-holding characteristics for the seat's foundation, and memory to bring the saddle back to it's original position. The answer came in the form of heat tempered spring steel.

The theory of the Flexible Tree Saddle is that a flexible bar can adjust to the conformation of the animal significantly widens the range of animals that will fit any particular tree design. The tree will move with the horse instead of against it. When a horse turns or bends his body the tree will "get out of the way" of the animal's shoulders and hips.

The materials used result in a thinner, lighter tree bar. Designers incorporated 1/2" neoprene rubber in the bottom layer of the skirt rather than an additional layer of leather, which enhances the comfort to the horse while providing close contact and less weight to the saddle. According to Tex Flex Saddles, the combination of these materials has the effect of putting the rider three times closer to the horse while providing even distribution of weight to the horse's back.

Selection and Fit of the Western Saddle

Proper saddle fitting is complicated and requires knowledge of equine anatomy and saddle construction. It is the responsibility of the rider to determine if and when a saddle is causing soreness. If the saddle does not fit properly, there is no amount of padding that will correct the problem. It is important to both fit therider to the saddle and the horse to saddle.

It is difficult to select a saddle that will fit your horse without trying it. It is crucial that you try the saddle on your horse, and ride with the saddle, before you buy it. Note: This can easily result in the saddle being marked and dirty, and The Saddle Zone cannot accept the return of such a saddle (see our Return policy).

Saddle Selection - Fit Rider and Horse

Saddle Selection

When it is time to start looking for your saddle, there are several main considerations to take into account before you begin:

Riding style:

What type of riding will you be doing? Have an idea of the type of saddle you are looking for before you start shopping around. Ensure that you have chosen a saddle that suits the style of riding you will be participating in.

Saddle fit and you:

Does the saddle fit you? A good fit saddle should feel very comfortable to sit in. Larger people will need a bigger seat; children and smaller adults will require a smaller, narrower seat for comfort. Saddle seats of children's saddles are 13” or less with adult saddle seats ranging from 14 - 18” (See image). Sit in the deepest part of the saddle and reach back. Place your hand flat on the seat. There should be one hand's width between the back of your seat and the cantle.

Photo used with permission from Cheryl McNamee 

Saddle fit and your horse:

Does the saddle fit your horse? This is very important!! And it is not an easy task to determine the proper fit. It is best to have an expert help you out when you are testing saddles. Once you have a potential saddle in hand, ask yourself the following questions.

*        Are the Bars the right length and angle for your type of horse? There should be no rubbing on the hipbones. (See Parts of The Western Saddle: The Tree: Bars).

*        Is the saddle level on the horses back? Place it on the horse first without the pad. Jiggle the saddle with the horn. It should slide into position with the cinch falling vertically, about an inch behind the horses elbow. Look at the skirt, is should not slope up or down. The seat where you will be sitting should be level.

*        Does the pad clear the saddle? Saddle up with the pad. The pad should clear the saddle on all sides by a couple inches. It should be thick enough to provide cushion. When testing saddles, use the pad that you will actually be riding with.

*        Can you slide 2-3 fingers sideways under the gullet? More room indicates the bars are too narrow, less room indicates the bars are too wide.

*        Can you slide a flat hand under the saddle on both sides of the withers? The saddle should not hit the withers, but rest behind the shoulder.

*        Does the saddle sit securely? The saddle should fit securely, even without the cinch's being done up. The saddle should not rock very easily from side to side even when the front cinch is undone.

*        How does the saddle fit after riding for about 15 minutes or so? Ride, then dismount and recheck the fit. Trot and canter for at least 15 minutes, dismount and recheck the fit again.

*        Is your horse exhibiting any type of behavioral problems while test-riding the saddle? Pinning his ears, bucking, nipping at his sides or any other unusual behavior may indicate a problem with saddle fit.

*        What kind of condition is the saddle in? Make sure your saddle is safe. Check for wear, damage or faulty construction. Are the stirrup hobble straps present? Is there a keeper to attach the front and back cinches? String can be used temporarily. Plan on replacing, repairing or adding additional pieces as required.

Note: Keep in mind that fit of your saddle will change based on your horses age and condition. Be aware of the changes in your horses form and adjust your tack accordingly. The perpetual squeak of a new saddle until it is broken in is a myth; squeaking indicates that the saddle is made from poor quality leather. There should be very little, or no squeak at all, even with a brand new saddle.


What can you afford? Having a custom made saddle is the ideal. The bare tree can be fit to the horses back prior to the saddle being built, ensuring a good fit. But, due to the cost involved, it is beyond the reach of many people. As the old saying goes “You Get What You Pay For”. Establish your price range and then get the best quality saddle for the best price. We are confident that you will do just that here at The Saddle Zone.  Ensure you have a feel for the price range of similar saddles. Consult with your expert to ensure you are being charged a fair price.


Do you have enough experience to choose your own saddle? There are a countless variety of saddles on the market. It can be overwhelming, particularly if you are a new rider with limited experience. Recruit an expert to help you evaluate saddles and to assist you with selecting the appropriate one for you and your horse. Even if you do have some experience, it is always a good idea to get someone else's opinion. An experienced and reputable horse-person, saddle maker or trainer are all good candidates.


A saddle is a very important aspect of the total experience for both the rider and horse, in addition to being a substantial investment. Take the care and time to select the right one. Remember, a good saddle will last a lifetime providing the rider and horse with comfort for blissful hours of riding!

What Saddle Is Right For You

What saddle is right for you?
Barrel RacingA barrel racing saddle is distinguished by its size. The barrel racing saddle is built for speed, being smaller and lighter than any other western saddle.
Skirts are minimized in size and the tree is small and lightweight on a barrel saddle. The result is a saddle often weighing under 30 pounds avoiding any superfluous mass that would cause the horse work harder and move slower. The barrel racer saddle's seat is constructed with a relatively flat seat, providing the rider ease of movement to balance the horse in turns, whereas the cantle and pommel are high giving the rider a secure ride. The barrel saddle's horn is tall and narrow so the rider can take firm hold of it while rapidly dismounting for a high-speed sprint to the gate at the end of the race. As it is easier to keep a boot in a narrow stirrup, the barrel saddle's stirrups have narrow tread. Due to the likelihood of the stirrups hitting the barrels' edge as the horse and rider cut tightly around it, the stirrups on a barrel saddle are often covered with rawhide, which is much more resistant to scrapes and dings than soft leather. To optimize balance the fenders on a barrel saddle are free-swinging for ease of movement so the rider can be keep her legs positioned directly under her legs. In summary the barrel saddle is built tough so as to withstand the rigors and speed of barrel racing while still being safe and secure to the rider.

Cutting: In a cutting event, a well-made saddle is necessity not luxury. In a cutting event the cutting horse follows the dexterous and cunning maneuvers of a steer on a mission to get back to his herd. Thus, the cutting saddle is designed to correctly position the rider as the cutting horse makes quick, catlike moves, allowing the rider to stay in balance and on top of the action at all times. The seat is flat and the pommel is high and straight to allowing the rider to be in contact with the horse while maintaining a relaxed position and preventing him from slipping forward. The rider pushes the free-swinging fenders forward for balance and to keep leg contact off the horse, since the rider's legs are not actively used to cue the cutting horse. Stirrups on a cutting saddle are typically narrow oxbow style and are ridden snug against the boot heel. The rider keeps one hand wrapped tightly around the tall thin horn as the horse and steer make unanticipated moves. This is done not only as a security measure but also to prevent the rider from interfering with the horse's movement. A cutting horse is trained to work independently when tracking a calf. The rider is little more than a spectator (with the best seat in the house) as the horse is at work. The right cutter saddle design ensures the rider can stay in balance and not interfere with the horse's movements.

Penning: Penning is a team event which has cutters and holders as in the cutting event. Although the objectives are different in penning and cutting events, they both require cutting and holding cows, thus saddles made for penning share design strategies used for cutting saddles. Penning saddles provide the rider with a comfortable and deep seat. The horn, tree and rigging are also built strong. The swells of a penner are often lower that a cutter, but a bit higher than most roping saddles.

Reining: The reining saddle is designed to optimize the horse's balance, agility and freedom of movement. The reining event is designed to show the athletic ability of a ranch type horse, therefore the reining saddle must not impede the horse and the rider must be placed in proper balance while the horse is galloping circles, spinning and sliding. As this an event of precision, a reiner saddle is usually made with cutouts in the skirt to enhance the level of communication between the horse and rider. Also the bars of the tree are trimmed (or "ground down") where the rider sits. This gives the seat a "deep pocket" and makes that section of the seat narrower giving the rider closer contact, which provides better stability in the stops and spins. To improve balance and let the rider's legs move freely, the fenders are hung from the center of the tree. The rigging is dropped in order for the latigo straps to lie flat against the horse's sides, preventing the fenders from being caught in the equipment. To keep the horn from interfering with the rider's hands or getting tangled in the reins, yet usable for light work, the reining saddle horn is narrow and medium in height. A well-crafted reining saddle will sit balanced and level on the horse's back, evenly distributing the rider's weight. All aspects of the reining saddle are fine-tuned stability and performance, as well as comfort. This saddle is an event-specific piece of equipment that facilitates long, effortless slides and breathtaking spins Trail Riding: Although trail riding may seem like a generic pastime, the trail saddle is far from being generic in design. A trail saddle is designed specifically for trail use to enhance the enjoyment of any ride. Thus comfort is of foremost importance. Hours of riding over uneven trails can be wearing on one's body. With comfort as priority some trail saddles now have cushy neoprene padding and flexible trees. To optimize smoothness of the ride, the design utilizes a close-contact saddle with cutout skirts and a tree tapered in the center to improve the rider's comfort and contact with the horse (called a "narrow twist"). A trail saddle's higher cantle and pommel satisfy the demand for a secure seat that derives from the higher probability of spook or encounter with unstable ground that comes on the trail. While safety and comfort are important, on the trail the rider's balance is also very important. The trail saddle is designed to keep the rider squarely centered, making it easier for the rider to negotiate difficult terrain. The horse benefits by feeling more balanced as well, thus both the rider and horse get less fatigued during the ride. Fenders are well placed underneath the rider's body giving increased balance and security. The stirrup tread is wide for both stability and long-distance comfort. A trail saddle is a multipurpose tool, adorned with leather saddle strings for tying jackets and gear, making it well-suited for many miles of pleasure. For competitive events such as endurance riding, basic trail saddle design is adapted to weigh less, and options often include rounded-off pommel instead of a horn and modified rigging similar to the billets on an English saddle
Show saddles very ornately tooled and decorated with silver to give a classy look. Show saddles generally have a lower horn so as not to interfere with the reins. The skirts are also deeper to pronounce and show off the silver and tooling. It is important for the seat must be very balanced to assist the rider in proper riding posture. Roping: The quality roping saddle has a deep seat and the fenders hung in a position, ensuring the rider can be upright and well-balanced when ready to rope. The horns and trees are extra strong to take the pull. The rigging on the roper saddle must be one that pulls off the top of the tree bars and has great strength. Generally suede out padded seats are preferred to give more grip. The swells of the saddle are kept reasonably low as to keep the leverage of the rope on the horn to a minimum.
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