I have been asked now several times to address the subject of fitting western saddles. As you may know, my specialty is English saddles – and mainly dressage – but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on western saddles.


My principles on saddle fitting any saddle is to fit the saddle to the horse’s conformation. The saddle which goes on top – English, racing, long distance, speciality saddle, western saddle, etc. etc. - has to fit along the lines of these principles, which means that the saddle is not to impact or deform negatively the horse’s back, cut off the cartilage at the shoulder , damage the spine, impinge the ligaments, nor numb the nerves permanently. This is the philosophy of Saddlefit4life - to protect horse and rider from long term damage – regardless of the saddle. For the rider, the hips shouldn’t hurt, the knees shouldn’t bruise, and the vertebral discs shouldn’t become disaligned.


Most western saddles are still built to the principles of the last century where they were working saddles used by cowboys. Most western saddles built in the last 40 to 50 years are still built for the male rider, but it seems that the manufacturers may have forgotten what was done in the old days – when the cowboy came from a cattle drive after being 3-4 months in the countryside, the horse was usually put out to pasture for a few days to rest. It may have gotten new shoes, and got a thorough grooming, while the saddle itself was completely overhauled. The panel sheepskin was pulled off and replaced, and the bottom of the tree was reshaped to the horse’s back with new sheepskin put on . He was then ready for the next cattle drive with a newly properly fitted saddle.


The same applied to the army saddles – in the cavalry the officer was taught how to shift the stuffing around through the bottom of the saddle which was made of a serge panel . The stuffing was horsehair and deer hair and could be adjusted as much as 4-5 times per year.


So what does this mean? Both the working riders - cowboy or soldier – realized proper equipment and properly fitted saddles allowed them to do their jobs while protecting their horses.


Today we have mass-produced western saddles (even those generally deemed ‘custom’) still made mainly for a traditional male cowboy , even though statistics show that 75% of western riders are female, and most are made and sold without proper fitting to the horse. This is why we introduced the western and English trail saddles to our line – to bring back old traditions but to fit new clientele (women) who want to enjoy hacking. The average weight of a ‘real’ western saddle is 45-50 pounds; ours weighs 17-25 lbs. We use a re-modeled tree that works for trail riding, but not calf roping – for that you need a ‘real’ western saddle.


Bottom line is, western saddles are hard to fit – the trees are mostly unadjustable and they have no padding that can be moved around. So they have to either fit from the getgo or they won’t ever really fit! It’s just easier to make them work with pads etc. than English saddles. I guess you have to make sure that what you buy is as close as you can get to begin with and then make up the difference with shims and pads.


For more in-depth information on saddle fitting and the western saddle, I suggest you buy the book and/or the DVD from Joyce Harman on Western Saddles: How to Fit Pain-Free. She will surely be able to add a wealth of information to this topic; admittedly I am not the expert.


Jochen Schleese, CMS, CSFT, CEE


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Comment by Jochen Schleese on May 11, 2010 at 9:00pm
Nora - your comment brings up a dilemma that many of my clients are initially faced with - that of affordability, which is of course pretty subjective. It is a topic that I will address in more detail in a future blog because it warrants more than a pat quick answer.
Comment by Jochen Schleese on May 11, 2010 at 8:59pm
This response is to Deborah's question concerning her aging mare and what saddle to use. Deborah, I think that you should go with the western saddle, since the English saddle does not fit her without using a riser. What does concern me is that Western saddles are generally built pretty straight, and you said your mare was stronger on the left. This is pretty common for the majority of horses, for several reasons. Not only do the generally lie in the womb in such a way that the left is favoured, they also graze generally 18 hours a day with the left foot forward (have you ever noticed that?) Interesting new research now suggests that this is because it allows the digestive system a little more 'stretch', (the stomach is on the left) although another reason could be simply that they favour the dominant side. As you begin to exercise your horse, you can compensate somewhat for this natural 'crookedness' in training, but as the horse gets older, it may revert back to what it favours. In any case, I would suggest having a competent saddle fitter out - since there is nothing really that I assume can be done with the English saddle being that it is a school saddle, continuing to use the western may be your best option at this point - however - consider my answer to Nora as well, where I address her point of 'affordability!')
Comment by Nora Robinson on May 6, 2010 at 12:25pm
I think that trying to fit a western saddle can literally drive you crazy sometimes! And honestly, unless you have a very "generic" type of horse (most suited to the assembly line type saddles, which unfortunately, are in the price range that most of us can afford :( ), it is very difficult to find a well fitting western saddle that you wouldn't need to pad or shim up somewhere.
I also second the suggestion about Joyce Harman's book and DVD.....I have them both. The amount of information she provides is almost overwhelming and pretty much got me thinking that I would probably never find a western saddle to fit my little Arab mare unless it was completley custom fitted or treeless. Only a few weeks ago I tried a Semi-QH treed saddle on her and it was too wide.........so where do I go from here???? She's not full Arab, so conformationally, doesn't really fit into the "Arab tree" mold.
The one innovation that I think may help in the future is the Flex Tree style. I think they have a little ways to go to perfect the idea......but Circle Y seems to be taking the initiative in that respect. I just hope that they are someday a bit more affordable for the average rider like me.
Comment by Deborah Hopkins on May 6, 2010 at 11:50am
Thanks for the info! I am riding a very senior mare, around 30 years old. Apparently her right side has lost some muscle tone, compared to her left. We're not sure why. My coach has checked me for my balance and I think I'm good! I have the option of using an English saddle or Western.I've been choosing Western lately, thinking that it is kinder to her back and her stiff side. Do you have insights on this assumption? I believe the western saddle was purchased years ago specifically for her although it is also used on another horse. The English saddle is used by multiple school horses and must be used with a riser to accommodate her aging sway back. Her back though is still strong, especially for such an old girl :) Any thoughts?
Comment by Susan on April 30, 2010 at 6:17pm
Thank you for this informative post on Western saddles. I particularly found that bit of history quite interesting!

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