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