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Proper Western Saddle Fit

Updated on August 6, 2013
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Since I was a little girl my passion, after writing, has been horses. Learning and sharing everything I know with you here. Happy Trails!

Western Saddle
Western Saddle

Saddle Fit for Comfort & Safety

Your western saddle is constructed with comfort and safety in mind, but the immediate focus is functionality. You will find everything on a western saddle has a purpose. If the manufacturer can make that item comfortable while retaining its functionality, then they will, otherwise functionality wins out.

The Saddle Horn

Do you find yourself holding onto the saddle horn when you're riding? This is a common error. The saddle horn was never intended to be used as a source of security for the rider. That was never its purpose. A rider that has a proper seat, in a saddle that fits their particular size, and stirrups adjusted to their proper length, will not need to reach for the saddle horn. Their security will be in their seat. Starting at the top with the saddle horn, and ending with the stirrups, I'll go over your western saddle and what the parts are meant for.

The saddle horn is there for one purpose, to wrap the end of a rope around it when livestock has been lasso'd.

Back in the day when horses were used for cattle work rider's found they would be yanked off their saddle when they roped a cow. To resolve this problem the saddle horn was created and situated on the top of the saddle. When a cow is roped the opposite end is wrapped around the horn, so the saddle takes the sudden tug of the cow instead of the rider.

If you find you're using the saddle horn to maintain balance or stability in the saddle, you are experiencing one, or a combination of problems. The following table offers the problem and the solution to some common seating problems:

Reasons You May Be Using the Horn for Balance

Reason Why You're Using the Horn
The saddle is too large for your seat.
Little or no stability in the saddle even at a walk. No sense of security in the saddle.
Purchase or borrow a saddle that fits your seat.
The saddle is too small for your seat.
Feeling of being squeezed into the saddle or feeling like you're sitting on top of the saddle instead of within it.
Purchase or borrow a saddle that fits your seat.
The stirrups are incorrectly adjusted.
You're standing on tip toe to keep your feet in the stirrups. Your feet keep falling out of the stirrups. Your knees feel too high up, like a jockey or near to.
Dismount and adjust the stirrups to your leg length.
You rely on the saddle horn to maintain your seat.
You don't have the proper riding posture to maintain your seat correctly. Grasping the horn to help you stay on the horse.
Hire a trainer to assist you with attaining a proper seat in the saddle.
Saddle Underside
Saddle Underside | Source

Tree & Seat

The framework of a saddle is called the tree. It is constructed with wood that is then covered with cowhide. Alternate fibers are used now-a-days, but I cannot recommend these other fibers, such as fiberglass due to the fact they are fragile, I wouldn't use one personally.

Surrounding the tree, on top, is a leather jockey and seat. Below the tree is a decorative skirt and then thick padding. The padding does not take the place of a saddle pad.

If you're not sure whether your saddle fits your horse well you can get a good idea by excercising your horse while saddled, when you remove the saddle the sweat underneath the saddle should be uniform. The table below has some alert's a rider should watch for that indicates a poor fitting saddle:

Signs of Saddle Problems & the Solution

Sweat under the saddle only on the withers.
The bars on the saddle are too narrow for that particular horse.
Replace the saddle.
After riding there are indentations at the withers and the croup.
Saddle is too long. The saddle is bridging. This is where the major points of contact are only the front and the back bars. Very painful for the horse.
Replace the saddle.
There is a sweat band that looks like a belt made of sweat is wrapped around the horse.
The saddle is very old or it is breaking down (flexible saddles do this also), the cinch is squeezing the horse.
Try another cinch first to see if that stops the problem. If not, replace the saddle.
My horse suddenly started bucking. Out of character behavior.
Burrs and foxtails can attach to the padding on saddles and girths. They are very pokey!
Remove the saddle and check under the saddle pad and the girth strap to make sure a burr or foxtail isn't stabbing into your horse.

Saddle Cinch

Western & Australian Saddle Cinch
Western & Australian Saddle Cinch | Source
Cinch Secured With a Cinch Knot
Cinch Secured With a Cinch Knot
Cinch Secured With a Buckle.
Cinch Secured With a Buckle.

The Cinch

Every saddle has a cinch. It keep the saddle on the horse like a belt keeps your pants up.

The western saddle has two cinch D ring or eyelet's. The front D ring is for the main cinch which is thicker and heavier than the second cinch. The second D ring or eyelet is for the billet strap or second cinch.

The second cinch keeps the saddle seated on the horses back when it takes that sudden pull from a cow that has been lasso'd. The back of the saddle can't lift up when the second cinch is on. It's also helpful when a rider is taking a lot of rough or hilly terrain. The second cinch keeps the back of the saddle from coming up and sliding forward.

The second cinch is not as heavy duty as the first cinch. Normally it is very similar to a regular belt, just a strip of leather with buckles on each end. It is never tighten like the first cinch! The location of the second cinch is an irritation location on the horse. When you attach the second cinch it should just touch the horse. It should not be so loose that it flaps back and forth, that would be irritating in itself, but it should not be so snug the flesh is depressed at all. After attaching the second cinch, slide your fingers between the strap and the horse. You should be able to easily fit your hand between the two.

In order to secure the cinch to the saddle you can either use the supplied buckle clip as shown in the photo to the right, or you can make a cinch tie, as shown in the accompanying photo. Either option does the job.

Stirrup Adjustment

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Buckle for stirrup adjustmentRight Way Strap is over the retainer wedge.Slide Adjustment
Buckle for stirrup adjustment
Buckle for stirrup adjustment | Source
Right Way
Right Way
Strap is over the retainer wedge.
Strap is over the retainer wedge.
Slide Adjustment
Slide Adjustment

Stirrup Adjustment

Stirrup adjustment is basicly the same for every saddle, it's the securing clip that is different on each. One type has metal tabs that stick into the opposing leather holes and then a metal slide come down over the metal tabs bar to hold the tabs in the hole.

There's also a belt buckle type. It is like a belt with two prongs instead of one.

They both have the same steps:

  1. Dismount, this is a difficult and dangerous procedure to attempt while astride.
  2. Unbuckle the retainer strap wrapped around the bottom of the fender.
  3. Hold the fender open so you can access the inside area where the adjuster is.
  4. Either raise the metal bar exposing the metal adjusting tabs or unbuckle the adjusting buckle.
  5. Lengthen or shorten as needed.
  6. Reverse steps making sure to replace the retainer strap in the correct position as indicated in the photo's.

The Stirrups

Stirrups assist in balance, but should not be relied on for balance. You should be able to remove your feet from the stirrup and still be able to ride your horse at every gate.

Adjusting the stirrups is easy. Measure your arm length on the saddle and adjust accordingly. For the majority of people, your arm is the same length as your leg. By placing the stirrup at your armpit the tips of your fingers should be just touching the edge of where your seat is in the saddle. Often times there is a decoration or identifiable spot on the saddle seat that you can measure your finger tips to. If your finger tips do not reach the predetermined spot with the stirrup at your armpit, then the stirrups are too short, adjust the length. If your finger tips reach the top of the saddle seat or anywhere higher than the base of the cantel, then the stirrups are too long, shorten them.

A concern among riders is their foot slipping through the stirrups and the horse running off dragging them behind by the caught foot. This is common in the movies, but not so common in real life. It has happened, but proper footing can reduce your chances greatly.

  • Wear cowboy boots or a boot with a good heel on it. The heel of the cowboy boot stops the boot from sliding through the stirrup.
  • Place only the toe of the boot into the stirrup. Your foot is not to be shoved into the stirrup until the boot heel stops it. Put your foot in far enough that if you rise up out of the seat you are on the ball of your foot. Remember heels down, toes up.

If you're still uncomfortable about your foot slipping through, there's a device on the market that blocks the front of the stirrup so your foot cannot slide through called tapaderos.

I have a friend that attaches rubber bands to the stirrup in such a fashion that the front of the stirrup is blocked but her foot can slide into it comfortably. It might be worth a try.

If you notice signs of saddle discomfort stop using the saddle immediately. The damage a poorly fitting saddle can do to a horses back is not worth the price of a new saddle. A saddle distributes the riders weight across the entire back area of the horse allowing freedom of movement for the horse and no pressure points.

You may also want to consider calling an equine chiropractor to have your horse looked at to make sure his spine is not damaged.


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