Tips for Western Trail Saddle
Trail riding often means sitting in a saddle for hours and navigating various terrain and weather. Comfort for your horse and you are paramount. Saddle features beyond fit must also be considered to get to where you want to go with all the right stuff.
Fit for the Horse
The angle of the horse’s back changes by degrees along its length, the length and the width of wither vary, and the amount of curve or rocker varies between horses. Trying to put that into something measurable is a challenge. But we all know that if your saddle doesn’t fit your horse, he will likely be cranky, sore, and restricted in his movement. And just like shoes for people, one size does not fit all.
The permutations for the shape of horse’s backs are infinite, as are the shapes of saddles produced. If your horse is to carry you comfortably, you want to get it right. If the saddle is too narrow in the front, it will pinch the wither. Too wide, and the saddle may fall onto the wither. If the tree bar (the framework inside the saddle) is too flat, then only the tips of the bars will sit on the horse, losing equal weight distribution along the bars. Too much rock and all your weight is on the center, and the saddle will feel unstable. Too long, and the saddle may hit them in the hip. These are just some things to consider in saddle fit; many fitting solutions require more refined evaluation.
Let’s talk about some not-so-great methods of determining saddle size requirements:
- Standard saddle sizes: It’s interesting to note that there is no industry standard for Quarter Horse bars, semi QH or anything else, so you can’t rely on those terms when looking at fit. Equally, you cannot lump various breeds into size categories.
- Measuring “between the conchos“: Not all conchos are placed in the same spot on all saddles, so you will not likely compare apples to apples.
- Measuring between the tree tips: People often measure saddle tree width by measuring the distance between the front of the tree tops. Consider that the longer the tree bars come down, the wider they measure.
- Feeling under the saddle: Running your hand under the saddle to feel for tight or loose spots is a standard method. If you have done this a lot, you may glean some information from doing so, but it requires you to lift the saddle to get your hand under there and move it along. It also requires you to have the horse on-site to try the saddle.
- Rock: How do you measure the rock (curve along the length of the horse’s back)?
What you can do:
- Analyze your horse – First, stand back and look at your horse. You may have to look at other horses to get a feel for how your horse compares, although, having measured many horses, looks can be deceiving, so it’s not a scientific method but it will give you some information: Are the withers high or rounded? Make a note of how long your horse’s back is. (Back of scapula to last rib.) If short, a longer saddle may hit them in the hip and poke them. Does it have a lot of rock, or is it relatively flat? (Curve along the length of the back.) Stand on a stool behind them and look at their back. Does one side have a bigger wither pocket? If you feel the back of the scapula, is one side further ahead of the other? Horse asymmetry is prevalent.
- Use wire – You can take wires and shape them to the contours of your horse’s back and make a note of the distance between each wire. For the rock, lay the wire 4″ off the spine, approximately where the tree bars will sit. When you place the wires under a saddle you are considering purchasing, you must pay special attention to where exactly they sit on that saddle. The angle in relation to the rock in each area is very important. If a horse has a deeper pocket behind one wither, you can shim on that side, so the saddle sits level.
- Saddle placement – Ensure the saddle is placed in the proper spot with the front tips of the tree bars behind the scapula. Placing the saddle too far forward will turn a perfectly fitted saddle into one that does not fit.
- Horses changing shape/size – Horses of different breeds mature to full size at different ages. Horses who have been under work may be more muscled up than one who has been enjoying leisure in a pasture for a year. Mature horses will maintain their general bone structure throughout their lives, so a custom saddle may need to be tweaked on occasion to maintain fit.
- Weight changes – If your horse goes from fat in the winter to slim in the summer, get the saddle to fit for the larger size and compensate with different blanket thicknesses or shims. You can’t do much for the horse if the fit is too tight.
- Use an Easy Saddle Fit System – This system will provide you with comprehensive measurements of your horse’s back including length, width, angle and rock.
Fit for the Rider
Riders come in all shapes and sizes; what works for your friend or your trainer may not work for you. Male or female, big or little booty, lots of natural lower spine curves or very little, etc., etc., we are all different. Finding a saddle that accommodates your body shape and size is important to optimize your performance and ride comfortably, especially when trail riding for long hours and sometimes over many consecutive days. You will need to consider more than seat size and stirrup length. Rider fit is also important to your horse; a saddle that doesn’t fit you properly can affect your balance which can cause the horse to compensate or move differently. A saddle that you can adjust to accommodate your shape is a game changer for fit and comfort.
Things to consider in saddle fit for the rider:
- Alignment – shoulder, hip, heel. A saddle should allow you to align your shoulder, hip, and heel. This is the basis of achieving comfort in your ride. Stand on the floor with your feet apart; bend your knees; move up and down like you are posting. This is a very balanced stance and is what you want to achieve when in your saddle. The following fit points will affect your alignment and, ultimately, your comfort.
- Narrow Seat – this is often referred to as the twist, where the angle of the tree bar changes from the area behind the forks (around 90 degrees) to the angle of the bars at the cantle (around 60 degrees). Typically women prefer the seat to be narrow under their thighs because of the shape of their pelvis and the way their legs hinge from the pelvis. If the saddle is too wide, your knees will poke out, your leg won’t lay flat against the horse, and you will experience hip pain. This area of the saddle is generally the most focused on when describing saddle fit for women, but it should not be the only one.
- Seat size – length & width. How much space you have in the seat is a personal preference; you want to be able to post the trot easily, but you don’t want to be sliding all around the seat and fighting to keep yourself balanced. Two fingers’ width is generally enough space between your leg and the forks. Women’s seat bones are wider than men’s, so it’s more comfortable for women to have a wide, flat space where the seat bones make contact with the saddle. Some seats are pretty rounded. Also, check that your seat bones aren’t directly over a seam, as that will become very uncomfortable quickly.
- Seat angle – pocket & rise. The ideal spot to sit in a saddle should be the center of the seat, and your pelvis should be neutral, not tipped too far forward or back. If the seat angle forces you into the back, you may end up bracing or sitting up against the cantle. If the rise in the front is too high for you, it could cause too much pressure and even chaff in your pubic area. Interestingly, women’s pubic bones sit lower than men’s, an essential consideration in ladies’ saddle fitting. With Easy Fit Saddles, you can move the seat shims to find the perfect position for your pelvis.
- Stirrup placement – Many western saddles are built with stirrups too far ahead to achieve alignment. When the stirrups are too far ahead, it takes a lot more effort to post the trot, and it will cause back strain. As discussed in the previous section, it can encourage bracing against the cantle. That said, if you are more comfortable with your stirrups slightly ahead, you should be able to achieve that too. Our Easy Fit saddles allow you to quickly move your stirrups forward and back to find the perfect position.
- More about stirrups – A twisted fender will turn the stirrup so you can get your foot in and out of it quickly, and it will reduce ankle strain. A wide stirrup tread provides more surface area for the ball of your foot to rest on than a narrow stirrup. Some treads are flat, some curved. If you’ve ever experienced numbness in your little toe, an angled stirrup might be right.
- Asymmetries – If your saddle keeps slipping to one side, look for asymmetries in your horse’s back and shim under the saddle if required. A very thin, small shim can make a big difference. If the saddle falls to one side, have someone ride behind you and look at your sitting position. It may be that you need to make changes to your riding position or adjust your saddle to level you up. (Example, a pad under 1 foot or a thin pad under one seat bone.)
- Saddle weight – Don’t buy a saddle you can’t lift onto your horse yourself! Consider what is reasonable to lift after a long day when you are tired. You might even consider an endurance saddle.
- Ties & D-rings – Generally speaking, more is better when looking for a trail saddle.
- Horn or no horn – This is a personal preference. Some people feel safer having no horn, and others like the traditional look of a horn. It’s one more place to hang or attach things.
- Back cinch – The back cinch is designed to keep the saddle from flipping up in the back, especially when roping. Saddles with Y-rigging or cable rigging attach the cinch to both the front and the back of the saddle, eliminating the need for a back cinch in most circumstances.
- Tapaderos or stirrup cages – Provide safety by not allowing your foot to slide through the stirrup. They are probably a good idea if you wear runners to get off and walk or don’t wear boots with heels. Consider that tapaderos can add a lot of weight to your saddle.
- Budget – The most expensive saddle may not be the best saddle fit for you or your horse. The cheapest saddle will not hold up over time; you hope that that time is not when you are far from home. A well-made saddle will last a long time. A quality, custom saddle built to fit you and your horse, is ideal if it is within your budget.
- Saddle pad – A pad should provide cushioning under the saddle and help with weight distribution. It should breathe. It should be contoured to the horse’s back to prevent bunching and wrinkles under the saddle. A thicker pad can affect saddle fit but does not necessarily make a saddle more comfortable for the horse, just as thicker socks in your shoes do not necessarily make them more comfortable. Some saddle pads have cut-outs under the leg to reduce width and provide closer contact. If your saddlebags hang below your saddle skirts, you may want the pad to hang down longer, between your horse and the bags. Saddle pads must be replaced periodically as they will break down or compact over time.
Buying a western trail saddle entails much more than going to the saddle store and finding the right seat size, fender length, colour, and conchos. It is a saddle you and your horse need to find comfort in while riding for an extended period. You never want to feel distracted by it. It needs to be a saddle that you have confidence in, that it will perform well under trail-riding circumstances and stand up over time. Don’t rush your saddle purchase; make sure it is correct.