Horsemen have been riding in saddles for centuries, but the western saddle is a relatively new invention. American cowboys, inspired by the Mexican vaqueros, created western saddles for ranch riding in the Old West. These early saddles were designed for comfort on long days over rough terrain. The horn helped cowboys rope and control cattle, and the high cantle kept the rider secure.
Western saddles have evolved, somewhat, from the early saddles used by American settlers. In fact, there are now many different types of western saddles to choose from. Riders can select the saddle type that best suits their style of riding.
Saddle makers are always innovating and aiming to improve, but most of today’s western saddles fit into these five categories.
Cutting horses are trained to separate cattle from the herd. These days, cutters compete in front of judges and are scored on the horse’s and rider’s ability to work as a team. Whether in the competition ring or in the field, a cutting horse needs to move quickly from side to side. Meanwhile, the rider needs to stay steady and secure in the saddle so they don’t interfere with the horse’s motion. Cutting saddles are designed with these needs in mind.
Cutting saddles have very little skirt in front of the tree. This design prevents the saddle from interfering with the horse’s shoulder movement. Other notable design features include a high pommel and a tall, thin horn, both of which help with rider security. The cantle on cutting saddles is relatively low, which keeps it from digging into the rider’s rear end should they become unseated.
While cutting saddles are perfectly suited to the sport of cutting, they are also used in other rodeo events, including sorting and team penning. They are not, however, suited to roping because of the narrow horn. For this reason, many versatile rodeo riders have at least two saddles: a cutting saddle and a ranch or roping saddle.
If you’ll be out working on the ranch all day, you’ll probably want a ranch saddle. This rugged style is similar to the cutting saddle in that it has a narrow seat, low cantle, and tall pommel. However, ranch saddles have a wider, sturdier horn than cutting saddles, which makes them usable for roping.
Ranch saddles often have other little features intended for comfort. The seats are often made from grippy suede or rough-out leather. The flat, narrow seat shape compromises slightly on stability, but also makes for a more comfortable, all-day ride. Some ranch saddles have rather narrow stirrups, which help with rider agility. Often, you’ll see them made with saddle strings. These thin pieces of leather hang from the front and back of the saddle and allow the rider to carry basic gear.
The pleasure saddles you see in the western pleasure show ring are usually derivatives of the ranch saddle. They have a similar design but are decorated with silver, tooling, and other embellishments.
The sport of barrel racing is fast-paced and full of action. A rider competing in the sport needs a saddle that will keep them secure without getting in their way. The horse needs the saddle to be lightweight and compact so it doesn’t interfere with their turns.
Barrel saddles can look quite different from other western saddles. They all have rather short, compact skirts, and some have round skirts. They also have really tall horns and high cantles, which help with rider security around the barrel. While there are plenty of leather barrel saddles, you’ll also see them made from various synthetic materials. These synthetics are lighter than leather and sometimes offer more grip. Some barrel saddles are quite colorful and decorative.
While most barrel racers use barrel saddles, they are also preferred by some trail riders. Models with round skirts tend to fit short-backed horses well, and the lightweight design reduces fatigue on long rides.
If you’ll be roping more than occasionally, you will definitely want a roping saddle. Roping is hard on a saddle in a structural sense. When a steer is tied to a saddle horn and pulls, the saddle must be constructed to withstand that pressure. That’s why roping saddles look so big and rugged compared to other western saddles. They have sturdy, reinforced trees and reinforced, triple-stitched rigging.
Roping saddles are also designed to keep the rider in a neutral position as they run and rope. The low cantle and pommel let the rider move around a bit more. Deep stirrups give the rider a way to brace their legs as the steer pulls. Most roping saddles have smooth leather seats – another feature that allows for rider agility.
While roping saddles are comfortable, most riders don’t use them for everyday riding and training because they’re so heavy. It’s common for ranch workers to do their everyday riding in a ranch saddle, but to pull out a roping saddle on heavier roping days.
When you’re spending a half day or a whole day on the trail, you need a saddle that’s built with comfort in mind. A trail saddle should fit the bill. Saddle makers’ priority when designing trail saddles is always the comfort for both horse and rider.
To keep the horse comfortable, trail saddles are designed to be lightweight and compact. Many have rounded skirts and flexible trees that move with the horse’s back. This helps reduce fatigue and prevent pressure points on long rides.
For rider comfort, trail saddles often have padded seats. A high cantle keeps the rider secure if their horse spooks or stumbles on rough terrain. Some trail saddles don’t even have a horn. Riders who have a habit of leaning forward and getting the horn in their belly usually prefer this design.
Whether trail riding competitively or purely for pleasure, it is vital that the saddle fits both horse and rider like a glove. For this reason, there is a huge variety in the world of trail saddles. You can find models with flatter trees, and others with curvier trees. You’ll see saddles with buckles and extra saddle strings, and others without. Some trail riders are even turning to so-called “hybrid” saddles, which feature the seat and tree of a western saddle with English saddle rigging.
You can go for the occasional trail ride in a barrel saddle or ranch saddle, but if trail riding is your core discipline, a true trail saddle will greatly improve your experience.
Which western saddle style is right for you? Think about the style of riding you do most and what saddle features would make that riding easier. Many casual riders prefer trail or ranch saddles, but at the end of the day, it really comes down to comfort and fit. Work with a saddle maker or saddle fitter to ensure your saddle fits both you and your horse. And, once you find the right saddle, check out Easy Horse Fix. Like a good saddle, our library of educational videos are designed to help you and your horse build a good relationship and communicate clearly with each other.