A Guide to Western Saddles
Western saddles are used for western riding and are the saddles used on working horses on cattle ranches throughout the United States particularly in the west. They are the cowboy saddles familiar to movie viewers, rodeo fans, and those who go trail riding at guest ranches. This saddle was designed to provide security and comfort to the rider when spending long hours on a horse, travelling over rugged terrain.
The design of the western saddle is from the saddles of the Spanish vaqueros - the early horse trainers and cattle handlers of Mexico and the American South West. It was developed for the purpose of working cattle across vast areas and came from a combination of the saddles used in the two main styles of horseback riding than practiced in Spain. La Jineta, the Moorish style which allowed great freedom of movement of the horse and La Estradiota, later La Brida, the joustling style which provided great security to the rider and strong control of the horse. A very functional item was also added the saddle horn. This style of saddle allowed vaqueros to control cattle by use of a rope around the neck of the animal, tied or dialled (wrapped without a knot) around the horn.
Although many western riders have never roped a cow, the western saddle still features this historical element. Some variations on the western saddle design, such as those used in bronco riding, endurance riding and those made for the rapidly growing European market, do not have horns. Any predecessor which may had contributed to the design of the western was the Spanish tree saddle, which was also influential in the design of the McClellan saddle of the American military, being used by all branches of the U.S army, but being particularly associated with the cavalry.
The western saddle is designed to be comfortable when ridden in for many hours. Its history and purpose is to be a working tool for a cowboy who spends all day, every day on horseback. For a beginning rider, the western saddle may give impression of providing a more secure seat. The horn is not meant to be handle for a rider to hang onto; the high cantle and heavy stirrups are not for forcing the rider into a rigid position. The development of an independent seat and hands is as critical for western riders as for English riders.
The modern western saddle begins with a tree that defines the shape of the bars, the seat, the swells, horn and cantle. Traditional trees are made of wood covered with rawhide, coated with varnish or a similar modern synthetic coating. The core of the horn may be of metal. Modern synthetic materials of various types have also been instead of wood but while lighter and less expensive are generally considered weaker than traditional materials, such as fibreglass dangerously so. A high quality tree is at the heart of a good saddle, particularly those used for sports such as steer roping, where the equipment must withstand considerable force.
The tree is usually covered with leather on all visible parts of the saddle. The seat may have foam rubber or other materials added between the tree and the top layer of leather to provide additional comfort to the rider and leather or foam padding may be used to slightly alter the contours of the seat. Sheepskin is placed on the underside of the saddle, covering both the tree and the underside of the skirts. The cinch rings, made of metal, are attached to the tree as described under rigging. For decoration metal conches lacing and small plates usually silver or silver like substitute are added.
The leather parts of the saddle are often tooled into designs that range from simple to complex. The finest quality saddles often have hand carved tooled that itself is considered a work of art. There are many types of western saddle:
Some are general purpose models and some give greater freedom for the horse or greater security for the rider, as may be necessary for specialized work in various western horse sports such as cutting, reining, barrel racing, team roping and western pleasure. Factors such as width of the swells, height of the cantle, depth of the seat, placement of stirrups and type of rigging all influence the users of a give design. A saddle with a slick fork virtually no swells and a low cantle is suited for calf roping, where a rider must dismount quickly often while the horse is still in motion and not be caught up on the saddle. The most common variations include the following:
Roping saddle - Heavy, sturdy saddle that usually has a thicker horn for securing a rope, low cantle and slick fork that allows rider to dismount quickly when needed.
- Cutting saddle - has a deep seat and wide swells allow the rider to sit deep and securely through sharp stops and turns.
- Barrel racing saddle - lightweight saddle with wide swells and high cantle which allows rider to sit securely but also allow the horse to perform fast sprints and sharp turns.
- Trail saddle - Designed for maximum comfort of rider as well as a good fit for the horse features deep, padded seat, designed for long riders at slower speeds.
Tapaderos - leather covers over the toe that closes each stirrup from the front. A tapederos prevents the rider boot from slipping through and also prevents brush encountered working cattle on the open range from poking through the stirrup injuring or impeding the horse or rider. The tapadero was particularly seen on certain saddles of the vaquero tradition is primarily a decorative element. Tapaderos are not "show legal" for western style in horse show competitions in most cases.
Breast collar - An additional piece of equipment that runs from the saddle around the chest of the horse, lending both lateral stability and preventing the saddle from sliding back. Breast collars are particularly common on trail horses and roping horses and styled versions are often seen at horse shows.
Back cinch - A second cinch is often seen on working saddles, particularly full rigged roping saddles. Made of several thickness of leather, it is adjusted just tight enough to touch the underside of the horse but not tight enough to cause discomfort of bucking. It prevents the back end of the saddle from rising up in working situations and then roping. It also minimizes the saddle fork from digging forward into the horse's withers when a cow is dallied from the saddle horn. The back cinch is generally not required or used on a centre fire of 3/4 rigged saddle.