The Western Saddle

Horse Tack Bulletin #86

The Western Saddle

By Joanne M. Anderson

          An icon in American history, the western saddle came to the Old West via the Spanish vaqueros. The original, basic structure was subsequently modified to meet the demands of the working cowboy ~ heftier stirrups, the horn and skirts (side panels), for example. The stirrups accommodated another American symbol, the cowboy boot, while the horn was used for tying a calf to the saddle, and skirts prevented brush and branches from scratching the horse along the widest part of his sides.

          Today’s Western saddles still feature the useful components while adding decorative imprints and silver studding for personal or show ring appeal. All the Western saddles on come with matching bridle, reins and breastcollar ~ a huge advantage as anyone who has ever tried matching leather color and style to a saddle purchased by itself can appreciate. If you have never done this, beware – it’s nearly impossible to get a perfect match outside of black, and even then sometimes. Riders enjoy looking sharp whether in the show ring or just hacking out from home or a boarding barn, but the most important elements in purchasing a saddle are comfort and safety to both horse and rider.

          The saddle foundation is the tree, under the seat. Once made solely of wood, contemporary Western saddles achieve the same, solid results with fiberglass or a combination of fiberglass and wood, wrapped in rawhide. Fiberglass reduces the weight of a saddle without sacrificing strength. The widest saddle trees, generally a good fit for Quarter Horses and other wide-bodied equines with minimal withers, are called full Quarter Horse bars, often noted as FQHB or FQH bars. Semi-Quarter Horse bars are not quite as wide and are denoted QHB or QH bars. The saddle must always clear the horse’s withers.

          A Western saddle seat can be smooth or suede and is often a personal preference. If someone likes the smooth look and finds it a bit slippery when riding, cushion saddle seats are easy to add and relatively inexpensive. Most of today’s Western saddles have padding directly beneath the seat surface. Some seats are shaped deeper than others, and the cantle measurement can indicate this. The cantle is the back rising portion of the saddle – the higher it goes, the more security in the seat. Lower cantles are useful when roping or engaging in any activity that requires frequent and fast dismounting.

          Saddles are sold by width (bars) and seat measurement, with other accoutrements to fit a personal riding or work style. To find what you prefer, try sitting on different saddles in a Western store. If you find yourself in a thrift store or looking at a used saddle, measure from the bottom of the pommel (raised portion in front into which the horn is built) to the stitching at the back of the cantle to get the seat size. Generally, you want about four inches in front you and a comfortable spot in back at the base of the cantle without being at all pressed against it. It’s advisable to have a saddle a bit too large than a bit too small. General sizes are listed below. Saddles come in half-inch increments, and remember that seat size refers to the rider and has nothing to do with saddle fit for the horse.

          ~ Youth, 12” – 13”

          ~ Small adult, 14”

          ~ Average adult, 15”

          ~ Large adult, 16”

          ~ Extra large adult, 17”

          The sheepskin-padded underside of the saddle rests on the horse’s pad and blanket. A saddle pad and blanket make the saddle more comfortable for the horse on his back, but it does not help at all if you have a poor saddle fit to begin with ~ a saddle should fit appropriately on the horse minus the pad. The saddle pad is just a nicety and often a color or style statement. A large selection of fine pads and blankets is found in the Western Accessories category at

          The horn was added for roping and securing a cow or calf, which was originally tied to the horse’s tail, then to the side rigging on the saddle. A rope from the calf to the saddle is looped around the horn, not really tied on with a knot. The horn may offer security for a new rider to hold, but it is not a replacement for having a good seat and knowing well how to use reins and leg aids while riding. It is not advisable to jump a horse with a saddle horn in front of one’s stomach.

          Stirrups were made larger than original, metal ones not only to accommodate the cowboy boot, but also for comfort for the working cowhand who often spent eight to 10 hours daily on his horse. The stirrup provides a mounting assist as well as balance in the saddle. All Western saddles come with quality stirrups, though some riders replace them with a preferred color or design.

          Rigging on a saddle refers to the rings and permanent tie-ons or billets. Single rigging is when front rigging only is in place for a single cinch. Double rigging refers for both front and back (or flank) cinch rings. The front cinch is the main saddle attachment to the horse. A back or flank cinch goes loosely around the widest part of the horse and prevents the saddle from rising up in work situations and is useful for saddle stability on steep hills. Additional rings and D-rings are for securing a breastcollar, cantle bag, saddle bags and other paraphernalia.

          The Western saddle is handsome, functional and stylish. Unique and classy, hand-tooled, leather designs are one of the hallmarks of the carefully designed and crafted Western saddles at, and a wide variety of floral, basketweave and other patterns can be found at Once you have the saddle, come back to for saddle pads, blankets, saddle bags and gear for every  horse outing.

          Whatever your goals – from roping cattle, trail riding and Western pleasure showmanship to cantering across open pastures and backcountry overnights, there’s a Western saddle for your horse and you that is comfortable, appropriate and attractive. With a knowledgeable staff to assist customers and a generous return policy, is the best go-to place for a fine, affordable Western saddle (with matching tack!) and riding accessories. Happy Trails!


Joanne M. Anderson writes from her Noble Spirit Farm in Southwest Virginia. She rides several times a week – in a classic, wide, Western saddle with her 11-year old buckskin Quarter Horse, Liberty, or a more narrow endurance saddle for Noble, a 23-year-old Thoroughbred and former blue ribbon show jumper which has retired to soft trail riding. 

Western Saddle Parts