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After noticing the latigo on my Western horse saddle was splitting, I asked a boy standing nearby to hand me another. It was apparent from his blank stare that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m sure he wouldn’t be the only one confused by this request, so I wrote this article to describe the parts of Western Horse saddles.
Western horse saddles have many parts, including their tree, horn, stirrups, and cinch. Together, these parts form a comfortable, functional, and durable seat for riding. Although saddle makers recommend changing saddle after two years, a high-quality leather saddle can last a lifetime.
Many riders prefer Western horse saddles for their decorative style and cultural value. But it’s essential you know about your saddle, its parts, lifespan, and care. In this article, I’ll cover the components of a saddle and provide critical information so you can get the most from yours.
History of Western horse saddles
Western horse saddles are particularly popular in the United States, especially in regions with roots in the cowboy culture. So before breaking down the parts of a saddle, it’s probably a good idea to understand the history of Western saddles to see how their design evolved.
Western horse saddles evolved from the Spanish saddles that the Spanish conquerors introduced in the 16th century. They were first used by the cowboys of Mexico and the Western US to tend to their cattle.
The Western horse saddle’s primary purpose was to provide convenience and security to riders who had to spend most of their days riding horses.
A “horn” was added to western saddles to further assist cowboys on the range. A horn is a device that cowboys can wrap one end of their rope around after they lassoed a cow.
Parts of a Western horse saddle
When you’re learning about western saddles, I find it’s best to break them down into three distinct sections: the top, sides, and the straps used to secure it to the horse. By dividing the saddle into sections, it’s easier to learn the parts’ location and function.
The top of the saddle
The top of a Western horse saddle consists of the underlying tree, the pommel, seat, cantle, and skirt.
- Tree: It is the foundation of the saddle and typically made of wood. The rest of the saddle is built on the tree, so the tree’s construction determines how the saddle fits, how the weight distributes, how balanced the rider is, and how much pressure falls on the horse’s back.
As compared to an English saddle, the tree of a Western horse saddle covers a larger surface area to spread the weight evenly. There is also minimum padding between the tree and the leather in a Western horse saddle.
- Pommel: It is the raised, front part of the saddle that’s just a few inches down from the horse’s withers. The pommel prevents the tree from exerting harmful pressure on the horse’s spine, stops the rider from sliding forward, and gives the rider a place to grip the saddle when needed.
- Gullet: The gullet is the V-shaped opening beneath the pommel and rides above a horse’s withers. A well-fitting gullet sits over the withers of the horse but does not touch them. It keeps the saddle in place and helps it fit snugly on the horse.
- Seat: It’s where the rider sits. It is wider than the pommel. In Western horse saddles, the seat is deep and often has underlying foam for additional comfort.
- Cantle: It is the raised, rear part of the saddle. It acts as a backrest and provides stability to the tree. The cantle is a few inches higher than the pommel and broader than the seat. In Western horse saddles, it is prominently high to give extra support to the rider.
- Skirt: It lies beneath the tree of the saddle. It’s made of leather and natural sheepskin. It prevents the horse’s back from coming in contact with the hard bars of the tree. D-shaped rings called, you guessed it, ”D-rings” they’re located at the skirt’s front to attach the breastplate.
The sides of the saddle
The sides of a Western horse saddle include the strings, fenders, and stirrups.
- Fenders: Fenders are multifunctional wide leather pieces. They connect to the saddle tree at the top and hold the stirrups at the bottom. They prevent the rider’s legs from touching the horse’s sides, thus keeping both the rider and the horse comfortable. Fenders are known as flaps in English horse saddles.
- Stirrups: Stirrups attach to the bottom of a saddle’s fenders. They are sturdy frames where the rider puts their feet to get on/off a horse, sit on the horse, and maintain their balance when riding the horse. The stirrups of a Western horse saddle are typically wider and meant for high-heeled cowboy boots.
- Strings: They are strips of leather hanging by the saddle’s sides and attached to the pommel and the back. Historically, their purpose was to tie objects to the saddle like bags, ropes, or slickers. Though Western riders don’t use strings much nowadays, they are still valued for their classical Western horseriding looks.
The straps used to secure the saddle
In a Western horse saddle, a cinch and two latigoes on each side of the saddle are used to secure the saddle to the horse.
- Cinch: It’s a wide, usually leather-made strap that circles behind the horse’s forelegs. Its purpose is to keep the saddle fastened to the horse. A Western horse saddle may only have a front cinch (known as single rigging) or front and back cinches (double rigging).
- Latigoes (singular: latigo) are two leather straps, one on each side of the saddle. The top of a latigo is connected to the saddle’s “D-ring,” The bottom connects to the cinch through a “cinch ring. When the saddle has to be secured or unsecured, only the left latigo is attached or separated from the cinch. An offside latigo is the same as a billet. The terms are used interchangeably.
A latigo and cinch is the Western equivalent of a “girth” or a “billet” on an English horse saddle.
Which parts of a Western horse saddle can be replaced?
When one of my saddles gets damaged, I have to either repair it or buy a new saddle. Of course, replacing a single part from a Western horse saddle seems more appealing than buying a new one, but it’s not always the most cost-effective strategy.
The pommel, seats, fenders, stirrup leathers (straps that hold the stirrups), paddings, cinches, latigoes, and a few other saddle parts can be replaced or repaired depending on the damage.
However, the cost is usually so high that it’s not worth replacing the parts and getting back your old saddle when you can probably get a new saddle at the same price.
Other parts like the gullet or the tree can’t be replaced and require you to buy a new one. Unless you have a Western horse saddle with an interchangeable gullet, you’d have to replace the whole saddle if the gullet is too tight.
If the gullet is extra wide, you can try using saddle pads, but that might make riding the horse uncomfortable. The tree of the saddle should also be intact.
You can check if the tree is broken by laying the saddle on a flat surface and exerting gentle pressure on the seat. If you hear popping sounds, the tree is most likely broken. You can replace it, but it’s expensive work, so it’s best to buy a new saddle.
We’re lucky to have a good saddle repairman near us that charges reasonable rates. But he is so backed up with work it takes at least six months to get your saddle returned.
My advice on replacing or repairing a saddle would be to weigh your options by consulting a professional, assessing the damage and replacement costs, and looking into new saddles’ rates.
How long do Western horse saddles last?
Getting the right fit for your horse’s saddle is one thing, but successfully predicting how long the saddle will last is another. There is no hard and fast rule for how long a Western horse saddle lasts, and a lot depends on how well you care for it.
A high-quality Western horse saddle can easily last 25 years, but you’ll be lucky to get five good years from a cheap saddle. Saddles will start to show signs of aging and can be uncomfortable for horses relatively quickly when you don’t take care of them.
Western horse saddles come in dozens of different materials and configurations, and each has unique durability. Plus, if you have a young horse, an aging horse, or a horse gaining or losing weight, you will likely need to change its saddle more frequently.
The saddle is the most important riding tack for a horse. It would be best if you kept an eye on your horse’s behavior when you suspect the saddle no longer fits. If you notice any unusual behavior, you should probably get the saddle checked by an experienced saddle fitter.
If you’re competing, riding a lot, and expecting the best performance from your horse, you should change saddles every two years because the padding and texture deteriorate, and the saddle fit won’t be ideal. Always use a correctly fitting saddle pad when using a western saddle.
However, I typically get much more time from my pleasure riding saddles compared to competition saddles.
Tips to extend the life of your saddle
- Wipe the saddle down, and give it a good cleaning with saddle soap.
- Apply leather conditioner for additional protection
- Let the leather dry naturally.
- Store your saddle in a cool, dry area on a saddle rack. If you keep your saddle in a dusty place like most barns, then cover it with a sheet or saddle cover.
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Are Western saddles safer than English horse riding saddles?
Western saddles are safer for beginner riders because they are bigger and easier to for riders to keep their balance than in an English saddle. Plus the Western saddle’s horn gives a novice rider something to hold on to.
How much do Western saddles weigh?
Most Western saddles weigh about twenty five pounds, but they vary greatly depending on the material used to make them and design features. Some saddle with lots of metal decorations can weigh well over forty pounds.