How to Choose a Saddle

Buying a Custom Western Saddle

A custom made western saddle is truly an investment! It is a saddle that if well cared for will hold its value and can be passed down to future generations. It is also an investment in yourself and your hobby (or profession). The horse enthusiast knows there are few things better in life than being on the back of a good horse, on a comfortable saddle, in the company of friends. If you are considering purchasing a custom made saddle, we would assume that your interest in horses is serious. You will be spending “big bucks” for any custom made saddle, but remember that when you spread the cost of the saddle out over a period of years of enjoyable use, it costs you very little to get exactly what you want.

Since it is such an important investment, you need to know about the experience, craftsmanship and integrity of the saddle maker that you are considering making your saddle. You need to ask about the kind of tree (which is the framework for the saddle) and the quality of the leather, hardware and fleece. You also need to know the quality of the padding that goes into the seat. This can make all the difference in your pleasure on even a short horseback ride.

So, let’s talk about these important items starting with saddletree descriptions. Many saddlers use a bull hide covered tree. I have nothing against these trees. They have been around a long time. I personally prefer a triple fiberglass-covered tree. I have used these for many, many years and have never had one broken; however, I have repaired many rawhide-covered trees. They have had the bars broken when horses fall over on them. I’ve also seen many horns broken off from the sudden impact of stopping when large steers were being roped. Sometimes the horn damage is caused just by the stress of constant use and poor quality wood and rawhide covering. Keep in mind if you prefer a rawhide-covered tree, the rawhide should be laced on, not stapled which further weakens the tree. Today, too many rawhide-covered trees have too many staples and not enough lacing. When the rawhide dries, the staples can pull out of the wood.

Now going back to the fiberglass-covered tree, do not be fooled by what I call a factory mass-produced, fiberglass-covered tree. These trees are covered in fiberglass, but the fiberglass cloth is put on with animal glue. This glue is strong, but if it gets wet, the cloth will turn loose from the tree. If the saddler of your choice says he uses a fiberglass-covered tree, be sure that it is put on with fiberglass resin.

The third type of tree that we will talk about is called a Ralide. This is a plastic tree that is made by forcing liquid plastic into a mold. Most of these trees do not have a real horn. It is simply a metal disk with a steel rod and plastic molded around the rod to look like a horn. There has been much advancement in this type of tree over the years, but I have still found them to crack and break with age and not stand up to much stress. The only advantages of this type of tree are light weight and cheap price. These have to be weighed against long term, reliable use.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the tree, but it is the foundation of the saddle—as important to the saddle as the foundation is to a house. Without a strong foundation, you have nothing when you are finished. To wrap up this discussion, when you are choosing a saddle be sure that you get a seat size big enough for you. Nothing is worse that a seat too small that cramps you. Look at many horn styles as they come in a wide variety and you need a horn that is suitable for your purpose. The same goes for the fork. The ascetics such as tooling, color of leather and added silver should reflect your personality. You should ask your saddler about the type of padding material that is used in the seat. The quality varies greatly. What brand and quality of leather is used? What about the silver? Sterling silver is good. German silver has no silver in it at all. Ask about all the rigging and stirrup options and seat heights (cantle). Also inquire about matching headstalls, chest straps, saddle bags, rifle boots, canteens, thermos holders, spurs, camera bags, etc, etc, etc.
Contact me if you have questions, Happy trails, Pete Harry.

To learn more about how to choose western saddle and about different saddle types visit Western Saddle Guide