Western saddles are detailed and functional constructions that were developed as the perfect tools for managing herds of cattle over vast areas. Western saddles were designed to be comfortable for riders to spend all day in the saddle. They also have modifications to hold all the equipment necessary for life on the ranch and riding over long distances for many days.
These heavy saddles are highly customizable and made up of many small accessories. This is one of the things that I think makes them so great. Western saddles are highly personalizable and full of character. The downside is that this can make it a challenge to learn all of the parts of the Western saddle, as they are all so unique.
When I first needed to tack up trail-riding ponies with Western riding gear, instead of my usual English saddles, I felt super overwhelmed by their complexity. To help you avoid this learning curve and enjoy Western saddles from the start, I’m going to explain all the basic and optional parts of a Western saddle. By the end of this article, you will understand how this amazing bit of kit performs in practice for ranching and trail riding.
Foundational Parts Of The Saddle
The tree of the saddle is like its skeleton. It provides the primary structure and strength, and the rest of the saddle is built around it. The Western saddle tree provides shape for the gullet, the forks, the horn, the swell, the bars, and the cantle. The shape of the tree is very visible and accessible in the final appearance of the saddle. This is different from an English saddle, in which the tree is like an inner core that cannot be seen.
Trees are usually made from wood, but some are made from synthetic materials such as fiberglass. Synthetic trees are lighter and cheaper but don’t stand up to the rigors of ranch work as well as a traditional wooden tree. The tree itself is wrapped in leather and treated to seal it. So, the inner wood cannot be seen on a finished saddle.
Treeless saddles are rising in popularity among Western riders. Treeless saddles are missing the wooden or fiberglass skeleton of the saddle. As a result, they are lighter, softer, and more flexible. Treeless saddles allow more freedom for the horse’s shoulders. They are preferred by many riders who seek a more natural riding experience for themselves and their mounts.
However, though treeless saddles may appear to be more gentle on a horse’s back, they can in fact cause some detrimental injuries. The tree of a well-fitted saddle is very important for ensuring that the weight of the rider is lifted from the spine of the horse. The tree ensures that the weight is spread evenly across the horse’s back.
Treeless saddles are not suitable for overly heavy riders or riders who are not proficient and so bounce around. Riding without the support of the tree can cause injuries to the spine of the horse, as well as other organs such as the kidneys.
The gullet and forks are the front part of the saddle. These are given shape by the tree. The forks extend downwards, over the shoulders of the horse, in an upside-down V-shape. The gullet is the round area of space at the top, that extends above the forks and creates a tunnel over the withers.
The height and width of the gullet and forks are the most important factors in fitting a saddle correctly. If the angle of the gullet and forks is too narrow, the shoulders of the horse will be pinched. The saddle will also sit too high in the front.
If the angle of the gullet and forks is too wide, the saddle will sink too low onto the horse’s withers and apply pressure directly onto the spine. This will cause injury to the spinal column and nerves.
The swell is the high part in the front of the Western saddle. This area is the top side of the gullet, and rises in the shape of a bridge, around 4 inches in front of the groin of the rider. The swell is similar to the pommel area on an English saddle but much larger and also incorporates a horn, which protrudes vertically upward out of the swell.
The swell is extremely tough as it is shaped by the tree and then covered in leather. The swell provides the foundational support for the horn. It also gives the structural strength to hold the bars of the saddle together. As a result, the swell is usually quite large.
The horn rises vertically from the swell. It is not designed to be a handle, as it might appear, but as a tool for roping cattle. Once a steer was lassoed, the rope would be wrapped around the horn of the saddle to aid the rider in holding on to it securely. The horn is also very useful for hanging other lengths of rope and tools from.
Having ridden my horses across mountains and moorland in English saddles, I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a horn on my saddle! Instead, I rode with endless lengths of rope and other supplies tied around my waist and the neck of my horse, ready to help out other riders and ponies.
When leading other horses, I had nowhere but my hand to tether the lead rope. The Western saddle is much better suited to trail riding and any form of herding than the English saddle, that’s for sure!
The bars of the saddle extend back from the forks of the tree, toward the tail of the horse. The bars are connected together in the front by the swell, and at the back by the cantle. They spread the weight evenly on either side of the spine of the horse, leaving space between them to prevent the spine from being directly pressurized.
When the tree is created, fitting the bars to the body of the horse can be challenging to do well. The bars need to sit flush with the back of the horse all the way along. This prevents pressure points, pinching, or slipping of the saddle. The angle at which the bars curve and rotate as they move away from the forks and toward the cantle is known as the “twist”.
The equivalent of the bars on the Western saddle are the panels on the English saddle. However, the panels of an English saddle are deeply cushioned, usually with sheep’s wool flocking inside the leather. Western saddles rely on the leather skirt and add padding to the underside of saddles by layering with beautiful saddle pads.
The skirt of the saddle is a very large layer of thick leather. It is often decorated and sticks out from around the sides and back of the saddle. The skirt sits underneath the tree of the saddle, and prevents the bars of the saddle from coming into direct contact with the horse’s back through the saddle pad.
This protects the horse’s back, spreads the weight a little more evenly, and also protects the tree of the saddle from sweat and wear. Skirts are usually squared or rounded in shape. They are very tough and integral to the saddle. So, some smaller D-rings can be attached to the skirt rather than the tree.
The cantle is the rise at the back of the saddle, that helps keep the rear of the rider comfortably in the seat. On the Western saddle, the cantle is part of the tree itself. A saddle that is well fitted to the rider should allow the rider’s behind to rest against the base of the cantle, but not to spill over the back.
Parts Added Over The Tree For The Rider
The seat rise is the sloping part of the seat, between the swell and the wider seat area. This part makes direct contact with the front of the groin area of the rider. On an English saddle, this area would be called the twist. The height and width of the seat rise affect the comfort of the rider a lot and should be fitted to the rider specifically if possible.
The seat is the wide area of the saddle, where the rider sits their rear. It can be hard, or padded and quite luxurious. This is one way that Western saddles are adapted to be comfortable for many long hours of riding.
Western saddles come with a stated seat size. The size of the saddle seat pertains to the rider and does not affect the comfort of the horse. The size of the saddle seat indicates the measurement from the base of the horn on the swell, to the center of the top edge of the cantle.
But, I still recommend you actually sit in any saddle you wish to buy before making your choice. Choosing the right seat size is a great starting point, but there are many other factors that will determine whether it is comfortable for you.
The seat jockey, also called a housing, is a protective and decorative flap of leather. It extends outward from the edges of the seat, and over the top of the stirrup fender and large D-rings. The seat jockey acts as a barrier between the rider’s legs and all the rigging and stirrups on the side of the horse. Often, the jockeys are beautifully embossed with designs.
The back jockey or housing is a piece of leather similar to the seat jockey, but extends backward from the sides of the seat and the cantle. Again, it is often decorative, but the main purpose is to protect the top of the rear rigging D-ring. The jockey covers and protects any visible section of the tree, such as the tail of the bars or the base of the cantle.
Stirrup fenders are wide and often decorative panels of leather that attach beneath the seat jockey on either side of the saddle. Stirrup fenders protect the leg of the rider from the side of the horse. It appears that the decorative fenders are supporting the stirrups, but in fact, there is another strap behind them that takes most of the weight and determines the length.
The strap behind the stirrup fender is sometimes called the Blevins strap, adjustment strap, or stirrup leather. It has holes along it so that you can adjust the length of the stirrups. You do this by moving the Blevins buckle to the necessary hole in the stirrup leather and fastening it.
But, the stirrup fender and the adjustment strap are actually one long continuous piece of leather. The thin end of the fender is passed directly into the tree of the saddle, wrapped behind the bar, and bent back. Then, it is threaded back out of the same slot, so both ends protrude over the skirt and beneath the seat jockey of the saddle. This loop of leather, being directly anchored through the tree, has great functional strength.
I realize that this is very complex and difficult to visualize. So, take a look at the fantastic video below, which demonstrates these hidden pieces very well.
The Blevins buckle allows the stirrup to be made shorter or longer. There is one behind each of the stirrup fenders, in the adjustment strap. It has two parts, the slider, or the female part, and the Blevins buckle itself, which has rivets and can be referred to as the male part. In some designs, these two parts are attached so they don’t separate too far, but usually, they are independent.
The Blevins buckle should be positioned over the holes in the adjustment strap that give the correct stirrup length for your leg. Then, push the rivets of the Blevins buckle through the holes. Next, slide the slider over the Blevins buckle so as to squeeze it tightly into the adjustment strap and prevent the rivets from backing out of the holes. If they come loose, the stirrup will undo itself and may fall off.
It’s as simple as that. But, it is important to check your Blevins buckles periodically to ensure that they remain tight and free from corrosion. Check out this video to see the Blevins buckle in action.
Stirrup Hobble Strap
The stirrup hobble straps are very simple, but incredibly important pieces of equipment. Usually, it is a short piece of leather, with a small buckle at one end, with a billet with holes at the other end. The stirrup hobble strap should be wrapped around the stirrup fender, squeezing together both the decorative front panel and the adjustment strap at the back. It should be placed just above the stirrup itself, like a little neck.
The purpose of the stirrup hobble strap is fourfold. Firstly, it holds the front and back of the fender leather together, helping them to form one straight strap instead of a wide loop. This helps the fender sit flat, and prevents the creation of a hole where the rider’s foot may get caught.
Secondly, the squeezing of the fender above the stirrup prevents the stirrup from rolling upside down. This is very important because if the stirrup turns upside down, then the wide part hangs from the fender and the thin part hangs down. If the rider’s foot has slipped through, and god forbid if they have fallen, they won’t be able to pull their foot out of the stirrup in this position.
Thirdly, the hobble strap can give you time to stop and dismount if one of your Blevins buckles should open and release your stirrups. The hobble strap holds everything tightly together and may give you extra moments before you lose your stirrup. Take a look at the video below to see how simple the stirrup hobble strap is to use.
Lastly, the hobble strap can help maintain a turn in the fender. A problem with the design of Western saddles is that the stirrup naturally hangs from the fender parallel to the horse’s side. But, for the rider to put their foot in the saddle, the stirrup needs to be perpendicular to the horse, at 90° or more. Take a look at this technique for turning the fenders, where you can see the hobble strap in use.
The stirrup is found at the end of the fender on either side of the horse. This is where the foot of the rider sits. There are many different types of stirrup for the western saddle. The most common materials that stirrups are made from include wood, metal, plastic, and leather.
Unlike in English riding disciplines, safety stirrups are not commonly used in Western riding. This is in keeping with the lower uptake of safety equipment in the sport of Western riding compared with other disciplines. However, there are a few quick-release options available, that maintain the classic look of the Western stirrup. I hope these rise in popularity in coming years, to reduce accidents.
Parts For Securing The Saddle To The Horse
Front Rigging D-Rings
The front rigging D-rings are very large metal rings that are attached to the tree on each side of the saddle, usually directly below the pommel. These rings are for threading the latigoes through, in order to attach the cinch. They are extremely sturdy.
The standard rigging set-up for the Western saddle is called “full-rigging”. In this setup, the front D-ring is directly below the pommel. There would also be a rear rigging D-ring for attaching a second cinch, which I will go into detail on below.
Other rigging set-ups are designed for different Western riding disciplines and the body shapes of different horses. For these set-ups, the front rigging D-ring is set farther back. Occasionally, the rigging rings will be “O” shaped.
The latigoes are long, thick straps of leather with holes in, on either side of the saddle. Nowadays, latigoes can also be made of synthetic webbing. The latigo is threaded through the wide front rigging D-ring, which is attached to the saddle’s tree and is very sturdy.
The latigo is the point at which the cinch is attached, which runs under the belly of the horse. The latigoes are the equivalent of the girth billets on the English saddle. But, they are longer, thicker, and more complex to learn to use. Unlike girth billets, latigoes are easily removable and replaceable by a rider.
When Western riders put their saddle on their horse, they only do up the latigo from the left side, instead of tightening in even increments on both sides of the horse’s belly. The right side can be adjusted in the same way if needed, but this is not done every ride like with English riding.
Though this is certainly time-saving, this is one element I dislike about Western saddles. Taking the extra time to tighten the billets in small increments on both sides of English saddles is done to prevent skin from being dragged on the horse’s belly. It also ensures that the saddle does not have more tension on one side than the other.
The ideal length for a secured latigo is around 8 inches on an average-sized horse. Having this slightly longer latigo serves to reduce the bulkiness of the wrapped latigo, and also provides a little extra tension on the cinch. Check out this video to learn more about using the latigoes and cinch.
The cinch is the length of fabric that passes beneath the belly of the horse and attaches to the saddle on each side, at the latigoes. The purpose of the cinch is to keep the saddle on the horse. The cinch is equivalent to the girth on English saddles. But, it tends to be much wider, typically at the center point. This type of Western cinch is referred to as a roper cinch and it spreads the pressure, which may increase comfort.
Western cinches are traditionally made from mohair, which is very breathable. But, neoprene and fleece are also very popular materials. Cinches are sold in size increments of 2-inches. As you saw in the video above, if you are unsure, it is better to err on the smaller side to improve the function of the latigoes. You can also make up the length with the latigoes if the cinch is too small, but there’s little you can do if it is too long.
In the middle of the cinch, there are D-rings that face forward and back. These D-rings are handy for attaching further equipment such as a breast collar, or supporting the back cinch. But, they are also super handy for aligning your cinch correctly. Once tightened, your cinch should have the D-rings centered as perfectly as possible beneath your horse’s chest. This should equate to having even-length latigoes on either side.
The latigo keeper is a decorative but very functional triangle of leather, that is attached to the Western saddle near the base of the swell on each side. Its purpose is to secure the loose tail of the latigo tidily after it has been tightened and fastened.
Take a look at this video to see how the cinch should be tightened gently. You can also see exactly how to thread the tail of the latigo into the latigo keeper.
Rear Rigging D-Ring
The rear rigging D-rings look just like the front rigging D-rings and are also attached to the tree to give them great functional strength. The rear rigging D-rings are found below the cantle on each side of the saddle. These D-rings are for attaching the flank billets to, so that the back cinch can be connected to the saddle.
The billets are tough lengths of leather that attach to the large rear rigging D-rings that are found below the cantle on each side. The billets point downwards and are punctured with holes. The back/flank cinch is buckled onto these holes. The back or flank billets do the same job as the latigoes do for the main cinch, but they are shorter and more straightforward.
The back or flank cinch is a second cinch that is attached further back on the saddle. It is usually made of a strap of leather. It provides a lot of stability and is very helpful for horses that are going up and down hills, or making sharp and sudden movements. It reduces slippage and movement of the saddle, especially the rear part. There is no equivalent on the English saddle.
Fitting the back cinch correctly is very important. Oftentimes, the back cinch is left too loose. This means that things can become caught in it, which is a big hazard. Also, the horse’s back foot may become stuck in a loose back cinch, which would be disastrous.
However, if the back cinch is too tight, it can cause great discomfort to the horse’s belly and result in bucking. The correct tightness leaves 2 or 3 fingers space between the back cinch and the horse’s belly.
Back/Flank Cinch Hobble Strap
The hobble strap connects the back cinch to the main cinch. It is attached to the center point of the back cinch and clips or buckles onto the D-ring at the center of the main cinch.
The purpose of the hobble strap is to tether the back cinch in a slightly forward position. This prevents the back cinch from slipping backward and sitting over the horse’s genitals or mammary area. This would cause discomfort, injury, and bucking.
The cinch hanger is a small tongue of leather, often sort of almond-shaped. It is usually quite decorative and has a slit in it. It is found on the off-side (right of the horse), either below the cantle or pommel. It is always on the off-side, because the cinches remain attached on the off-side when you undo the saddle from the left of the horse.
The purpose of the cinch hanger is to have somewhere to hang the ends of your cinches when the saddle is not in use. There are various ways to clip your cinches to the hanger. Watch the video below to see how it’s done.
A breast collar passes around the chest of the horse and prevents the saddle from slipping backward. It also looks great, and there are many decorative options for the breast collar. It is very similar to the breastplate on an English saddle.
The breast collar is usually attached to either side of the saddle, by buckling it to small D-rings on the front of the forks. Often, it also has a third strap that reaches down the chest and between the front legs of the horse. This then clips or buckles to the D-ring in the center of the cinch.
Check out the video below to see how a breast collar can be put onto the horse easily. Note the safety precautions that are always a great idea to bear in mind when tacking up your horse.
Additional Parts Of The Saddle
Conchos are both highly functional and very decorative. They look like small metal rosettes with slits in them. Sometimes, they will have larger leather rosettes behind them. These act somewhat like a washer behind a bolt, to make the attachment flush and tight, and protect the surface beneath.
Traditionally, saddle strings would be passed through the concho, through the saddle skirt and jockeys, around the bars of the saddle, and back through all the layers. Both ends of the strings would emerge from the center of the concho. Then, one end of the saddle string would be passed through a slit in the other to tie it down.
This would secure the concho, layers of leather, and the tree tightly together. The concho and the strings would be extremely strong and able to bear a lot of added weight. They also looked beautiful.
Useful customizations and accessories, such as the latigo keeper or cinch hanger, could be secured to the saddle using conchos. The accessory would be sandwiched between the concho and the leather behind it. The strings would be passed through all the pieces, securing them to the saddle tightly.
In modern times, conchos are often more decorative. Instead of the strings being passed through the tree of the saddle, the concho is more likely to be secured to the leather skirt or jockeys only. The strings might be secured only to the concho itself. Some decorative conchos may not have strings at all.
The strings of the Western saddle have many uses and are highly functional, as well as decorative. The strings are usually made from narrow strips of leather. If secured traditionally through the conchos as above, they can take a lot of weight. Strings can be used to tie any supplies necessary to the saddle.
Answer: There are numerous different types of Western saddles for different disciplines. These include:
• Trail Saddle
• Cutting Saddle
• Barrel Saddle
• Roping Saddle
• Endurance Saddle
• Show Saddle
• The saddles have different seat depths, horn heights, and build weights, to adapt them for the demands of the discipline. The saddles may also have different rigging setups. As a result, some have one cinch, while others have 2.
Answer: Western saddles are dramatically different from English saddles. When looking at an English saddle, the most obvious difference is that it lacks a horn and swell. However, there are many more underlying differences, such as the way the saddle is built and maintained.
Generally speaking, English saddles are easier to learn to use and care for. But, many beginner riders prefer the sense of security that a Western saddle provides. Find out more about English saddles in our article: Parts Of The English Saddle Explained.*
Answer: Western saddles are decorated with embossing, embellishment, and shiny metal detailing. These eye-catching features reflect the history of the Western saddle. Many decorative choices were influenced by the settlers who introduced the saddles to the Americas.
The conchos seen on modern saddles derive from those that Spanish vaqueros made using shiny coins. Breast collars and leather rosettes have their roots in English military garb. For the cowboys of the wild west, who spent many weeks riding, their saddles were highly valued, personal possessions. Saddles would have been customized to show personality and status, as well as for function.
Parts of a Western Saddle: Conclusion
Owning a Western saddle can be daunting in the beginning, thanks to the complexity of all the parts. But, a Western saddle is a highly personalized and special piece of kit. With a little effort, you can learn to modify your saddle to suit your needs and personality exactly.
My biggest recommendation is to learn how to care for the leather, wood, and metal materials that make up your saddle. Not only will proper care keep you and your horse safe from tack failures, but it will make this treasured possession last for decades.
Vande Kamp, K. (2021). Use and Perceptions of Equestrian Safety Equipment – ProQuest. In Proquest.com. https://www.proquest.com/openview/d0e57f3a4bb93f684d399ba8bce54851/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
History of Saddle Decoration. (2014, February 24). American Cowboy | Western Lifestyle – Travel – People. https://americancowboy.com/2014/02/24/history-saddle-decoration-0/#:~:text=From%20the%20very%20beginning%20of,wealth%2C%20status%2C%20and%20personality.