When it comes to purchasing a custom saddle, it’s important your investment fits your horse. Here, eight of the world’s top saddlemakers share their insights on the art and science of saddle fit. Continued from the November 2009 issue of Western Horseman.
Interviews by Jameson Parker
A saddle is the most important and expensive piece of tack a horseman can buy. Even a plain production saddle made by a reputable American company will start at around $1,000. A custom saddle, even a rough-out, will start at well over twice that if made by a young or lesser-known maker, while an established, well-known maker can set his base price pretty much where he wants, assuming he’s still taking orders at all.
A good custom saddle should last a lifetime, or longer, making the way it fits you and, more importantly, your horse, a critical attribute. Even the most beautifully crafted saddle is worthless if it can’t be used. To help you make an informed decision before you put your name on what could be a long waiting list for a custom saddle, we asked eight renowned saddlemakers to share their opinions on saddle fit.
What makes a saddle fit the rider correctly?
Dale Harwood: The biggest problem saddlemakers have today is making saddles for overweight riders riding overweight horses. The factors I take into consideration are seat length and height of the cantle because that affects posture and changes the pressure on the pin bones. Make a nice, clean, moderate seat with not too much pitch, and not too flat. Most people can ride a wide seat easier than they can a narrow one.
Chuck Stormes: It has less to do with a person’s anatomy and measurements than you might think. The saddlemaker has to accommodate size and build, but also what the rider likes to do and how he feels in the saddle. The most important thing is for the rider to sit in the lowest point of the seat naturally, so the stirrup leathers hang properly in relationship to the seat. If the rider stands in the stirrups, he should rise straight up, not forward or back. As far as comfort goes, I try to give the rider even pressure and contact from crotch to knee. The seat must have proper rise from the low point to the rise of the swell, and the right amount of width.
Bill Maloy: It’s a combination of size, as measured from cantle to horn, degree of rise to the swell, concavity of the cantle, angle of the cantle to the seat, and the position of the fenders relative to the seat.
John Willemsma: A lot of it’s between your ears. If you’re used to riding a particular saddle and you think it feels good, then that’s what’s going feel right to you. Thigh measurement is very important because it dictates the pitch of the cantle. It also has to do with how the rider likes to ride and where he likes his feet.
Cary Schwarz: It starts with the ground seat and there are more theories about ground seat than there are about fitting the horse. You want a more or less flat pocket for your weight to rest on. I try to pull the lowest point a little more forward than most other makers. Study what other people have done. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Pedro Pedrini: The first thing is the right length of stirrups and the right length of seat. Ninety-nine percent of the saddles I see are too small for the rider. He gets pushed into the wrong place, and then he pushes against the stirrups to try and force his body into the right position.
Rick Bean: The pin bones needs to be at the proper tilt, neither down nor back. The seat should be neither too narrow nor too wide, and you want a nice smooth transition from seat to skirt. Most customers want the seat too narrow.
Steve Mecum: The biggest problem today is people think a narrow seat is more comfortable. A real narrow seat might feel good when you first sit in it, but on a long ride it will wear on the crotch and put pressure on the pin bones. You need even pressure across the seat and along the inner thigh, and your weight should be on the butt muscles, not just the pin bones. The transition from cantle to the low spot in the seat should be smooth, not abrupt. You want a round transition, like the shape of your seat, with a moderate amount of rise up to the handhold. I try to keep the center of gravity as close to the horse as possible
Should a saddle fit the rider snugly or loosely?
Harwood: People like a little more freedom than they used to, and I think the horse is more comfortable with a rider who can move around a little.
Stormes: That’s up to the customer. If they don’t know about seat length I’ll advise them. I’ll put them in a saddle and see how they feel, when possible. Otherwise I’ll ask questions about build, height, weight, what they like, and what kind of riding they do.
Maloy: It depends on what you’re doing. If you’re packing up in the mountains, you want a larger saddle than if you’re in the arena, but it should be whatever fits you best and suits your activity best.
Willemsma: It’s personal preference and what you’re used to.
Schwarz: I defer to the customer. We have a full discussion about what I've learned, but it's ultimately what the customer likes. Seat length is a moving target because of the wide range of preferences and uses.
Pedrini: Loosely. The rider needs to move with the horse and not interfere with the horse’s freedom of movement. The rider’s hands and spurs should be the last tools used. It starts with body language and balance and should end with body language and balance. Think of a cutting horse that moves very quickly. Those riders are dancing in the seat.
Bean: That’s the rider’s own personal preference.
Mecum: A lot of people want the seat a little too big, but for general good horsemanship, I like to stay with my horse and not slip around too much, so I can communicate better with my body. Too much rise in the front can make a person think he needs a bigger seat than he does.
Rick Bean, Meridian, Idaho: Having started his career when he was just 17, Bean has built saddles for 30 years. Also a harness maker, he has a two- to three- year waiting list on saddle orders.
Dale Harwood, Shelley, Idaho: Harwood has been building saddles for 49 years. His work earned him a 2008 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Still active as a saddlemaker, he’s no longer taking orders.
Bill Maloy, Washoe Valley, Nevada: The recipient of numerous awards, including the Governor’s Arts Award of Nevada, Maloy has been making saddles for more than 50 years. He no longer accepts orders.
Steve Mecum, Crowheart, Wyoming: A working cowboy who’s started approximately 750 colts, Mecum is a past winner of the best-of-show award at Trappings of Texas. He’s made saddles for 25 years, and has a one- to two-year waiting list.
Pedro Pedrini, Marysville, California: A saddlemaking veteran of 30 years, Pedrini has won best-of-show awards at Trappings of Texas and the Boot and Saddlemakers Roundup, and the Academy of Western Artists’ saddlemaker of the year award. He has a waiting list of approximately one year.
Cary Schwarz, Salmon, Idaho: The 2009 winner of the Academy of Western Artists Saddlemaker of the Year Award, Schwarz has spent 28 years making saddles and has approximately a four-year waiting list on orders.
Chuck Stormes, Millarville, Alberta: A saddlemaker for 47 years, Stormes was the first recipient of Calgary’s Silver Spur Award and is a recipient of the Will Rogers Award, presented by the Academy of Western Artists. He has a five- to six-year waiting list on saddle orders.
John Willemsma, Guthrie, Oklahoma: A past winner of the Don King Memorial Saddle Contest and best-of-show titles at Trappings of Texas and the Boot and Saddlemakers Roundup, Willemsma has been a saddlemaker for 34 years. He has about a one-year waiting list on orders.