When choosing a new saddle, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the choices available. Few saddles are designed to both ride well and be suitable for training a performance horse.
While there are specifically designed “reining” and “cutting” saddles, remember that each design has its own pros and cons. Also, just because the word “cutting” is on the tag, does not necessarily mean it was designed well for cutting.This is because saddles are mostly made by saddle craftsmen, who may or may not be riders. And even saddle makers who are riders rarely have experience with riding a reining or cutting horse.
That’s why it is important to know what to look for in a good saddle rather than relying on what’s written on the tag. First, look carefully at the saddle’s seat. A good saddle will allow the rider to “sit the stop.” The saddle’s seat should lie close to the horse’s back—the closer, the better. If the seat is more than a couple of inches above the back, it’s too high.
The lowest part of the saddle, also called the pocket, should be in the middle of the seat. If it’s too far back, the rider will be forced back against the cantle. Too far forward puts the rider up on the swells.
Finally, make sure the seat is not too small. Riders need a little give to slide forward and back a little in the seat. Typically, the average woman should get a 16” to 16.5” seat. Men typically require a 16” to 17” seat. If you prefer a saddle that is built up a little in front to give a more ‘secure-feeling’ ride, make sure that the pocket is still in the middle.
Next, take the time to look at the saddle horn and swells. If either is too high, they will interfere with your ability to rein. For a reining saddle, the horn should generally be no higher than 3”, and the swells, 7” or less. For a cutting saddle, swells can be around 8” high. The horn should also be tilted a little bit forward on a cutting saddle.
One of the most overlooked parts of the saddle is also one of the most commonly overlooked. The stirrup leathers should hang as far forward as possible—ideally, they should be placed right behind the swells.
The reason for this is simple—balance. When the horse stops and turns hard, the rider has to sit way down in the saddle to keep balanced. If the stirrup leathers are hung too far back, the rider’s feet and legs will be behind his center of gravity and result in poor balance. The rider can even fall forward, causing the horse to come out of its stop.
Also, look at the material of the leathers. It should be made of thin, flexible leather. This prevents bulk from impeding the precise leg cues needed for cutting and reining.
The cantle, or back of the saddle, shouldn’t be tall or steep like a “trail” saddle. A tall cantle will hit the rider in the back, very uncomfortably.
A cutting or reining saddle should have a full-double rigging, and no compromises should ever be made on that. Rigging is vitally important. While some horses might do fine with a 7/8 rigging, you should never buy a saddle with center-fire rigging. If your saddle has less than the full-double rigging, it will slide too far forward on your horse’s back as you ride.
This has to do with the natural shape of the horse. The cinch naturally wants to go around the narrowest part of the horse’s underline—right behind the front legs. Other rigging styles are made to go around back toward the belly area, and they can slide forward, taking the saddle too far forward with it.
The rigging Dee should also be in-skirt or dropped 3 to 4 inches below the swells. This is called a dropped rigging. This lets the tree fit down more evenly on your horse’s back, is less bulky, and gives you closer contact with your horse.
Finally, look at the saddle’s tree. Be sure it fits your horse’s back shape. If the tree is too narrow or wide, your horse will be uncomfortable. Also, ensure a minimum of an inch of clearance between the withers and the gullet.
Many saddle trees are not curved enough to fit a horse’s back. This is a big problem to watch out for. If you have a horse that’s slightly sway-backed wearing a straight saddle, your horse will develop a sore back and strain.
If you are unsure about which saddle to buy, get a good trainer to evaluate its fit on your horse. The trainer’s opinion could save you and your horse the problems of an ill-fitting saddle.