Buying your very own custom western saddle is a a lot of fun. It's also a major investment. A typical custom saddle currently costs between $2500 and $4000. More elaborate saddles can cost quite a bit more. You'll want to do your homework before making such a purchase.
There's a lot to know before you buy. The following are tips and guidelines that will help make you a smart shopper.
Ride a wide variety of saddles - different brands, types, sizes.
Make an effort to ride every saddle you run across, even if for just a few minutes. Pay attention to the features of each saddle and how it feels. Determine what you like and don't like.
Decide on the type of saddle you want. This decision will usually be based on what your intended use will be. Many western saddlemakers specialize in a particular type of saddle, so it's important to have a good idea of what type you want before you start looking for saddlemakers.
Choosing a Saddlemaker
Solicit recommendations (and warnings). Ask everyone you run across in the horse world if they, or anyone they know, has any experience (good or bad) with any custom saddlemakers. Ask for recommendations in online horse-related forums. Ask at your local horse facility or tack shop. Ask horse trainers. You'll really have to make an effort to get this information, but it is invaluable and worth your time.
Don't just limit your choice to the top saddlemakers. Their prices and backlog can make them inaccessible. There are many
talented, but lesser known, saddlemakers creating wonderful saddles in small saddlery shops throughout the country.
Examine the saddlemakers work. If possible, examine the work in person. If that's not possible, have the maker send photos or links to photos posted on the web. While the absolute best scenario is to have the opportunity to ride one of the maker's saddles, that isn't always possible.
Talk to the Saddlemaker.
When you've narrowed your candidates down, stop by or give them a call. Ask questions. Talk to them about the saddle you're looking to have made and get their opinion. What's their backlog? What's their specialty? How long have they been building saddles? How many saddles have they built? Any customers you can talk to?
Once you make your choice, you'll have a partner. Your saddle maker is a professional. He'll know how to walk you through the whole process. It's important to be prepared and have a good sense of what you want, but now you have to let the saddlemaker lead the way. Consider their advice carefully.
Designing Your Saddle
Getting fitted - you and your horse. Your saddlemaker will ask you a number of questions pertaining to fit. You'll need to provide them with some of your measurements, or stop by their shop to be measured. In addition to seat size, the measurements will be used to determine the design of the saddle including fender length and stirrup size.
They'll also ask you questions about the type of horses you ride. If you're near by, you can bring the horse to be measured. But, keep in mind, as we discussed in the fit section, fitting a saddle too specifically to a particular horse is a mistake. Horses change over their life, and a well-made saddle will outlast any horse. Instead, you're looking to buy a saddle to fit the particular physical type of horses your ride.
The type of saddle you choose will depend on your intended use. Some saddlemakers make a wide variety, others only one or several types. Some offer a variety of saddle trees to choose from (wade, association, weatherly, etc.). Your previous homework and talking with your saddlemaker will help you decide.
Features. Most saddle makers will have a base saddle that comes with certain features. There will then be a list of optional features you can add or customize. It's very similar to buying a car. Additionally, many saddlemakers will create custom features or designs for you.
One of the decisions you'll have to make is how much of the surface area of your saddle do you want to be tooled. Check out Tooling Coverage to understand your options.
You can get a sense of what options you'll have and the decisions you'll need to make by looking at the saddle order form used by J.M. Capriola's, a saddle shop in business for over 100 years.
The Saddle Agreement
Get it in writing. This is a major purchase. You need to make sure there is a true meeting of the minds. An agreement doesn't have to be elaborate, but you really should have it in writing. The major points that should be covered include a description of the saddle with all of the specifications and features, the price, the payment terms, and the delivery date.
Delivery date. It typically will take 3 to 12 months to have your saddle built, depending on the saddlemaker's backlog. Some saddlemakers may tell you that it will take them "oh, about, a year or so" and want to leave it at that. That's not good enough. It's important to have this date stated in your agreement. If the saddlemaker will not be able to meet that date, then they should call and update you. It is understandable if the date moves back a month or so. It is not understandable, or acceptable, if the date moves back more than that, unless there is some very unusual circumstance such as a major illness.
A saddlemaker should make saddles in the order received. Moving a saddle to the front of the line because someone paid more or is a friend, is considered unethical by most saddlemakers. A delivery date that keeps getting pushed back can be an indication of a saddle maker making saddles out of order.
Payment. Most saddle makers will require a non-refundable down payment (typically 50%), which is reasonable considering they must purchase materials in advance. Make sure to get a receipt for the down payment or have it noted in your agreement. The balance is usually due on, or prior to, delivery of the finished saddle. It should go without saying that custom saddles are not returnable.
After the Sale
Pass it on. If you're happy with the saddle and the saddle maker, pass it on. Let others know about your good experience. You'll help out both the saddlemaker and the buyer.
Pass it back. If you've had a good experience and your new saddle is working great for you, pass it back. Llet your saddlemaker know that you're a happy customer. Drop him a note. Give him a call. Send a photo of the saddle on your horse.
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