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So You Want To Buy A Saddle?
by Dusty Johnson

When deciding to purchase a saddle many options are available.  While price and decoration are important factors they must not be the primary reasons for choice.  I believe that appropriateness for intended use, comfort for horse and rider, quality of materials and durability of construction should come first.  These factors apply to saddles and saddles.  Though there are large differences in these three categories they must all adhere to the same principles.  However, different expectations also apply.

The first consideration in choosing a custom saddle is finding a skilled saddlemaker who you have confidence in.  Reputation is the first indication to seek.  When a maker develops a good reputation it is not by accident.  It means he (or she) has worked hard to produce horsebackthe very best product with excellent materials and that product has withstood the test of a variety of horsemen and skill levels.  This is not to say that a newcomer to the saddlemaking trade cannot make an excellent rig, but that newcomer’s workmanship must be evaluated with more care.

If possible try to visit the custom saddle shops in your area to personally evaluate their workmanship and styles.  Obtain as many custom catalogs as possible.  Always compare construction and workmanship.  Keep in mind that a “name” isn’t always the same person who built the saddle.  Many times a big “name” has been licensed to the manufacturer and today’s products may not be as good as the original.

Check out Dusty's other articles:
When you order a custom saddle you will be asked to specify many dimensions, i.e.: seat size, cantle height, fork style and width, type of bars, horn style and size, etc., etc..   Any good custom maker will be glad to help you decide what will work best for you.

Expect to place a non-refundable deposit.  The maker must order a tree (which can take up to 3 months for delivery) and pay for it in advance.  He must also order hardware and leather for your job.  Once the leather is cut it is difficult to use it on another saddle.

A typical custom saddle requires approximately 35 to 50 hours to construct, longer if heavily decorated.  Layers of damp leather are used and drying times must be factored into the construction time.  A top-grade saddle maker can usually deliver your custom rig in 3 to 8 months, depending on his work load.  If the wait is much longer either you are dealing with a maker in the top 5% of the trade or he is devoting time to other projects and not entirely concentrating on making new custom saddles.

saddle hornThe cost of a  saddle will be fairly close from shop to shop.  The best materials cost each shop the same and a good craftsman must expect fair payment for his experience, skill and overhead.  The reasons for large deviations in price should be carefully examined.  In other words, don’t expect to find any “bargains” in a good custom saddle.  I have never been able to understand why any horseman will pay $25,000 for a pickup truck  that will depreciate and wear out in 8 years and, at the same time, hesitate at $2,500 for a custom saddle that will probably last for a couple of generations!

Factory or Production line saddles are basically machine made in a mass-production environment.  The parts are machine cut with steel dies and designs are embossed with huge hydraulic presses.  One or two workers do each type of operation, in assembly line style, before the saddle is passed over to the next team.  No one individual builds the entire saddle and it is unlikely that the same quality standards apply to each part.

Construction is sometimes very good and many of these saddles are just as strong as most custom outfits, however, many factory-made saddles have surprisingly poor construction.  These will be evident by the use of low-grade leather, cheap buckles and rigging plates, plastic stirrups and the use of staples in place of nails and screws.

Many of these manufactured rigs are dressed up with “silver” corners, trim and conchos and have beautiful carving.  This carving is not accomplished by hand, but is first with a commercial multi-ton press and then some of the edges are dressed-up by hand.  This gives additional depth and makes it appear as though all the work was done by a skilled leather carver.

Even though most manufacturers offer a variety of sizes and styles the purchaser has very few options due to Let’s look at some basic guidelines for evaluating a used rig before purchase.

First, of course, is evaluation of the tree.  Is it’s width right for your horse?  Is it solid?  A broken tree cannot be made whole again, even if it is repaired.  No matter how nice the rest of the saddle is if the tree is broken you should walk away.  How do you check for this?  Put the saddle down on its horn and press downward on the cantle ... hard!  If it is broken you will feel the flex and you might even hear popping sounds.  Pass that test?  Now lay it on its side and press against the bars.  Same thing, if it flexes walk away!

antique saddleLook under the jockeys at the ends.  Is the rawhide firm and tight or is it cracked, peeling and has the lacing going bad?  (expensive to repair)  How about the leather throughout?  Is it dry or is it deeply cracked?  If it is dry you can oil it, but if it is cracked it is not going to heal.  If it feels too oily and is very dark maybe the seller is trying to cover up the fact that it has been abused in the past. 

Is the leather worn out in any special places?  Heavy abrasion on the horn and fork indicates hard roping.  Thin seat jockeys indicate lots of riding.  A loose and wiggly Cheyenne-roll indicates poor construction and being carried and lifted too many times by the cantle.  This cannot be firmed up again without a major remake.

Finally, check the stirrups.  Are the covers still intact?  Be sure the stirrups are not broken or twisted.  They can be replaced, but this is another expense on that “bargain” saddle.  Be sure there is a stirrup hobble included.  Remember, this is another safety item.  How about the seat? Does it have enough room and do you feel good sitting in it?

Finally, if you are not sure of your own judgment and experience take the saddle to a professional and get his opinion.  Please remember that most trainers are pretty good at evaluating the fit of a saddle, but they are not saddle makers and usually cannot truly evaluate construction and material quality in saddles.  Go to a saddlemaker for his opinion and pay him a fair fee to examine the saddle. It is worth a few dollars to get an expert opinion before you spend a lot of dollars on a saddle that will not give you the service you expect.

If you still have questions ask permission to try it on your horse.  This is one advantage when buying a used saddle.  Rarely will a custom saddle shop or a tack store allow you to ride a brand new saddle because once it is scratched from normal riding it can never be sold as new to another customer.

The used saddle, however, can usually be “tried out”.  Most reasonable folks will allow you to try it out on your own horse.  This does not mean riding it for a week and bringing it back dirty and scratched.  It means checking it for fit and comfort, period!!

Bargains are worth looking for, but always be cautious.  Both you and your horse will be glad you too your time buying this most important part of your equipment.

Author Bio: Dusty Johnson has been a leatherworker and saddlemaker for more than 50 years.  He operates the Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop and School in Loveland, Colorado.  He is also the President of Pleasant Valley, Inc and Saddleman Press.  Saddleman Press currently publishes books and videos of saddlemaking instruction, holster making instruction and details of how to make chaps.  Contact Dusty at:  Pleasant Valley Saddle Shop, 1220 So. County Road 21, Loveland, CO, 80537, USA.  Telephone (970)669-1588 or email to DustyJohn@aol.com


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