The Saddle Seat
The saddle seat on a western saddle is probably the most important part to the rider. It will, to a large extent, determine how comfortable those hours in the saddle will be.
Quality ground seats will be slightly curved to match the pelvic arch. Low quality seats are flat and can feel like you’re straddling a table. Not a feeling you’re going to enjoy on a long ride. A well-designed ground seat will also be narrower at the front, which allows the rider’s legs to be close to the horse.
There are a great range of opinions on the “proper” saddle seat slope; some based on different activities (i.e. cutting, roping) and some on personal preference. We’ll add our opinion to the mix. We believe that most riders will be best served with a relatively flat seat that positions their legs underneath them. This is the most balanced position. Too many saddles have high slopes that tilt a rider back against the cantle and force their legs out in front. This is an out-of-balance position.
Over the ground seat, the finished saddle seat is built from heavy leather. On the best saddles, a single large piece of leather is used to cover the seat, cantle, and front and seat jockeys. Examining a saddle’s seat construction will tell you quite a bit about the craftsmanship of the saddlemaker. Lower quality saddles will use a two-piece construction for the seat, often using a padded seat to cover the seam.
Padded seats have become quite popular and are now available on a large number of saddles. However, padded seats really aren’t a solution for an uncomfortable saddle. The problem isn’t the softness of the seat but rather the design. If the seat is designed to fit the human anatomy, it will be comfortable, with or without a padded seat. Of course, any new rider will need some hours in the saddle to get their muscles used to riding. There’s just no way around that beginner pain. But, once that’s behind you, you’ll find that a quality saddle with a well-designed seat will be quite comfortable.
To determine what the right saddle seat style and seat size is for you, we recommend sitting in and riding in as many saddles as possible. You’ll start recognizing what feels good and what doesn’t.
Seat size is a popular way to attempt to establish the size of a saddle. Seat size is published on all saddles and measures the distance from the base of the horn to the top middle edge of the cantle. It is expressed in half-inch increments and ranges from 12”(youth) to 17”. Most saddle makers do not believe saddles should be made in sizes larger than 17” as it seats the rider too far back and causes discomfort for the horse.
Saddle seat comfort and fit should be one of your main criteria when choosing a saddle. Take the time to get it right.
Ground Seat and Seat Slope diagrams courtesy of "Saddle Savvy" by Dusty Johnson