There are a number of important aspects to take note of when putting a western saddle on a horse and a number of techniques to handle all of theses aspects.
How tight do I tighten my saddle?
The main thing to keep in mind here is that the saddle is not like a car seat... it is not meant to be a piece of equipment to strap you to the horse, but merely a tool to aid you in the balance that you already have while riding. Stirrups in particular are meant to be a tool to reinforce balance at high speeds and fast turns, not a crutch to lean on and rely on. Keeping this in mind helps us figure out just how tight to make our girth.
A number of experts state the following confusing line: the saddle should be tight enough so that the saddle does not move and loose enough so that our horse is comfortable. What does this mean? The saddle should not move on its own or slide side to side on the horse when we tug on it from the ground. It should be tight enough to be secure.But our saddle should never be so tight that it does not allow the horse to move under the saddle, or pinch a nerve. Where is this balance point?
For pleasure riding, when you are in your saddle, you should be able to move the saddle slightly when you put all of your weight on your stirrup and lean. It should allow the horse to move under the saddle but not let the saddle move because of this movement. However, if you are roping, barrel racing, ponying horses, or doing things that will put added movement and could shift the saddle, you should have it tighter.
So now you ask: How do I get on the horse without the saddle moving? How do I ensure the saddle does not move side to side when I'm riding?
When mounting your horse, you should not be relying on the stirrup to get you up on the saddle. You should hold the mane to help you get on, not the horn. The mane will not move and it is a part of the horse. The horn is like a lever to shift your saddle. Additionally, you should not climb up on your horse, but you should mount gracefully using your legs to jump and propel you off of the ground.
When riding you should be a balanced rider. This entails being able to keep track of your own body and maintain balance without the need of tools (stirrups to lean on, horns to hold on to, and heaven forbid you grab the reins for support). When you rely on tools, you are locking down a part of your body that is incredibly useful for communication for your horse. As a balanced rider, you should not be shifting the saddle at all because you will not be putting any pressures or lever actions onto it to cause it to move.
So what does the novice rider do, or perhaps someone operating at top speeds or tying off on their horn? There are a number of additional tools that you can use to reinforce the balance of your saddle without tightening the girth further and causing pain to your horse:
- Breastcollars: Breastcollars go around the chest of your horse and provide additional support to the saddle preventing it from sliding backwards on the horse, but also providing resistance for your saddle to slide side to side and therefore more stability.
- Crouper: A crouper is a leather loop, passing under a horse's tail, and buckled to the saddle to keep it from slipping forwards.
How fast do I tighten my girth?
A horse should never be thrown into a saddle quickly.
When first putting the girth on it is important to hold the girth up on the horse's stomach. If the girth is continually banging up against the horse as you set, adjust and work with the rigging it will become irritating and your horse will get frustrated and upset. Some horses are particularly irritated by this and will become "cinchy" over time.
Once your rigging is hooked up, leave on the horse loosely. As you continue to tack up your horse and prepare to ride you should incrementally tighten the girth. Tightening your girth in multiple steps will allow your horse to adjust to the girth and prepare for the ride. There should be at least 3 different tightening occurrences and no less.
Where do I put my cinch?
It is very important that before cinching your saddle, you find the appropriate position for the saddle so that it is square, balanced, and not restricting the shoulder movement of the horse. Saddle pads should also be positioned so that they cannot slip back and are covering the horse appropriately.
The girth should lie across the horse's ribs but should not be resting in the "armpit" of your horse. When your girth is too far forward it restricts the motion of the horse and can cause pinching.
Behind the horse's elbow there is a plethora of skin to allow the horse to swing its leg fully. When you put your cinch too far forward you are pinching some of this skin that is supposed to move under the girth. Additionally, you are causing the skin to have to fold around the girl as the leg moves backwards.
The girth should be placed behind the point of the elbow a safe distance to allow movement. Depending on the horse it may be 4-6" inches, but each horse is different. To further prevent pinching, after the first tightening (remember there are multiple tightening moments in saddling a horse), stretch your horse's legs to pull the skin out from under the girth.
Using a back cinch on a western saddle:
Some saddles are specifically designed with a single centralized balance point on the saddle to connect to a single girth. These centralized balance points make the saddle balance both in the front and the back of the saddle so that there is no teeter-tottering forward and backwards or twisting from side to side as the horse moves.
Other saddles are not designed this way. They are designed with two balance points: a front one connected to the cinch and a back one for the back cinch. When using a saddle like this it is necessary to support both of the balance points in order to ensure that the saddle does not teeter-totter or twist.
Many people use saddles with a dual balance point and only one girth. Sometimes as the cinch is tightened, it will lift up the back end of the saddle.Because the saddle is no longer balanced, it is also no longer secure on the horse. To compensate this, often people tighten the girth tighter, which ensures that the saddle will not slip, but only furthers the lack of balance and can bother the horse.
To deal with this there are two techniques: using a back cinch, or rigging the saddle to develop a single balance point.
The back cinch and the front cinch should be connected together with rigging and equally tightened. If using a back cinch it is very important to connect the back cinch to the front cinch with rigging to ensure that the back cinch does not slip back under the horse's stomach and become a bucking strap. If there is no rigging it is important that you remove the back cinch or that you hang the back cinch loosely and not use it for support.
To convert a saddle to a single balance point, use a long latigo on each side of the saddle to create a "Y" shaped rigging that will connect to a single girth. This will ensure that both the front and back balance points of the saddle are being weighed down.
You can also use English billet straps or stirrup leathers to convert a saddle.