Editor's note: Dale Martin is one of the most well-known saddle makers in the team roping industry. After a recent chat, we asked him to put his thoughts about saddle fit together in an article for us. With his extensive industry network, he submitted the following article.
I have been building saddles for 20 years, but before I started building saddles, I rode one. I was raised on a ranch in Dexter, Kan., where we would gather and work cattle for 10 hours a day. One can imagine how important saddle fit is to the rider, but more importantly to the horse. When I started making saddles, I wanted to make a saddle that could accomplish both of these goals. I still try to do that today. I have been on both ends of the saddle so to speak. I have ridden them and I have made them. I have built custom saddles and I have monitored production saddles. I founded Dale Martin Saddlery and later sold the company to Equibrand, which is now Martin Saddlery. I made custom saddles after leaving Equibrand and today I am back in the production saddle business with Reinsman. In saying all of this, I have seen this industry from both sides, a couple of times. I would like to share some of my knowledge and the knowledge of some of the most respected names in the industry so that you might make a more informed decision when purchasing your saddle.
In this new age of technology, there are a lot of gimmicks and claims being made by saddle manufacturers. Improvements can be made with new information, but it is my feeling that "in trying to reinvent the wheel," we have forgotten the basics. My greatest mentors are Howard Council and Billy Don Hogg. These gentlemen helped me when I started making saddles years ago. They have been making saddles for years and continue to stick to the tried and true methods of saddle making. When asked, Mr. Hogg said, "The most important factor in a saddle is the fit and strength of a tree." I agree with Mr. Hogg. Like the foundation of a house, the saddle tree is the base you build around. A true saddle maker is someone who starts with a tree, adds two sides of leather and hardware and puts these components together to make a saddle that fits both horse and horseman. There is a big difference between a saddle maker and a person who assembles saddles.
Another asset in saddle making is being a horseman. Some of my good friends and fellow saddle makers-men like Larry Coates, Larry Dugan, John Rule, Mock Brothers, Bif Davis, Don Myers, Chance Bannahan, Dean Bannahan and the Kings in Sheridan, Wyo.-are all excellent horsemen. I have been team roping, calf roping and steer roping for 30 years. The knowledge I have gained while using my saddles has helped me as a saddle maker immensely.
What to Look For In a Tree
For roping, the strength and fit are most important. The strength of a tree is determined by the thickness of the bars and fiberglass reinforcement. Traditional trees are wooden. They are covered and sewn with rawhide. In the last few years, we have taken the same idea and added fiberglass for reinforcement. These newer trees are wood, fiberglassed, then covered and sewn with rawhide. A recent addition is a tree that is wood and fiberglass covered with a fiberglass ground seat. Any one of these is a good option for a sturdy tree. The most common tree used in production saddles is wood, covered with rawhide and sewn with synthetic thread. The synthetic thread can wear down and break over time, causing the rawhide to separate, diminishing the strength of the tree.
Remember, a saddle consists of four parts (two bars, cantle and a swell.) If the four parts come apart, you have problems. These parts are only wood. Fit is determined by the angle of the bars or bottom bar spread more than anything else. Unfortunately, this is not listed in saddle specifications when shopping for saddles. This is why it is important to buy a saddle from a manufacturer that has knowledge and credibility. A good saddle company will stand behind their product. At Reinsman, we stand behind our fit, just as we do the strength.
There are horses that are built differently, but the majority of horses can use the same tree. Larry Coates, who is a good friend, saddle maker and horseman, has the same philosophy. He said, "The angle of the bars are the most important element in saddle fit. Ninety percent of horses can use the same tree if the angle of the bars is correct. If the saddle is balanced, the saddle will sit straight on the horse's back, not going uphill or downhill from the front to the back." Remember to stand your horse on level ground to determine if the saddle is balanced.
It is also important to make sure the saddle is sitting in the proper position on the horse's back. Place the saddle on its back at the withers, and slide it back into place. Your saddle will find the natural spot behind the shoulder blade.
A well-built saddle spreads the rider's weight evenly over the panels. This prevents excessive or uneven pressure under any parts of the tree. Saddle specifications will often list tree dimensions as bar type. Full Quarter Horse, Quarter Horse and Semi Quarter Horse are gullet width dimensions, not a bar type. The bars are the two long panels that sit on the horse's back and the gullet width is the vertical distance between the top of the bars.
Quarter Horse describes a gullet width of 6½". This is designed to fit the average Quarter Horse. Full Quarter Horse has a wider gullet of 6¾"-7" to fit a wider or broader backed horse-a very small percentage of the horse population. If the gullet is too wide, the saddle will fit too far down on the rib cage and withers, causing the back of the saddle to "kick up."
Howard Council, one of the most respected saddle makers in the industry, had 8 saddles in the 2007 NFR calf roping. When asked what was most important in a saddle, he said the thing he looks for most is if the saddle kicks up in the back. This will immediately tell him the tree is too wide in the front. He said in the 70's and 80's, the majority of saddles he made had a gullet width of 6¼". Today the majority of saddles he makes have a gullet width of 6½" and he rarely makes a saddle with a 6¾" gullet width. He also mentioned the importance of the angle and flatness of the bars.
Another respected saddle maker is Larry Duggan of Canyon, Texas. Larry specializes in steer roping saddles. He told me he built a saddle to fit an average horse, but when the "average" horse gained 150 lbs. the saddle did not fit as well. You might see the same thing with a young horse that has not matured. The withers will become more developed with age and use. Keep in mind that a horse's back and shape can change. Saddles will also vary because leather is a natural material and no two sides of leather or tree are exactly alike.
Look for the following symptoms in your horse:
1. Dry spots on your horses back when you unsaddle
2. White hair on withers
3. Friction rubs or swirls
4. Ducking off or dropping his shoulder when you rope
5. Not wanting to stop when you are heeling
6. Getting less than 100 percent out of your run-he will not let you throw your rope or he is not running the way he used to
7. Your horse does not score like he used to or is acting up in the box
8. Your calf horse is not stopping and he is walking up your rope
9. Biting, pinning the ears or switching the tail when the back is brushed or when the girth is tightened
10. Change in performance, such as bucking or refusing to pull the steer
Listen To Your Horse
The most frequently asked question when I am at a team roping or rodeo is "Can you look at my saddle? My horse will not score like he used to and he is ducking off when I rope. Do you think his saddle is making him sore?" I think it is highly likely. The reason your horse does this is because he is trying to avoid the jerk and discomfort of the saddle when you rope.
When I had a custom saddle shop in Oklahoma, one of my team roping partners told me his horse was trying to bite him when he tightened the girth. After looking at his saddle, I discovered his tree was broken. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to your horse. What we think is bad behavior could be a serious problem. I also encourage you to rotate saddles as often as you can. Remember, no two saddles or saddle trees are exactly alike, nor do they fit exactly alike.
I spoke with Robin Dabareiner, DVM. Dr. Dabareiner teaches lameness at Texas A&M University and team ropes in her off time. Dr. Dabareiner shared some of her thoughts on the subject. A primary back problem in horses can occur but is not real common. The most common cause is a tack problem, either poor saddle and/or pad fit. If the horse is painful in the wither area then it is most likely a tack problem. If the horse is painful in the lumbar area (just behind the saddle) then it is usually secondary to hind limb lameness. Similar to people, when you limp from a leg injury, you often experience lower back pain. The pain can come from the boney column (vertebrae) or from the muscles on either side of the spine. Tack problems often cause muscle soreness in the area of the withers and about six inches behind the withers. Common signs a horse will show when his back hurts are biting, pinning the ears, or switching the tail when the back is brushed. Some horses will do the same or run backwards when the girth is tightened. Another sign of back pain is the horse will ventroflex-or sink into the ground-when the back is pressed on. Other horses will have a change in performance, such as bucking, refusing to pull the steer, or acting up in the box. Once the tack problem is fixed, it will take several weeks before the back soreness resolves. There are many treatments, including topical pain medications, phenybutazone or if the problem is severe, owners can medicate the back with cortisone injections.
Fitting the Rider
Most of the people that purchase saddles have a difficult time deciding what seat size is best for them. The majority of ropers buy their seat size too big. When roping, you need to be able to get to the front of your saddle quickly. If your seat is too big, it takes you longer and it is more difficult to get in this position. I have made saddles for several professional team ropers, calf ropers, and steer ropers that are big guys. Jake Barnes, Tyler Magnus, Mike Beers, and myself are all over six feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds. We all ride a 14½" seat. Most people I talk to are uncomfortable changing seat size, but once they make the change, they are happy with their decision. A smaller fitting seat may give you more stability and confidence when riding a powerful horse.
Too often, I see endorsers that are excellent horsemen, but do not have much knowledge of the product they are endorsing. The lay person will buy from an endorser instead of the saddle maker.
Far too often, the consumer is more concerned with the outward appearance of a saddle and ignores the interior of a saddle. The most important thing when looking to buy a saddle is the "guts" of the saddle. Often times with a saddle, "You get what you pay for." A saddle is not one of the places to cut corners. A well-made saddle with a strong tree that fits your horse is a good investment and will last many years to come. You are better off buying a used saddle that fits than buying a new saddle that does not. A lot of manufacturers claim to build saddles to fit the horse and rider. Sadly, our horses can't tell us what feels good, and what hurts, or hinders them. Thus, we have to be intuitive enough to read between the lines and "listen" to them. Therefore, the best "listeners" in our industry are the saddle makers with experience. Look for the saddle maker who has spent just as much time in the saddle as he has making them.
Good saddle makers will stand behind the fit and strength of their saddles. They are not looking for a onetime sale.