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.