i’m an english rider, so i’m not overly familiar with western tack…
what is the difference between, say, a barrel racing saddle, a roping saddle, and a western all-purpose saddle? what other kind of western saddles are there?
The difference can be found in the type of tree, the way the pommel is made, the way the stirrups are hung and the way the skirts are cut as well as how wide the pommel is, how high the cantle is. It’s similar to asking what’s the difference between a forward seat saddle, a close contact saddle and an all purpose saddle and a dressage saddle. They all cause the rider to sit differently, affect the balance and how they contact the horse physically.
A barrel racing saddle usually has a very deep seat. the cantle is high and the pommel is usually wide so a racer can get a thigh hooked on it to balance better. These can have a rigid tree or a flexible tree. The stirrups are usually hung more forward for a wider range of movement for the rider.
A roping saddle, because it’s use to attach a rope to a heavy object or animal cannot have a flexible tree, otherwise the horse would be injured when the pull on the horn with the dallied rope causes the saddle tree to flex perhaps even pinch. Therefore they must have a rigid tree that can’t bend. Roping saddles often have a wide pommel for strength and giving the rider more support but will have a lower cantle than a barrel racing saddle. the stirrups usually will be hung more in the middle of the saddle causing the rider to sit more balanced and upright.
An all-purpose saddle will also have a rigid tree due to it’s possibility of being used as a roping saddle and it has a wider range of options in type of pommel and cantle as it’s to be used for many different things. Usually, in looking thru saddle catalogs, the ‘all purpose’ saddles are where the Wade-type trees are found too.
There’s also reining saddles which have ‘cut out’ skirts behind the stirrup leathers which allow the rider to sit up straight while also keeping a close contact with the horse for accurate cueing. these can have flex trees or rigid trees and usually have a wider pommel and a fairly deep seat.
Pleasure saddles usually have flexible trees and wide pommels with shorter cantles
Trail saddles often have flexible trees and are fairly even in terms of wide vs. narrow pommels. Some models have features that other saddles made for specific purposes do not have. For example, the Tucker saddles feature trees with bars slightly curved at the front to allow wider shoulder action exemplified by the popular gaited horses. They usually have deeper seats and higher cantles at 4 or 5 inches to make the rider feel more secure. They have gel in the seat and some have memory foam – also, the seat is different in that it’s slung between the pommel and cantle like a hammock unlike traditional western saddles where the rider actually is sitting on the leather-covered tree.
There are two main types of western saddles in terms of the tree – the Wade tree I mentioned above is also referred to as a ‘slick fork" or "A Fork" pommel. Beneath the horn, the pommel is nearly non-existent and tapers down to the bars. There’s a feeling of nothing in front of the rider which seems closer to an English saddle in feel. Conversely, the wider pommels of the wide fork saddles are nearly like a bar in front of the rider holding them in the saddle. I’ve been in some that have a pommel that looks like a T bend toward the rider – almost like a kid’s high-chair – when the rider is in the saddle, they are pretty well committed to staying in that saddle because the ‘ears’ of the pommel come right back across the thighs and purposely hold your body there, these are usually accompanied by deep seats and mostly found on barrel saddles.
When English riders come looking for Western Saddles, they usually like the slick fork pommel because they feel ‘trapped’ in a wider pommel with a higher cantle.
Western saddles also offer options like hard seats, soft seats or suede seats – some even offer Ostrich in the seat or Stingray. These don’t really affect how the saddle works but are options for comfort for the rider. I grew up with suede-seated saddles. My freind had a hard-seat all purpose Circle Y saddle a few years ago that was beautiful. She wanted to sell it and I bought it because I thought it was really nice, but it was quite opposite of what I grew up with – although it had a deep seat like the barrel saddles I grew up with, it had more of a slick pommel and a hard seat. The thing doesn’t look all that comfortable and I thought my butt would slip around in it, but it doesn’t.
I’m sure there’s MANY more options and things to discuss about saddles, but my brain is tapped right now.