I call myself a dressage rider. So why am I using my Western saddle more than my dressage saddle?
There's a practical reason: it fits more of the horses who come to me for training. Western saddles have no built-in flocking. Instead, they are used with thicker saddle pads, which makes their fit much more forgiving. I own two good Western saddles, one for horses with medium to high withers, the other for horses with low withers and/or wide backs. With the right kind of saddle pad, almost any horse can feel comfortable working in one or the other of my Western saddles. I also own two dressage saddles. To optimize comfort for the horse, a skilled saddle fitter has to adjust the flocking to that particular horse’s back. Occasionally, I get lucky and a horse who comes to me for training will be able to wear one of my dressage saddles, but it’s not a common scenario.
I also find the Western saddle easier on the horse’s back. It spreads my weight over a larger area. It’s a working saddle, designed and built to keep horse and rider comfortable for hours at a time. A good dressage saddle positions me as close as possible to the horse. It’s designed to allow direct communication between my seat bones and the horse’s back, which feels wonderful - if the horse understands what it means. Many of the horses who come to me are not ready for this type of unfiltered conversation. Their backs have not developed appropriate muscles for it. They brace against my seat, or they have no idea that my seat means anything at all. I find that a Western saddle can make the experience of learning to engage with a rider’s seat a little softer around the edges, which makes it more pleasant for the horse.
I should probably mention that not all Western saddles are created equal. My Western saddle is not just any Western saddle. It’s old, but very well-made and well-balanced. It’s also more close-contact than most, and it positions my leg right underneath me, rather than way out in front of me, like some roping and cutting saddles I’ve ridden in. It’s relatively lightweight - heavier than my dressage saddle, but not that much heavier. It’s stripped down, compared to most Western saddles I see: no back cinch, no breast collar, no saddle bags. Don’t get me wrong - these are all things a horse should be familiar with because they have a practical purpose for long trail rides or cattle work. But in my daily training rides, such add-ons feel unnecessary. They would only get in the way.
I use my Western saddle because it’s the best available tool for the job I do, which is to help horses understand the language of a rider’s aids. My Western saddle keeps horses comfortable while they figure out what my seat and legs mean. My Western saddle also keeps me where I need to be while I explain these things to the horse: close enough to feel and listen to the horse’s back, yet not so close that my seat could scare an undeveloped, sensitive back into a defensive posture. It does not try wrestle me into a correct-looking position. It allows me to be effective.
This is the rational explanation I like to give. It’s valid, but it’s not the whole story. The main reason I ride so much in my Western saddle is much more emotional than rational. It’s also very simple: I feel at home in it.
My favorite Western saddle is an old, plain, basket weave reiner. It’s not much to look at, but it’s beautiful to me. It was made a long time ago by someone named D.A. Williams in Albuquerque. I bought it many years ago for $400 from a client who a) did not like the way it looked and who b) knew I liked her saddle, knew how broke I was at the time, and still wanted me to have it. I will never know exactly why she gave me such a good deal on it, but I still feel grateful to that client, and to D.A. Williams. I think this saddle looks just fine. I feel like it was made for me. I've spent so much time in it that I consider us old friends.
Someday, I may be able to afford a brand new Western saddle, maybe with fancier tooling and a few more silver conchos, custom-built for me and what I do. Until then, my old basket weave and I will stay together, through the best rides and the worst. There is no place I’d rather be.