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Is it Safe to Jump in a Western Saddle?

This is a question that seems to get asked fairly often by trail riders. Obviously, you can jump in a western saddle, but it's very important to understand that you're making some compromises with safety.

First, as you probably expect I'll say, the horn really does present some risk to you. I think of it as a "pelvic scalpel" which obviously belies my prejudice against jumping in a saddle with a horn.

Second, because the saddle wasn't designed for jumping, you're sitting too far back rather than over the horse's center of gravity near his withers.

Western Saddle
Western Saddle
Third, and still related to your position, jumping is not going to be as safe for your horse because the horn will limit your position on the horse — let's face it, that position is certainly unlikely to be optimal, so you're chancing unbalancing your horse in a way which could hurt you both. You'll be forced into something other than a proper "two point" position because the horn will force your stomach and chest to stay somewhat higher above the horse. This will raise the joint center of gravity for you and your horse and could be a problem when going over anything but the smallest jumps. Your horse will try to compensate, and that could put you again in an unbalanaced position. So you try to compensate for that and your horse is again trying to maintain balance — you're fighting each other with the best of intentions!

Fourth, the tree of a western saddle is not designed for jumping as we've said, so the shock of the landing is not going to be properly distributed and cushioned the way it is in a jumping saddle. That means your horse's back could be hurt — do you really want to take that chance? Is it even fair to your horse to do so?

Fifth, in addition to your horse's back risking injury, your weight is going to be slammed down onto a tree that wasn't designed to take the landing forces resulting from a jump. That will risk premature saddle tree failure.

Of course, like all things in life, keeping things in perspective is important. An occasional, small jump in a western saddle over a small log lying on the trail at a trot or slow canter should be ok, but anything more than that is taking a greater risk than I would accept. A very experienced jumper might be able to take higher jumps in a western saddle, but why take the risk for yourself and your horse? Why not get a saddle specifically for jumping or one of the trail saddles without horns that better allow jumping, such as some Australian or endurance saddles? They don't have horns and you can find some that are actually designed to properly distribute your weight on the horse's back when you land.

Fortunately, major injuries while on horseback are not that common; most injuries are minor and fall into the category of scrapes and bruises. But, jumping accidents form a disproportionate number of the major injuries that do occur. Knowing that, I vote for jumping only with appropriate tack and only after receiving proper training from a qualified instructor. You should also talk with your instructor about the kind and height of the jumps you want to do with your horse. And ask if your horse is fit for such jumping and whether or not his legs should be wrapped for it.

Riding a horse is all about balance — jumping is even more so. Things sometimes go wrong because the rider messes up both himself and the horse's judgment, or the horse can even misjudge and make a mistake that necessitates a position adjustment by the rider.

There's much more to jumping safely than just hopping on a horse and getting a good running start!

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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