When Barrel Horse News Facebook fans were asked to name the piece of tack they had the most difficulty selecting, many confessed to having a problem finding the right saddle. As a result, we asked 10-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Molly Powell to share her thoughts on finding and recognizing a saddle that will fit your needs.

copy of molly powell around barrelA good barrel racing saddle should help the rider gain both balance and self-assurance. Photo by John Brasseaux


As devout barrel racers, we are a competitive group of people. We know confidence is everything when it comes to winning, but at one time or another, most of us have experienced those moments when we question our ability to ride well—or well enough—and self-doubt creeps in. You begin to ask yourself, “Is this horse too powerful for mmome?” Or even, “Why am I so behind or on his head coming out of a barrel turn?” So, we practice more intently. We watch more instructional videos. Maybe we start to enter fewer races, and finally we come to a point where we ultimately ask, “Could it be that I am simply not a good enough rider for this horse?”

Over the course of the past few years, I began to challenge these questions as I worked on designing barrel saddles. I’ve personally dealt with same doubts too, and I’ve had to break it down to learn what factors might be directly causing them. I’ve determined that a good saddle can and should build your confidence. It should be there for you when you need to hold on with your legs, and it should be there for you when you go to stand up in your stirrups coming out of a turn. If you feel like you can’t ride very well, you should ask yourself if your saddle is helping you use your leg strength to ride. (It would be very hard to ride if you had no legs, so using them is very important!) Your saddle definitely needs to make it easier for you to ride to your full potential.

When purchasing a saddle, I understand people’s concerns and their need to get the best personal fit possible. Thus, I have had to really consider the mechanics behind the motions involved in riding barrel horses and the unique needs of competitive barrel racers.

Don’t Get Thrown Around

Take, for example, the powerful horse that may have a tendency to throw you forward when approaching a turn. Many barrel racers look at the height of the swells on a saddle to determine whether or not it will help them ride better. But we do not hold on with our stomach! We hold on with our legs, and if you have shorter legs like me, you will really rely on using your thighs.

A leg cut is what I call the area where the swells meet the skirt of the saddle, and it has a sort of crevice where my thigh muscle can fit in and hold on to the swell. A leg cut can make the swells more effective, giving me assistance when riding a powerful horse.

The size of your saddle seat can also influence how effectively you utilize the leg cut in your swells. I personally prefer my thigh to be within a half inch of touching the swells. That way, I can make contact sooner when I need to connect to the swells.

If getting behind your horse when he’s coming out of a turn is a problem, check to see if you have a saddle that allows your stirrups to go behind your hips. I feel that the way the stirrups are set is a key factor in building rider confidence.

When your horse approaches a turn, and rates his speed, inertia is going to push you forward. If your legs go behind you coming into the turn, you will not be able to sit up easily coming out of the turn. This will result in you falling back on your rear end and getting behind your horse. If your feet get thrown back, you will definitely feel very off balance.

It’s also very important that my stirrups do not go behind the point of my hips when I’m riding a horse that is particularly strong coming out of a turn. We tend to lose all of the strength of balance from our legs when they are behind us. Having a saddle with stirrups that are set, or “hobbled,” so they will bind at a certain point and allow us to stand up and brace against that point will be of great assistance.

What about when we feel like we are getting “blown back” in the saddle? I’ve learned a lot about the importance of the pocket in the seat of a saddle, and how it can be tweaked to accommodate certain issues. The pocket is the area in the seat where you actually sit. It should be comfortable and formed to your body so you are actually sitting “in” the saddle instead of just “on” it. The pocket also helps you balance your weight in the middle of the saddle, instead of rolling your weight from side to side. Slight shifts in a rider’s weight can cue a horse to go wider or tighter into a turn, so it’s crucial to be able to center your weight as needed.

Analyze Your Style

I recommend looking back at some of your barrel racing runs on video and considering some of the points that I mentioned above. Really watch and analyze your riding and your horse’s performances. Question exactly what is happening in a run and why.

Is your horse going by his barrels? In order to help a horse to rate his speed for a barrel, a rider needs to be able to cue him to slow down by sitting down in the saddle and helping to shift the horse’s weight to his hind end. If you are leaning ahead, check your leg cut and swells, but also remember to check your stirrup set and also the length of your stirrups.

Oftentimes, I have seen people ride twice as good when their stirrups are shortened. If you stand up in your stirrups, I believe that you should be able to measure at least 3″ of space between you and the saddle. For some riders, maybe longer stirrups will work, but check it out if you are aware of a problem with your riding.

Secondly, take your stirrups and swing them back towards the back cinch. If they have nothing stopping them from going all the way back, then you may benefit greatly from a saddle that won’t let your legs get behind you.

Look closely at your videos, and see where your weight is balanced. If you are off balance, either from no help from the leg cut in your swells, or your legs thrown behind you, your balance will not be in the center of your horse. You will be fighting your own battle trying to stay with the power of the turn, and leaving it all to your horse to overcome your weight imbalance in the seat.

I have to throw in another tip as well. If your saddle tends to set your hips forward, and not straight up and down, then this could inhibit your horse from rating the first barrel as well. Leaning forward means go! Leaning back means whoa! This has always been something my mom preached to me. It is ideal to place your hips squarely in the saddle seat so that you may lean your upper torso forward or backward at will, while the lower half of your body remains stable and secure and ready to keep you balanced.

If you have confidence in your saddle, you will definitely ride better. You can ride more aggressively if you need to and sharper, rather than passive and inconsistent. You can tighten down wide turns and avoid hindering your horse due to lack of balance.

About Molly Powell

Molly Powell was born in Pincher Creek, Alberta, Canada, and currently resides with her husband, National Finals Rodeo team roper Turtle Powell, in Stephenville, Texas.

Powell joined the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1986 and has achieved 10 National Finals Rodeo qualifications during her career. She attended Vernon College in Texas where she earned a degree in Computer Graphics. While at Vernon, Powell also earned the title of National Intercollegiate Rodeo barrel racing champion in 1995. That same year she captured the title of Original Coors Showdown champion.

She has qualified six times to the Pro Rodeo Tour Finals. In 2007, she was the Ariat Tour Finale (Omaha, Neb.) reserve champion barrel racer, and in 2005 won the Calgary Stampede Bonus Round. Also in 2005, Powell finished second in the NFR average. In 2004, she won the coveted average title at the NFR, finishing as reserve world champion barrel racer that same year. In 2002, Powell earned an Olympic Gold Medallion at the Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Powell surpassed $1 million in career earnings during 2011.

For more information about Molly Powell, visit mollypowell.com. E-mail comments on this article to  [email protected].



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