Join Date: Jun 2017
Location: middle of nowhere
Even though they look similar on the surface, most of your differences are going to be in the tree of the saddle. An Association tree is vastly different than a Wade tree, even though they may be used for the same thing-- and to make it even more confusing, there is no 'standard' when it comes to western saddle trees, so a Modified Association from one maker may differ from the Modified Association from another. Then there's the fact that a lot of the differences in the tree are in the swells, not necessarily the bars... there are books on this topic.
A roping saddle is usually made with a heavy, strong tree that is rawhide wrapped, and depending on what style of roping you're doing, plus personal preference, the horn and swells can vary. Roping trees are heavy duty, made to take the jerk of a 1000-pound animal running the other direction, and are meant to be ridden with tight front and rear rigging. Most are full-double-rigged meaning the front D is directly under the swells. Riding full-double-rigged without a snug rear cinch can quickly sore your horse. A saddle on a full-double-rigged roping tree is usually made for arena roping, and it tends to keep the rider's weight tipped forward to get up and over the swells to rope when coming out of the box at speed. The leathers and stirrups tend to be heavy and stiff, and set a bit farther back than in, say, a trail saddle. Roping saddles are heavy. 35 - 45 lbs fully rigged is pretty normal.
A roping tree/ranch saddle made for ranch work is often 7/8 or 3/4 rigged. These also can have dropped-plate rigging. These are usually made to ride all day and be comfortable for man and horse. You still want the rear cinch flat against the belly, but it doesn't have to be as tight as if you're riding full-double rigging. Ranch saddles/roping saddles have numerous trees--Toots Mansfield, Wade, Lady Wade (lighter than the traditional Wade) and Modified Association are pretty common in ranch/roping saddles like this. There's also personal preference. My favorite saddles is a custom on a modified TM tree with 3/4 dropped plate rigging. It's strong enough to rope with, yet comfortable enough to ride all day. If the rider has smaller horses or rides a lot of colts, rounded or single skirts may be preferred. A rider on a big horse can handle double skirting without issue. Most ranch saddles will have saddle strings and/or a few rings here or there to tie on bedrolls, slickers, etc. The tree and style you choose for a big, high-withered ranch horse may be very different than what you'd choose for a 14 hh cow-bred horse with low withers. Style also plays a role. Some riders will only ride a Wade saddle and use tack in the style of the Great Basin. Some mix and match. Some is regional style. Some just use what works for them.
A barrel saddles is often on a lighter tree since it doesn't have to be as strong for roping. The swells and cantle are more upright to hold the rider in place during the quick turns and fast acceleration coming out of a barrel. The horn is tall enough for the rider to hold securely. Because weight = time, many barrel saddles have smaller skirts or rounded skirts. Barrel saddles hold in you in place. Some people like that. Others hate it for general riding.
Cutting saddles have a wide, flat seat to give the rider room to move and twist. A horn that's tall and narrow lets the rider grip to stay in place during the lightning fast turns/stops of a cutting horse. The tree is made to fit down and around the horse to prevent the saddle shifting.
A reining saddle will look similar to a cutting saddle, but the horn is usually shorter and swept more forward than you'll see in a cutting saddle or a roping saddle. It's not meant for roping, but is very comfortable for general riding.
Trail saddles usually have a lighter tree than a ranch/roping saddle, with a secure, comfortable seat and saddle strings to tie on saddlebags, jackets, etc.
Different show saddles are made to place the rider in the position for that type of riding. A show reining saddle is different than the show saddle for a western pleasure horse, for instance.
There's plenty of room for personal preference, and some small differences in the saddle can make a big difference to the rider and/or horse.