My first saddle was a slick fork, but a broncy black mare helped me appreciate the security of a tree with swells.

When I was about 18, I started a little black mare in Colorado. I didn’t do a very good job of it, and unfortunately, I had a group of other guys and gals I rode her with every day. And for several days in a row, my black mare would find a way to pitch me off right out the front of my saddle and onto the ground every day.

Mind you, I didn’t know a stitch about getting short, having control of my colt’s hips, or any other sort of self-preservation mechanisms to make a better horse or ride. I just figured there were two sorts of people: those who could ride tough horses and those who couldn’t. My black horse proved to all the other spectators daily that I was the latter. 

Slick fork saddle
A slick-fork saddle, such as a Wade, has no swells on the front end of the saddle.
Photo by Ross Hecox

See, I had just one saddle, and it was a dark oil, floral tooled, low cantle slick fork saddle made in the 1950s. My aunt rode in it all of her younger years, and she gifted it to me. I didn’t come from a cowboy family, and I had to pay my way for everything (translation: I was a broke kid and riding bareback before I acquired said saddle). Therefore, I thought it was just the best rig ever made to man. I was just a horse crazy kid who didn’t have a clue that different saddles were better for different things. So no matter what I did horseback, it was the only one I ever used. 

Well, back to my embarrassing colt starting endeavors. A friend of mine from New Mexico felt that he’d snickered enough at me and my problematic black filly, so he stripped some bucking rolls off of one of his saddles and sold them to me for $15. He fixed them on the front of my old slick fork and said, “Here, these might help you ride better.” The next day, when that mare bogged her head in the middle of my trot to lope transition, I stayed on. I kid you not. Looking around, I realized that no other kids had a slick fork saddle. I was now someone with swells, and a better seat, too. Game on! 

Naturally, this got me wondering. See, the fork of a saddle (aka the pommel or swell) is the front of the tree, which serves as the base of the horn and also holds the bars together. Some saddles (slick forks) are widest at the bottom and narrower as they join at the horn. Others (swell forks) are widest across the middle of the fork, thus creating a swell above the upper leg as one rides. I understood that there are slick fork types of people and swell fork types of people, usually due to a rider’s region, preference of riding type, discipline and personal style.

I hadn’t made my mind up one way or the other on the topic, but after old Blackie, I became a believer in the feel of a swell fork and haven’t really looked back (except for my cowboy saddle, and it’s made by Dale Harwood, and when you have a “Harwood” you accept it, nurture it, insure it and love it for what it is). But in all honesty, I had to ask, why on earth does anyone prefer a slick fork wood to a swelled one? 

Swell fork saddle
A saddle with swells gives riders something extra to grip with their legs if things get a little Western.
Photo by Ross Hecox

Some say the slick-fork saddle is better for long days because the narrowness in the front end makes it easier to mount and dismount in a quick fashion. It also allows for more space to pack and carry items, like ropes or doctoring bags. Others make the argument that a slick-fork saddle with bucking rolls is softer and more comfortable than one with hard, built in swells. Some prefer the looks of a slick fork, and for others, it’s just what they know. Tradition carries a long way in the cowboy world, and some of those who ride a slick fork say that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  

My black mare eventually got better and my riding did too. I’m not blaming old “dark oil slick fork” for my subpar colt riding abilities in my late teens. In fact, I still cherish that old thing, and she sits in the tack room, bucking rolls tightened down, polished and ready for another ride someday. 

But for as long as I’m horseback, I’ll take all the help I can get. And—sorry slick forks, bucking rolls or not—it turns out I’m much more of a swell fork kind of girl. 

Harwoods aside, of course.

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