After the horse itself, the saddle is the most important investment you will make as a rider. A western saddle is an expensive investment, but a good quality saddle will last for many years. A poor quality saddle will fall apart more quickly. A cheap saddle that doesn't fit the horse can cause back injuries over time. Horses often show their discomfort with a saddle by behavior problems such as balking, rearing or refusing jumps.
Feel the saddle's leather. A good quality saddle will have thick, pliable leather without rips or tears. Cheap saddles have thin, stiff leather that will crack under pressure. Avoid saddles that use imitation leather. This is one area where you want the real thing.
Pick up the saddle. A good quality saddle will be heavy for its size. Quality leather and materials are heavy. If the saddle feels too light, select a different saddle.
Examine the saddle's tree. The tree is the frame of the saddle. On a quality saddle, it is made out of solid wood, or wood and metal. Cheap saddles use softer wood and plaster of Paris or sometimes even foam dipped in fiberglass.
Inspect the bottom of the saddle. There's a sheepskin pad on the bottom that protects the horse's back from chafing. The fleece should be soft to the touch and thick enough to stand up to wear.
Scratch the surface of the saddle in an inconspicuous spot with your fingernail. A quality saddle will have dye that goes deep into the leather. If the leather changes color when you scratch it, don't buy the saddle.
Research the saddle's maker. A lot of small companies make custom saddles, but the larger companies have reputations. Make sure the company that made the saddle has a good reputation.