There are likely no more important tools of the trade for the working cowboy than his horse and saddle. While there have been volumes written about horses (as should be the case), comparatively little is written about western saddles. While its purpose is to be a tool for a cowboy who spends all day, every day, horseback, perhaps modern society takes its design and utility for granted. Or, perhaps for those unfortunate souls who rarely experience the joy of being horseback, so long as there is the feeling of a little extra security between the rider and horse, the differences of and the differences in saddles are of less importance. For the working cowboy, however, the saddle was designed to provide security and comfort to the rider when spending long hours on a horse, traveling over the rugged terrain of the early American west. It was and is the cowboy’s office, or at least his desk chair.
The design of the western saddle derives from the saddles of the Mexican vaqueros – the early horse trainers and cattle handlers of Mexico and the American Southwest. It was developed for the purpose of working cattle across vast areas, and came from a combination of the saddles used in the two main styles of horseback riding practiced in Spain — la jineta, the Moorish style that allowed great freedom of movement for the horse; and la estradiota, the war style, which provided great security to the rider and strong control of the horse. As years passed, the western saddle enjoyed several functional additions, including the ubiquitous saddle “horn.” A saddle with a horn allowed vaqueros to control cattle by use of a rope around the neck of an animal, tied or dallied (i.e., wrapped without a knot) around the horn.
Early vaqueros and modern ranch cowboys, alike, are also known to use their saddles for carrying a small bed roll, a canteen of water, a yellow slicker to combat wet weather, and saddle bags with maybe an extra pair of socks, a few fence tools, and some corn doggies for nourishment. And, in a pinch with no bunkhouse and no bed roll, our cowboy could use his saddle as a comfortable place to lay his head when bedding down around the campfire on the open range. While these “cowboy” saddles are a familiar sight to moviegoers, rodeo fans, and those who have been on trail rides at guest ranches, for the working cowboy the saddle is indispensable and very personal. So, personal, that he always handles it himself.
For me, always saddling my own horse is important to ensure both my own safety and the safety and comfort of my mount. To properly saddle a horse takes a bit of patience and a measured cadence to ensure that everything is done with intention and in an orderly fashion. It’s a labor of love that gives me time to adjust from a hectic day of client service to the focused world on horseback. We tend to do things quickly in the modern world, “the quicker, the better,” we are encouraged. For me though and for every experienced rider I know, the process of saddling a horse (or tacking up) is best done patiently and with careful intention. Brush the horse to remove dust and prepare him for the long hours ahead, pick his hooves to remove rocks and other offending objects, gently place the saddle pad high up on the withers and then slide it down his back a few inches in the direction of hair growth, add a decorative saddle blanket (I usually ride with both a pad and a blanket), and swing the saddle onto the blanket with a gentle hand. Finally, adjust the entire set up for comfort of the horse, and tighten the cinch (essentially, the “belt” that secures the saddle to the horse around his girth). Each step is done in a precise manner and each step follows an important sequence. If someone else saddled my horse for me, how could I possible know it was done correctly? How would I know if the cinch was secure enough for my safety, but not too tight to restrict my horse’s breathing and movement? Cowboys saddle their own horses to take personal responsibility for the most important aspect of getting ready to do their jobs. And if another, the experienced pleasure rider for example, is lucky enough to have a wrangler saddle their horse for them, they always check the work.
So, what does securing a cinch or placing a saddle pad just right have to do with being successful in business and in life? I find too often when something goes wrong, we claim that it’s not our fault because the performance of such-and-such task wasn’t our responsibility. The claim is that we shouldn’t be held responsible when the incomplete or shoddy completion of a preliminary task we didn’t control, negatively impacts the results of the project. While I understand and respect that everyone on a team needs to do their part and take their job seriously, I personally just don’t buy this excuse. Sorry, I just don’t. And, I’m especially troubled when it’s a leader who claims defense from blame for a task of a team member that didn’t get done correctly. It’s as though the leader refuses to saddle his own horse (or failed to check the cinch) and then blames someone else for the saddle sliding off the horse!
Leadership carries with it pretty good perks, but also incredible responsibility. Responsibility, foremost, to be accountable when something doesn’t go as planned. Great leaders give the credit to the team rather than taking it for themselves, and they shoulder the blame themselves rather than blaming others when things go south. Effective leaders understand that while they can delegate tasks and roles, they can never delegate responsibility for the team accomplishing its goals. In fact, most trail bosses are especially adept at knowing everything that needs to be done to get cattle from one point to another, and stand ready to do any of it, before they start assigning tasks. As leaders they’ve trained themselves to be able to do everything required, from standing a night watch to doctoring a cow, even if they are never required to do anything more than supervise the planning and execution of the drive.
Remember our fortunate and experienced trail rider from a few moments ago? She was lucky enough to have the help of a wrangler in saddling her horse, but she rechecked everything – from making sure there was a bit of room between the saddle pad and the withers to tugging on the cinch to ensure it was just right. She recognizes that if something goes wrong, it was always her responsibility to ensure that every preparation was performed properly and in the correct sequence. Whether we are in a leadership role in an organization or simply leaders of our own existence, if the preparation is truly critical to the success of whatever we are doing, we must take responsibility for all the steps that lead up to accomplishing our goal. No blaming anyone else and no delegating responsibility. As the saying goes, “that doesn’t fly around here!” It’s our life, our job and our dreams. Why let someone else mess it up by not doing things the right way? Now, I’m not suggesting micro-management, but rather effective double-checking of the critical aspects of anything important. Pilots double-check and triple-check everything for a reason. Surgeons are obsessed with perfect preparation because our life depends on it. And, even a cowboy double checks his cinch after taking a rest.
We are incredibly lucky in modern society to have amazing technology at our fingertips where we can outsource most tasks. But remember each of us is solely responsible for the success of our project, solely responsible for the outcome of our life, and solely responsible for achieving our dreams. Thinking of it in different terms, all of us are responsible to saddle our own horse. The cowboy never delegates that away, and neither should we.
I look forward to hearing of much success and happiness for you. Until then, happy trails! ★