The Western Saddle

Ask any cowboy to describe his office chair, and he will likely tell you about his saddle.  The western style saddles used on stock horses and cattle ranches throughout the United States, particularly in the American West, are familiar to movie viewers, rodeo fans, and those who have gone on trail rides at guest ranches. It is a saddle designed to provide security and comfort to the rider when spending long hours on a horse, traveling over rugged terrain.

But, how much do you know about how saddles, in general, and specifically western saddles came to be? Well, read on my friend and let’s explore the western saddle.

Humans begin riding horses

Assyrian archer on horseback, about 650 BC.

There is evidence that humans first began riding the horse not long after domestication, possibly as early as 4000 BC. And, while history doesn’t record exactly when riders first began to use some sort of padding or protection while horseback, we do know that a blanket attached by a surcingle or girth was probably the first “saddle.” This early saddle was followed later by more elaborate padded designs.  The earliest known saddle-like equipment were fringed cloths or pads used by Assyrian cavalry around 700 BC. These were held on with a girth that included breast straps and cruppers.

From the earliest depictions, saddles became status symbols. Much like in modern times, to show off an individual’s wealth and status, embellishments were added to saddles, including elaborate sewing and leather work, precious metals such as gold, carvings of wood and horn, and other ornamentation. 

While early saddles were tree-less, the development of the solid saddle tree was significant because it raised the rider above the horse’s back, and distributed the rider’s weight on either side of the animal’s spine instead of pinpointing pressure at the rider’s seat bones, reducing the pressure on any one part of the horse’s back, thus greatly increasing the comfort of the horse and prolonging its useful life. The invention of the solid saddle tree also allowed development of the true stirrup as it is known today. Without a solid tree, the rider’s weight in the stirrups creates abnormal pressure points and makes the horse’s back sore.  

A saddle from the Yi ethnic minority province in Yunnan province, China. Note the leather base with lacquer overlay.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The stirrup was another one of the milestones in saddle development. The first stirrup-like object was invented in India in the 2nd century BC, and consisted of a simple leather strap in which the rider’s toe was placed. It offered very little support, however. The nomadic tribes in northern China are thought to have been the inventors of the modern stirrup, but the first dependable representation of a rider with paired stirrups was found in China in a Jin Dynasty tomb of about AD 302. The stirrup appeared to be in widespread use across China by 477 AD, and later spread to Europe. This invention gave great support for the rider, and was essential in mounted warfare.

A unique saddle is developed for a tough job

Early “western” style saddles.
Photo: Pexels

The design of the popular 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 then 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. 

A “wrapped” saddle horn.
Photo: Pixabay

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.

Today, although many Western riders have never roped a cow, the western saddle still features this historical element. (Some variations on the Western saddle design, such as those used in bronc riding, endurance riding and those made for the rapidly growing European market, do not have horns.) Another predecessor that may have contributed to the design of the Western saddle was the Spanish tree saddle, which was also influential in the design of the McClellan saddle of the American military, being used by all branches of the U.S. Army, but being particularly associated with the cavalry.

A 1904 First Type McClellan Saddle.

The Western saddle is designed to be comfortable when ridden in for many hours. Its history and purpose is to be a working tool for a cowboy who spends all day, every day, on horseback. For a beginning rider, the western saddle may give the impression of providing a more secure seat. However, this may be misleading; the horn is not meant to be a handle for the rider to hang onto, and the high cantle and heavy stirrups are not for forcing the rider into a rigid position. The development of an independent seat and hands is as critical for western riders as for English riders.

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 dodgers 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.

Saddle construction is a very complicated process

The modern western saddle begins with a “tree” that defines the shape of the bars, the seat, the swells, horn, and cantle. Traditional trees are made of wood covered with rawhide, coated with varnish or a similar modern synthetic coating. In some cases, the core of the horn may be of metal. Modern synthetic materials of various types have also been used instead of wood, but while lighter and less expensive, are generally considered weaker than traditional materials, some, such as fiberglass, dangerously so. A high-quality tree is at the heart of a good saddle, particularly those used for sports such as steer roping, where the equipment must withstand considerable force.

A saddle tree.
Photo: eXtension Horses Foundation

The tree is usually covered with leather on all visible parts of the saddle. The seat may have foam rubber or other materials added between the tree and the top layer of leather to provide additional comfort to the rider, and leather or foam padding may be used to slightly alter the contours of the seat. Sheepskin is placed on the underside of the saddle, covering both the tree and the underside of the skirts. The cinch rings, made of metal, are attached to the tree. For decoration, metal conchos, lacing, and small plates, usually silver or a silver-like substitute, are added.

The leather parts of the saddle are often tooled into designs that range from simple to complex. The finest-quality saddles often have hand-carved tooling that itself is considered a work of art.

Don’t Sell Your Saddle. Don’t give up on dreams. Take time to see ’em through. There is no magic recipe, hard work makes ’em come true.

Even when you’re struggling, your friends will stick like glue. Don’t ever sell your saddle, your dreams won’t give up on you.

– Don Bilup

Saddle styles to suit any discipline

A trail riding saddle.
Photo: Pixabay

There are many types of Western saddle available. Some are general-purpose models while others emphasize either greater freedom for the horse or greater security for the rider, as may be necessary for specialized work in the various Western horse sports such as cutting,  reining, barrel racing, team roping, equitation and western pleasure. Factors such as width of the swells, height of the cantle, depth of the seat, placement of the stirrups and type of rigging all influence the uses of a given design. For example, a saddle with wide swells, high cantle and deep seat is suitable for cutting, where a rider must remain in a secure, quiet seat on the horse. At the other end of the spectrum, a saddle with a “slick fork” – virtually no swells – and a low cantle is suited for calf roping, where a rider must dismount quickly, often while the horse is still in motion, and not be caught up on the saddle.

The most common variations include the following:

  • Roping saddle:  This is a heavy, sturdy saddle that usually has a thicker horn for securing a rope, a low cantle, and a slick fork that allows the rider to dismount quickly when needed.
  • Rodeo bronc riding saddle:  A hornless, deep seated saddle with wide swells, having small fenders with oxbow style stirrups, originally designed and made by a rodeo innovator in 1922.
  • Cutting saddle:  Used when showing cutting horses, this saddle has a deep seat and wide swells that allow the rider to sit deep and securely through sharp stops and turns.
  • Reining saddle: Like the cutting saddle, this has a deep seat to allow the rider to sit deeply and more freely swinging fenders for more leg movement on the rider’s part.
  • Barrel racing saddle:  A lightweight saddle with wide swells and high cantle that allows the rider to sit securely, but also allows the horse to perform fast sprints and sharp turns.
  • Endurance saddle: Lighter weight than most western saddles, often without a horn, has a tree that spreads the rider’s weight out over a large area of the horse’s back, thus reducing pounds per square inch. Often has stirrups hung slightly farther forward, to allow rider to get off the horse’s back when traveling at faster speeds. Designed for long rides at faster speeds than a trail saddle.
  • Trail saddle: Designed for maximum comfort of rider as well as a good fit for the horse, this saddle features a deep, padded seat, designed for long rides at slower speeds.
  • Show saddle: May be based on roping, cutting, or other trees, but is characterized by additional leather tooling and silver decoration. Usually features a deep, padded seat that allows the rider to sit quietly and give the appearance of a smooth ride.
  • “Equitation” saddle: A show saddle with an especially deep seat to help hold a rider in place.
  • Wade saddle: Popular with that group of cowboys and ranchers known as “buckaroos”. Buckaroo is the term given to the cowhand who worked cattle in the Northwest. Wade saddles feature a low seat and low horn, a deep seat, a slick fork (or A-fork) to make the rider feel closer to the horse.

Saddles have a purpose, but also exude style

Western saddle with breast collar, back cinch and saddle strings.

There are many variations of design and optional equipment elements that were influenced by geographic region, history, use and the body types of horses bred in a given area. Certain stylistic elements seen on some, but not all western saddles include:

  • Breastcollar, an additional piece of equipment that runs from the saddle around the chest of the horse, lending both lateral stability and preventing the saddle from sliding back. Breastcollars are particularly common on trail horses and roping horses and stylized versions are often seen at horse shows. They are generally made out of leather, but may also be made of mohair or synthetic cord similar to a front cinch, or from synthetic materials that resemble leather.
  • Back cinch: A second cinch is often seen on working saddles, particularly full-rigged roping saddles. Made of several thicknesses of leather, it is adjusted just tight enough to touch the underside of the horse, but not tight enough to provoke discomfort or bucking. It prevents the back end of the saddle from rising up in working situations, and when team roping, it also minimizes the saddle fork from digging forward into the horse’s withers when a cow is dallied from the saddle horn. The back cinch is generally not required or used on a center-fire or 3/4 rigged saddle.
  • Saddle strings, long strips of leather attached to the pommel and back jockey of working saddles, used for tying items to a saddle.
  • Horn wrap, primarily seen on roping saddles, extra wraps of leather or other material that thickens the horn and provides support for a dallied lasso.
  • Tapaderos, leather covers over the toe that close each stirrup from the front. A tapadero prevents the rider’s boot from slipping through and also prevents brush encountered while working cattle on the open range from poking through the stirrup, injuring or impeding the horse or rider. The tapadero was particularly seen on certain saddles of the vaquero tradition, but today is primarily a decorative element.

Tips for buying your first saddle

The manufacturer’s mark on a western saddle.

When you go western saddle shopping, you will be given literally hundreds of options to choose from. Saddles can cost between a couple hundred bucks to thousands upon thousands of dollars. But price is not a guarantee of the quality of a saddle, especially if you are shopping for used saddles. A solid understanding of the qualities that make up a sturdy saddle will help you tell the higher-quality items from the low-end saddles.

  • Examine the saddle closely for a manufacturer’s mark or brand name; the brand name should be stamped into the leather or on a small metal plate that has been fastened onto the saddle. Locate the serial number, if possible. The serial number will be located under the skirts or in the same location as the brand name. Research the saddle using the manufacturer’s name and the serial number to determine retail and general resale value; cheap, poor quality saddles will have low prices brand new and very little value as used items while good quality saddles sell for higher prices both new and used.
  • Turn the saddle over and inspect the fleece on the bottom to see if it is missing or thin. Cheap, poor-quality fleece that appears thin when the saddle is new will quickly wear down or completely rub off the saddle as it is used, while good-quality saddles feature thick fleece that takes a long time to wear.
  • Inspect the saddle closely to see how it has physically been put together; good saddles are constructed using thick, sturdy, even stitches that stay tight and in place for many years without issue. Look for loose threads, uneven or torn stitches or areas on the saddle where the stitching is missing entirely to identify a cheap, poor-quality saddle. Avoid any saddle that has been glued together rather than sewn, as it is definitely a cheap, low-quality saddle.
  • Check the quality of leather that the saddle is made from. Look for good-quality leather that is thick and pliable when you touch it and bend it. Avoid saddles that have thin, flimsy leather or have texture similar to cardboard or paper, which is common with cheap saddles.
  • Check for obvious flaws by thoroughly inspecting every inch of the saddle; good-quality saddles appear sturdy and well-made when visually inspected for flaws, while poor-quality saddles have flaws even when brand-new. Make sure the saddle does not have any rips, bumps, lumps, tears or other visible flaws that occur fairly regularly in poor-quality saddles that have been constructed using cheap materials.

Whether you work from the back of a horse everyday or are an occasional trail rider, your saddle is not only the most important piece of cowboy gear you can own, but also reflects your personality and your esteem. Our saddles are very personal items, and the fit is equally important to both us and our horses. A good saddle will last you a lifetime and can make those hours horseback that much more enjoyable!

And, until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★