The Saddle is an essential tool for every cowboy and has remained one of his most important and expensive investments. In the early days, even if a cowboy lost his horse, he didn’t let go of his saddle. How many western movies have you seen where the cowboy, on foot, is carrying his saddle? Not far from the truth, cowboys relied on their saddles then--and they rely on their saddles today!
Most people are aware that the typical American cowboy’s saddle came to the New World with the Spanish. But the saddle’s history is even more exotic.
A warlike people, even their women were expert horsewomen. According to Hippocrates, “Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites. A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition.”
The Sarmatians were overrun by the Huns and Goths, who also adopted the saddle as part of their material culture.
We next see the saddle being used by the Moors who invaded Spain during the early Medieval period often called the Dark Ages, c. 700s. These saddles were designed to accommodate armor and came with cantles, “forks,” and longer stirrups. They were strong and heavy and afforded protection for both horse and rider. This was also the saddle used by European knights in their quest to conquer the Middle East during the Crusades.
The Spanish, however, did introduce the saddle to the Western Hemisphere when they came to the New World in the 17th Century. In 1680 the Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish and drove them out of their land and into Old Mexico, leaving behind many horses. The Pueblo Indians raised large herds of horses and began selling and trading them to other tribes, like the Kiowa and Comanche. Immediately the horse became a part of Native American experience.
Horses spread across the Plains quickly. French traders reported seeing Cheyenne in Kansas with horses as early as 1745. Where early tribes traveled on foot or by using travois pulled by dogs or even people, the horse became an integral part of their evolving culture. With a horse, hunters were able to hunt buffalo aggressively. Some Plains tribesmen were able to ride and fire an arrow at top speed, killing a running buffalo with one shot.
Many tribes used saddles that were covered in hides or blankets, while some rode bareback.
From the early Spanish or Mexican vaquero-inspired saddle, the common stock saddle evolved into two distinct styles, the “Texican” and the “Californios.” As vaqueros and traders traveled the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800s, the saddle moved with them. This saddle introduced features that were then adopted by either the Texicans or the Californios, based upon need and function. The two styles of saddle evolved to serve different purposes and are still recognized today.
Some of the features the Santa Fe Saddle introduced to the development of today’s western saddle included: rawhide-covered tree; the “horn”; a removable leather covering that would protect the rider’s legs; and stirrups, cut from a single piece of wood. In the 1850s, the first “branded” saddles come on the scene, including companies such as the Visalia Stock Company, Hamley Company, and Herman H. Heiser Company.
By the 1860s the removable leather covering became a permanent part of the saddle. Stirrups were steamed and bent to become much more individual. Texas saddles, after the Civil War, developed a full “double-rigging” because the kind of hard, fast roping these cowboys did caused the back of the saddle to raise up. The flank cinch also appeared during this period. Finally, the Texas saddles developed square skirts while the saddles developed by the Californios were lighter and boasted rounded skirts.
Other interesting additions over time included a steel horn, introduced in 1885; wood horns often broke from the stress of tying up cattle. Padded seats were also introduced in the 1880s, although not for the rough and everyday cowboy!
Simply stated, then, the “Texican” styled saddles started with a swell-forked tree. They were heavier, but simpler, and boasted big, square-skirts. They were double-rigged as well, making them secure and useful in the hard, brushy riding cowboys had to do east of the Rockies.
The “Californios” styled saddle was created from a slick-forked tree. It was single-rigged and lighter, with rounded skirts, and much more decorated; with the Pacific coast’s milder terrain, the Spanish vaqueros found time to tool and decorate their saddles. Here is a modern, beautifully tooled saddle:
Even today, the shape of the “fork” (mentioned above) is what determines the basic style of a saddle. According to the Western Saddle Guide, “A fork is also commonly called the swells or, on English saddles, the pommel. The term “fork” came from the early practice of making this part of the saddle from the fork of a tree.”
The fork actually dictates the shape of the saddle, and originally every saddle was created from a roughed out wooden template. Today there are synthetic saddlesThe fork, located in front, later provided a base for mounting the horn. Again, according to the Western Saddle Guide, “The fork on a “slick” fork saddle is generally only 8 to 10 inches wide with the sides of the fork sloping straight up to the outside of the horn. The swell fork saddle has a “swell” that is generally 11 to 14 inches wide.”
The swell-fork styled saddle has continued to be popular with pleasure and competition riders, while the slick-forked saddle has remained popular with ranchers; it has also increased in popularity in recent years. A third style, the “Undercut swell” saddle was popular for a time, especially for cowboys breaking in new horses because it has an even higher swell on either side of the horn. Its exaggerated style, while keeping a cowboy in the saddle, often proved to be more dangerous since it is harder to dismount. It is the least popular styled saddle today.
Though there are far more detailed distinctions between today’s styled saddles, the basic western saddle evolved as the cowboy and his work evolved. Introductions of the cinch, the latigo, the saddle jockeys, and other paraphernalia have made the modern saddle a rich reflection or unique expression of the rider’s or manufacturer’s personality. Here is an illustration of the "parts" of a modern saddle:
Gail L. Jenner is the author of two historical novels, including ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, Winner of the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West, and re-released by Prairie Rose Publications. It is the story of love pitted against the infamous Marias Massacre against the Blackfeet.
Gail is also the wife of a fourth generation cattle rancher and former bull rider who was a three-time rodeo champion. Slow talking and hard-working, she admires the qualities that still exemplify today's working cowboys. Life on a ranch is "living history" everyday.
For more about Gail, visit: www.gailjenner.com or http://prairierosepublications.yolasite.com/gail-l-jenner.php