History of the Western Saddle
The Cowboy Chronicle; Publication of the NDCHF
The Dickinson Press; The Drill
Dickinson, North Dakota
March 26, 2014
The western saddle and the cowboy who sits in it are an iconic part of American history and culture. For many months at a time on long trail drives a cowboy would be in his saddle from sun up, through the day and often half the night. When he did get some rest his saddle would be his pillow.
A cowboy’s saddle was indispensable; it was so crucial to his way of life and livelihood that the phrase “he’s sold his saddle”, came to mean that a man was finished as a cowboy. A cowboy in the old American West could not work without his saddle. He might wager or sell his gun, spurs, or even his boots but never his saddle. In the old west horses were abundant and cheap, but a saddle was neither. A good saddle would often cost a month or two of wages. This was money well spent; a well-made saddle would serve its owner well for thirty years or more. A good saddle and a considerate rider could travel 70 miles a day and still have a healthy horse. A thoughtless rider in a poor saddle could make a horse sore in an hour.
Saddles in the days of the old west were all hand tooled and put together by craftsman; there was no mass production. Saddle makers built their reputations on the quality of their saddles and so would put their mark on each saddle they made. These marks were fiercely guarded and even kept under lock and key. Saddle makers still mark their saddles today.
The western saddle as we know it began development in the early 1800’s. However, the origins of today’s saddle go all the way back to before the dark ages and Moorish horsemen. In the fourth century a nomadic tribe called the Sarmations who migrated from Central Asia, are thought to have invented the first saddle. By the time they made their way to southeastern Europe they were accomplished horsemen. When the Moors invaded Spain in 711 AD they arrived with a distinctive style of riding and tack. The saddles they rode on were built for battle; they had high cantles for protection and longer stirrups to accommodate riding with amour.
The Spaniards took this basic saddle design and adapted it to what became known as the Spanish War Saddle. This saddle had a wooden frame or tree, was well padded and covered in velvet. The metal cantle was sharply curved to prevent the rider from sliding off. There were long plates descending from the pommel, which was also metal, on either side to shield rider’s thighs and as protection against an enemy’s lance getting underneath him. The stirrups hung low so that the rider sat with his legs hanging almost straight down. Over time as the Spaniards transitioned from military conquest to colonial expansion the saddle evolved and became a stock saddle. The Spanish stock saddle had no horn or skirts and a low cantle. The stirrups were cut from a single piece of solid wood. This is the saddle that made its way north.
When this saddle began to be used in cattle country in the early part of the 19th century the tough wooden tree, the high pommel and cantle were retained. From here however a number of significant changes were made. Some of these changes included: the cantle tilted backward for a riders comfort and lowered for easier mounting and dismounting. The velvet was replaced with leather which was more readily available and durable. The pommel was changed in size, tilt and material until it became the horn used to secure a lariat.
The western saddle today is still an important working tool. Many ranchers still go out on horseback to areas that a motorized vehicle cannot go. Cattle respond well to a horse and rider. Still, as the years have gone by, riding horses for the most part has changed from a necessity to a luxury or sport. Saddle making has also changed. Saddle makers work to keep up with the demand for specific types of saddles and new materials. As an example, synthetic materials, such as fiberglass instead of wood for the tree is sometimes used because it is lightweight. Today there are many specialized saddles for specific usage such as: endurance, barrel racing, cutting, training and team roping to name just a few. No matter what the purpose, the saddle continues to be a most prized possession for any serious cowboy or cowgirl.
- The Cowboys, William Forbis, Time Life Books, c. 1973