Seeing a rider mounted on horse, seated in a Western saddle in these modern times of cell phones with a million apps, social media, blazing-fast computers, supersonic flight and the like is obviously a throwback to simpler times, in fact, much simpler times. The underlying story of the origins of the Western saddle is one that’s centuries old and because of all that lapsed time, an inexact science at best.
Human beings have had a long time to integrate the horse into our way of life, most likely starting with horses as a food sources. About.com Archaeology says, “Evidence has been found at Krasni Yar in Kazakhstan - in portions of the site dating to as early as 5000 B.C.- that horses may have been kept for food and milk, rather than riding or load-bearing.
“Accepted archaeological evidence of horseback riding includes bit wear on horse teeth that was found in the steppes east of the Ural Mountains at Botai and Kozhai in modern Kazakhstan, around 3500-3000 BC.”
A great leap forward for humans was the advent of the crude saddle for the comfort of those on horseback and naturally, the horse itself. When that happened is open to discussion, and exactly when and where saddles first appeared lost in antiquity.
But some saddle experts have a pretty good guess. In his book, The History of the Saddle, C.A. Salinger puts the earliest evidence of the use of saddles with concave seats that were strapped to the horse with girths as appearing in the Han dynasty in China. Stirrups, he says, appeared in about the 5th century A.D.
Out here in the Cowboy Capital of the World, horses with riders mounted in Western saddles for rodeo sports, parades and working use on farms and ranches are an integral part of life. There are certainly plenty of dressage, jumping and endurance riders in our midst who are involved in competitions where the English saddle with no saddle horn and a lighter design is in use.
But it’s the Western saddle with which we’re most familiar in these parts, the kind with a saddle horn that old John Wayne was sitting on in the movies.
The ones we use today are an evolution of the old Spanish cavalry saddles used by conquistadores, and later, cowboys, who were called vaqueros.
All that showed up in North American in what became Mexico and the American Southwest with the Spanish domination of those areas. Those saddles arrived here with no saddle horn; any stock that was roped and moved any distance was tethered to a D-ring on the saddle, or even tied to the horse’s tail, making it difficult to fully control the animals.
In the early 1800s the frame we know as a tree was invented, which was quite an innovation as it allowed for a more even distribution of the rider’s weight on the horse’s back. Tanned leather was nailed or sewn to the tree. And as the tanning process evolved, softer, suppler leather made the process of breaking in a saddle a whole lot quicker, easier and less painful for the rider and the horse.
Like the saddle itself, it’s impossible to stamp an exact date on the invention of the saddle horn, but there are crude drawings dating back some 200 years that show them. Necessity is the mother of invention as the old saying goes, and the need for a handier, more central place to tie your rope to your saddle to better control stock became obvious.
For something as utilitarian as the Western saddle, it’s somewhat amazing that there’s so much elaborate decoration - called tooling - associated with them. There’s no major function to it in terms of the utility of the saddle, but today the intricate cutting, tapping and hand working of the designs is as much a part of a saddle maker’s craft as is the construction of the basic saddle itself.
We have Buffalo Bill Cody and his travelling Wild West Show to thank for that in large part. Cowboys and Indians in elaborate costumes with fringe, sequins, bright colors and fancy designs were introduced to the people of the world by this incredible showman and his stagecraft.
It only made sense to decorate the saddles on those performers’ blazing horses as well while he was at it. People took to it in a big way and we still see the evidence of Cody’s impact on the look of the Western saddle today.