The first horseback riders rode bareback, in fact for hundreds of years they traveled, hunted for food and even waged war with their enemies, all while riding without a saddle.
In 365 AD, a tribe called the Sarmations is thought to have invented not only the first saddle, but also the first metal stirrups and spurs. The Sarmations were known as serious horsemen, using their horses in battle and sacrificing them to their gods. The Huns invading from Central Asia brought the Sarmation’s saddles and metal stirrups to Europe, the Europeans finding the metal stirrups great for mounting, as well as aiding the riders balance. Riders now could use the weapons of war of the time, swords, axes and lances, with more skill and efficiency. The next major improvements in saddles would wait for the medieval knights.
The saddle we now know as the western saddle is actually an evolved version of the Spanish Vaquero’s saddle used by the working cowboys in Mexico. Things from the areas of New Mexico, Mexico-New Spain, and Texas in the early 19th century were often referred to as Spanish, and the saddle that we now know as the western saddle would in fact have been referred to as a Spanish saddle.
After the saddle tree was developed in the 19th century, not much of the basic design changed. Leather tanning was rudimentary at best with the early saddles, but as years went by, saddle makers perfected the art of tanning. The new tanning processes produced a softer, more supple leather that would “break-in” faster and last longer than its predecessors. The saddles “tree” was generally made of a carved solid piece of wood, later to be covered with rawhide. Over the years, saddle makers have made great advancement with the “trees” from lighter forms of wood, to fiberglass or more recently, in some cases removal of the tree altogether.
As working cowboys used the early western saddles, they demanded change in the styles and strength to withstand the rigors of the Old West. These saddles had to be strong enough to hold a roped calf, and be comfortable enough for the long hours the cowboys had to spend in the saddle. Modifications eventually led to different models being developed, even within the groups of riders using western saddles.
Rodeos were initially contests designed to perfect a working cowboy’s skills and to show off his abilities. Through these weekend ranch rodeos, the sports developed into the rodeos we watch today. Many of the individual events required specialized styles, from barrel racing to roping saddles, and models were designed to help the horse and rider’s speed and performance. Along with timed events, other western saddles were needed for riders who wanted to compete in horse shows. There are saddles suited to western performance classes and others for reining and cutting events, while still others require a show saddle for western pleasure.
Over the years, as riding horses changed from a necessity to a luxury, or a sport, the needs of the horsemen changed. The saddle that was perfectly suited to ranch work was too cumbersome for younger riders or some ladies to use. Out of respect for the “fairer sex,” smaller, lighter western saddles were designed and children’s saddles were offered for the first time.
Saddle makers had to work to keep up with the specific demands of the individual riders and events, because the requirements seemed to keep changing, from gaited horses needing saddles to suit their particular way of going, to a mule needing a western saddle able to fit their down-sloped back. Even Arabian horses required specialized saddles to adapt to the differing bone structure inherent to the breed. Saddle making was turning out to be a real challenge. Heavily built roping saddles were made with strong trees and horns, while barrel racing saddles grew lighter within the longer horn and deeper seat demanded by the riders. Western show saddles started to be adorned with silver Conchos and fancy stitching.
After having problems with conventional wooden trees, horsemen demanded a solution. Faced with the challenge, a fiberglass tree was developed. The new fiberglass tree was stronger and more durable, with the added bonus of being very light. The reduced weight of the new tree made it an immediate hit with the timed event riders, any advancement that could help improve performance was welcomed with great excitement.
Just when you thought they had perfected the western saddle, from it’s hand tooled cow hide and silver conchos to its light weight fiberglass tree, someone decided to get rid of the tree altogether. The theory that the saddles with solid trees were restrictive, even painful, to a horse, has started to infiltrate both the English and Western industry. Some saddle makers, hoping to promote a horse’s natural way of going and thus a better performance, started designing western saddles without trees. These “treeless” western saddles conformed to the shape of the horses back by using layers of soft leather, instead of a rigid piece of wood or fiberglass.
Some saddle makers have started to use synthetic materials instead of the usual cowhide. Riders are finding these saddles easier to clean and care for as well being lightweight and available in a wide range of colours. These synthetic saddles are growing in popularity and may be the biggest single change in western saddle making. What remains to be seen is whether this is a change that is here to stay or just a passing fancy.
With all the advancements in technology and the horse industry, it is surprising that the western saddle has changed as little as it has. An antique Spanish saddle today remains completely recognizable as the predecessor to today’s western saddles. Even the new “treeless” barrel racing saddles remain essentially the same as the original western saddles in design with the pommel, cantle, horn, and fenders changing very little over time. Starting out with a good design has allowed western saddles to evolve without changing the basic design.
Sandra Geldart is a freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers purchasing western saddles and horse supplies. Her numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.
This article on the "History of the Western Saddle" reprinted with permission.