Part of the special appeal of western saddles is the wonderful tradition of saddle decoration and embellishment. Western saddles are pieces of equipment that also developed into pieces of art. Read about the Western Saddle History and Development.
The practice of decorating the saddle derives from the Mexican vaqueros who took great pride in their horsemanship and their gear. Looking good was as important as riding well.
Surface decoration on a saddle has the sole purpose of being attractive to the eye (although some will argue that carved leather gives a better grip than smooth). Saddle decoration styles tend to be very traditional but have varied through the years and by geographical location.
There are three main categories of saddle decoration:
If you're looking for a great book on Western saddle decoration, check out The Art of the Western Saddle. Just a fabulous, big, beautiful book.
The term "leather tooling" is often used to incorporate both carving and stamping. Saddlemakers, however, do not like the term tooling as they associate it with work on smaller items with lightweight leather.
Carving involves the use of a swivel knife to cut lines into the leather. Stamping involves pounding a mallet on a metal stamp that has a specific shape or design at one end to press the leather down rather than cut it. Most designs will use both of these techniques. The best carving is done by hand, but, today, most manufactured saddles are carved and stamped by machine, with an obvious fall off in quality.
Before starting on a saddle, a saddlemaker will create a layout of the design for the entire saddle. This isn't something that is improvised. The best designs will have a pleasing flow and balance to them. Design elements include:
The design outline is first carved using the swivel knife. Then stamps are used to fill in the detail. Some stamps will have a specific design such as a flower center while others will simply have different bevels, textures and shapes. A saddlemaker will have hundreds of different stamps in their toolkit. The different stamps combined with varying the angle and the amount of force used will give the saddlemaker an infinite design capacity.
Many saddle makers use their leather and tooling skills to create a whole host of related decorated items including other pieces of horse tack (breast collars, saddlebags, bridles, tapadaros), spur straps, chaps, belts, and wallets.
Silver WorkYou wouldn't have found silver on too many of the saddles of the working cowboys of yesteryear. It was too expensive, too heavy, and too flashy for most. Saddle silver was for the gentry and was a sign of status - the more intricate and finely engraved the better.
Today, you'll find silver mostly on trophy and collector saddles, and show saddles where the rider is looking for a bit of extra sparkle for the show or competition arena. Some customer's have a touch of silver added to a custom saddle such as a horn cap with their initials or brand engraved on it or a name plate on the cantle. Silver can be placed just about anywhere on a saddle, but the most common areas are the horn cap, the skirt corners, and saddle string conchos. Less common silver areas are the cantle, the fork, rigging plates, and the stirrups or tapadaros.
As with tooling, the best saddle silver is hand engraved. You can see some beautiful examples of hand engraved silver on the Western Folklife Center site.
Decorative lacing and binding can add a nice finishing touch to a saddle. Cantle bindings can be a particularly nice showplace for fine rawhide binding. Saddle strings and billets also provide an opportunity for rawhide braiding and lacing.
Saddle decoration has taken the western saddle beyond the realm of equipment and turned it into a work of art. The western saddle is now a valued and sought after collector's item.
The beautiful saddles and leatherwork presented in the photos on this page are the work of George Holt of Dillon, Montana.