Western Saddle Guide

Western Saddle Guide > Saddle Decoration

Saddle Decoration

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.

saddle carving
Saddle decoration can range from the subtle to the extreme. On the more extreme end are the trophy saddles (saddles awarded at competitions), parade saddles, and collector saddles, which tend to push the envelop with the extent and intricacy of decoration. The 1950's and 1960's, the heyday of the movie cowboys, saw the height of the heavily decorated show saddle.

There are three main categories of saddle decoration:

  • Leather carving and stamping (also known as tooling)
  • Engraved silver work
  • Leather lacing

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.

saddle carving
Leather Carving and Stamping

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.

saddle horn
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 choice and layout of the subject matter. The most common themes are flowers (especially roses), leaves, acorns, and geometric patterns such as the basket weave. Less common subjects are animals and scenes of rodeo or ranch life.

  • Types and colors of the finishes

  • Depth and fineness of the carving

  • Choice of saddle parts to be decorated. The tooling coverage is defined in terms of the amount of suface space decorated.
leather carving
Carving is done on the leather pieces after they've been cut out and fitted to the saddle, but before they've been assembled. The design is usually first lightly sketched on the leather in pencil or traced onto the leather from a template. The leather is then dampened and the carving begins.

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.

leather carving
Western saddles are traditionally symmetrical. What is on one side, will also be on the other. When one side of a piece is carved, the saddlemaker will dampen the other side and press the carved piece into the dampened leather, creating the outline of a mirror image. The second side is then carved and stamped.

Tooling Themes
Themes are only limited by the imagination of the customer or the saddlemaker. Traditionally, however, there have been some common themes used throughout the years. Capriola's, one of the classic saddlery shops, presents a representative collection of stamping patterns. You can also view some remarkable examples of flower stamping housed at the Western Folklife Center.

  • Flowers - Flowers are the most common tooling theme, with roses the most popular. Less common flowers are poppies, daffodils, orchids, irises, lilies, and cactus flowers.

  • Leaves and Stems - The oak leaf and the acorn are the most common non-flower theme, however a wide variety of foliage types can be found.

  • Geometric Patterns - The most popular geometric pattern is the basket weave.

  • Barbwire - a popular western theme

  • Scenes - Often include animals or scenes of rodeo or ranch life. Less common than the others.
leather carving
Leather carving and stamping is a true craft and takes artistic talent. The quality of the design, the depth and fineness of the carving, the quality and quantity of the tools all contribute to the final product.

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 Work

You 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.



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