Saddle Decoration

The wonderful tradition of saddle decoration and adornment is part of the appeal of western saddles. Western saddles are functional items that have evolved into works of art. Learn about the history and development of the western saddle.

The Mexican vaqueros, who took great pride in their horsemanship and equipment, started adorning their saddles. As crucial as riding well was looking good. The main objective of surface design on a saddle is to appeal to the eye (although some will argue that carved leather gives a better grip than smooth). Traditional saddle ornamentation techniques exist, although they have evolved over time and by geographical area.

Saddle ornamentation can range from subtle to extravagant. Trophy saddles (saddles awarded at contests), parade saddles, and collector saddles are on the more extreme end of the spectrum, with their extensive and intricate decoration. The elaborately ornamented show saddle was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, when cinematic cowboys were at their peak.

Saddle ornamentation is divided into three categories:

  • Carving and stamping leather (also known as tooling)
  • Silver engraved work
  • Lacing in leather

Carving and Stamping Leather

Both carving and stamping are sometimes referred to as “leather tooling.” Saddle makers, on the other hand, dislike the term tooling since it conjures up images of work on small products made of light leather.

Carving includes cutting lines into the leather with a swivel knife. Instead of cutting the leather, stamping it requires beating it down with a mallet on a metal stamp with a certain form or design on one end. Both of these strategies will be used in most designs. The best carving is done by hand, but nowadays, the majority of manufactured saddles are carved and stamped by machine, resulting in a clear drop in quality.


A saddle maker will produce a layout of the design for the complete saddle before beginning work on it. This is not something made up on the spot. The most appealing designs will have a beautiful flow and harmony. Aspects of design include:

The subject matter selection and layout. Flowers (particularly roses), leaves, acorns, and geometric patterns like the basket weave are among the most popular subjects. Animals and sceneries of rodeo or ranch life are less popular subjects.

  • Types of finishes and their hues.
  • The carving’s depth and fineness.
  • Decoration options for saddle sections.
  • The amount of surface space painted determines the tooling coverage.

The leather components are carved after they have been cut out and fitted to the saddle, but before they are assembled. The design is usually softly scribbled in pencil on the leather or transferred from a template onto the leather. After that, the leather is moistened and the carving process begins.

The swivel knife is used to carve the design outline initially. The detail is then filled in with stamps. Some stamps include a specific design, such as a floral center, while others feature varied bevels, textures, and forms. A saddle maker’s tool set will contain hundreds of different stamps. The saddle maker will have an endless design capacity thanks to the many stamps, as well as adjusting the angle and amount of force utilized.

Western saddles have always been symmetrical. What is on one side will be on the other side as well. After carving one side of a piece, the saddle maker dampens the opposite side and presses the carved piece into the dampened leather, creating a mirror image. After that, the second side is carved and imprinted.


The only limitation is the customer’s or saddle maker’s imagination. However, there have been some recurring motifs that have been utilized in the past. One of the traditional saddlery shops, Capriola’s, has a representative collection of stamping patterns. The Western Folklife Center also has several outstanding specimens of flower stamping on display.

  • Flowers – The most common tooling topic is flowers, with roses being the most popular. Poppies, daffodils, orchids, irises, lilies, and cactus flowers are less common flowers.
  • Leaves and Stems – The most typical non-flower theme is the oak leaf and acorn, but there are many more types of foliage to choose from.
  • Geometric Patterns – The basket weave is the most common geometric design.
  • Barbwire is a common western motif.
  • Animals or scenery of rodeo or ranch life are frequently included. It is not as prevalent as the others.

Leather carving and stamping is an art form that requires artistic ability. The final product is influenced by the design quality, the depth and refinement of the carving, and the quality and quantity of the tools.

Many saddle makers use their leather and tooling talents to make a variety of other horse equipment (breast collars, saddlebags, bridles, tapadaros), spur straps, chaps, belts, and wallets, among other things.

Working With Silver

There would not have been much silver on the saddles of working cowboys in the past. For most people, it was too pricey, too heavy, and too dazzling. The gentry wore saddle silver as a show of prestige, and the more ornate and skillfully engraved the better.

Silver is now largely found on trophy and collection saddles, as well as show saddles when the rider wants a little more bling for the show or competition arena. A touch of silver, such as a horn cap with their initials or brand etched on it or a name plate on the cantle, is added by some customers to their personalized custom saddle. Silver can be used almost anyplace on a saddle, although the horn cap, skirt corners, and saddle string conchos are the most prevalent. The cantle, fork, rigging plates, and stirrups or tapadaros are less common silver areas.

The best saddle silver is hand etched, much like the best tooling. The Western Folklife Center website has several lovely examples of hand engraved silver.


A saddle’s decorative lacing and binding can offer a beautiful finishing touch. Cantle bindings are a great area to show off superb rawhide binding. Rawhide braiding and lacing are also possible with saddle strings and billets.

The western saddle has evolved from a piece of equipment to a work of art thanks to saddle decorating. The western saddle is now a highly prized collector’s item.

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