The History of the Western Saddle

The history and evolution of the western saddle is fascinating. While it is today regarded as a distinctly American style, its origins can be traced back to the Dark Ages’ Moorish horsemen and warriors.

When the Moors entered Spain in the 700s, they brought their own unique riding and equipment with them. Their saddles were built for battle, with high cantles and forks for added safety and security, as well as longer stirrups to facilitate armored riding. This was the crusades’ and knights’ saddle.

The Spaniards modified this saddle and called it the Spanish War Saddle. This was the saddle they brought to the New World with them. This military saddle evolved into a stock saddle, meant as a tool for the working cowboy, as their goals shifted from military conquest to colonial expansion.

Two significant branches of the western stock saddle evolved as it traveled over North America: the Texicans and the Californios. East of the Rockies, the Texican style became popular and extended into Canada. Their saddles were large, basic, hefty square-skirted, double-rigged saddles designed for the area’s heavy brush and “hard-and-fast” roping style.

Californians controlled the Pacific coast, spreading into the Great Basin and the Northwest. For the dally roping style they used, their saddles were lighter, round-skirted, and center fire rigged. The vaqueros had more free time because of the area’s warmer climate and topography. They spent their time making exceedingly decorative saddles and establishing the saddle-decorating custom.

Though both of these styles evolved over time and even adopted certain features of the other, the Buckaroo slick fork saddle (California) and the swell fork, square skirt saddle can still be recognized today (Texican).

The western stock saddle evolved from the 1700s through the 1950s, with additional features to help cattle labor and improved construction processes to increase strength, durability, and comfort.

Western saddle design is no longer solely focused on the needs of working cowboys. Trail/pleasure, endurance, rodeo contestant, team roper, barrel racer, reiner, cutter, and, of course, working cowboy — saddles are now created for a wide variety of uses and riders. Western saddles are currently produced, imported, and exported over the globe. Regardless of form or origins, all of these saddles have a common ancestor and are descendants of the western stock saddle.

The following is a timeline of how the western saddle evolved over time. However, keep in mind that the journey was not as straight as this timetable suggests.

Moorish/Spanish War Saddle

Knights’ and Crusades’ Saddle. Transported to the New World:

  • High cantle to keep the knight from falling out of the saddle and high fork to shield him from blows.
  • Center fire rigging.
  • Breeching or breast strap with crupper.
  • Leather stirrups hung just behind the fork.
  • When wearing armor, they rode with large stirrups and straight legs, allowing them to brace themselves against the pommel to battle.

1700s Spanish Stock Saddle/Vaquero Saddle

Rawhide-covered wood saddle tree followed the development into what is now the American West.

  • Cantle and fork are both relatively low.
  • No horn.
  • Single-style rigging that was gradually moved from full to center fire position.
  • To make a seat, tack a triangular piece of leather to the top of the bars.
  • No skirts, jockeys, or fenders are permitted.
  • Stirrups made from a single piece of solid wood.

Early 1800s

A variant of the Vaquero Saddle was utilized from Santa Fe to California. Traders brought this saddle east with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Saddle was named for it.

  • Tree with rawhide covering.
  • Mochilla, a leather tree covering with slots to allow the fork and cantle to protrude, was added around 1820.
  • The rider’s leg was extended down to protect it from the horse’s sweat.
  • Was detachable and frequently had huge pockets.
  • California’s vaqueros create very beautiful saddles with intricate tooling, lacing, and silver work.
  • No skirts, jockeys, or fenders are permitted.
  • Single rigging placed over the tree in the 3/4 position
  • Stirrups made from a single piece of solid wood.
  • Tapaderos first appeared in the 1830s and 1850s.
  • Branded saddles and equipment are the first to appear.
  • Visalia Stock Company is a corporation based in Visalia, California.

1860’s

  • The mochilla evolved into the Mother Hubbard saddle, where it is a permanent fixture. Most Texas cowboys wore Mother Hubbard saddles by 1866.
  • Stirrups made of steamed bent wood appear.
  • Texas saddles begin to use full double rigging after the Civil War. The back of the saddle tips up when cattle are hard-tied to the horn.To stabilize the saddle, a flank cinch was placed.
  • Skirts and jockey housings appear.
  • Square skirts are popular in Texas.
  • In California, circular skirts have gradually become the norm. The skirt shape is described by the titles Texas Skirts and California Skirts.
  • There are no fenders.

1870-1899

  • Fenders appear in the 1870s. With the Mother Hubbard approach, they were not necessary. Mother Hubbard is no longer popular.
  • In 1874, Frank Meana’s business in Cheyenne, Wyoming, introduced the Cheyenne roll. It is purely a cosmetic element.
  • 1885 – Steel horns emerge. The tension of tying off animals would often break wood horns.Steel replacements became the norm in new saddle construction after they were first utilized for repairs.
  • Loop seats appear in the 1880s.  The tops of the stirrup leathers, which dangle over the tree, are revealed via square cutouts in the seat. Cleaning, oiling, and replacement were all made simple. Popular until 1920.
  • Padded seats appear in the 1880s (although not on the rig of any self-respecting working cowboy)
  • Saddle swells occur in the 1890s. Originally, it was made by wrapping bucking rolls around the fork. Swells later developed and were included into the fork. On a bucking horse, the purpose is to keep the rider’s pelvis from slamming on the fork.

1900-1919

  • 1900 – The saddle seat is totally covered when the seat is fully extended.
  • 1910 – Swell with a deep undercut appears. It was intended to provide security, but it might be impossible to exit and quite dangerous.
  • Saddle Association was founded in 1919. The saddle used in rodeo competitions was standardized.

1920 – 1950’s

  • 1920 – Front and side (seat) jockeys are now made of the same leather.
  • Wide swells vanish in the 1930s.
  • Cantle’s height lowers from 5′ to 6″ to roughly 3″ in the 1930s.
  • The seat begins to slope excessively up the fork.
  • The seat had been quite flat and balanced up until this point.
  • The upward slanting seat causes your weight and balance to shift back and your feet to go forward.
  • This is not a good riding stance.
  • 1922 – The first flat plate arrives on the tree rigging.
  • In-skirt rigging from the 1950s emerges.

From the 1960s to the present

  • A wide range of specialist saddle types has been developed, including endurance, barrel racing, reiner, cutting, training, and team roper.
  • Synthetic materials are being used in the building of saddles.

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