The history of the Western saddle is an interesting one, with origins that can be traced all the way back to the dark ages. When Moorish soldiers invaded Spain during the 8th century, they brought their unique riding style – and innovative tack – with them. Designed to stand up to the challenges of mounted battle, these saddles featured high forks and cantles for greater security, plus long stirrups that made it more comfortable to ride in full armor. This saddle – the precursor to the Western saddle of today – was soon adopted by knights and crusaders.
From War Saddle to Stock Saddle
Innovative Spaniards soon adapted the saddles their enemies rode in to suit their own purposes, creating a hybrid known as the Spanish war saddle. While the Moors continued to dominate the Spanish Peninsula during the 12th and 13th centuries, the saddles they brought with them changed to accommodate a tool called a pike pole, which was used to work cattle. The cantle, similar to what you’ll see on the Spanish style saddle of today, had an upright profile that provided back support and security.
By 1600, the Conquistador’s war saddle had fully evolved into a style known as the Spanish Colonist saddle, which had several modifications that made mounting and working with cattle easier than before. The high forks were shortened, and a snubbing post – precursor to the saddle horn seen on today’s Western saddles – was added. The reason for this historic change was that colonists had learned that the lariat had a number of advantages in working cattle, and, it was easier to work with than the pike pole was. As the history of the Western saddle continued, the cantle was shortened and leaned at a backward angle to make it much easier for riders to mount and dismount.
The Mexican Vaquero Saddle
The next saddle on the historic timeline is still in existence today, although modern versions are often made with updated materials and lots of decorative elements. The Mexican vaquero saddle emerged around 1700. Its cantle and fork were carved from wood and fastened to bars with some similarity to those on today’s Western saddle trees. After being covered in heavy, wet rawhide that was sewn into place, the saddle tree became a sturdy, solid unit. Earlier versions of the Mexican vaquero saddle had smaller horns than later models.
Santa Fe and Texas Saddles
Around 1800, the Santa Fe saddle, which was a modification of the earliest Mexican vaquero saddle, emerged. The horn was large and flat, the cantle had hand holds cut into both sides, and a removable leather mochila covered the tree. By 1850, the early Texas saddle came onto the scene, complete with a steel horn that was bolted to the tree. A wooly skirt was added to the underside of the saddle for the horse’s comfort, and double rigging emerged, helping cowhands to rope and hold large animals in rough country. Stirrup fenders were also introduced; these protected the rider’s legs from the friction and heat produced by the horse’s body.
The Texas trail saddle, which emerged after the Civil War, around 1870, kept many features of the original Texas saddle intact, but added more padding for comfort, plus contoured bars to provide additional protection to the horse’s back. At the same time, the Late California Saddle emerged; it offered a deeper seat, three-quarter rigging, and large pockets behind the cantle. Both of these saddle types were often fitted with tapaderos on the stirrups.
Modern Day Working Saddle
From the Santa Fe and Texas saddles, as well as the Swell Fork and “All Around” stock saddles that went out of style in the early 1970s emerged the modern day working saddle, which in turn has given way to specialized roping saddles, barrel racing saddles, and other styles that prove the history of the Western saddle is still moving forward! From the show ring to the trail, to the working ranch, Western saddles continue to keep riders safe, secure, and comfortable during a variety of equestrian activities.