A Short History Lesson: The Saddle

Wade Tree Roper Ranch Work Style Pleasure Saddle

The exact date of the domestication of horses is in dispute, but could have possibly occurred as early as 4000 BC.  The first known saddle-like equipment was used by the Assyrian cavalry around the year 700 BC.  This saddle-like equipment was a type of cloth pad.   These cloth pads were attached around the horse with a girth or surcingle.  They typically included breast straps and cruppers to aid in keeping the pad in place. 


From early evidence saddles were a symbol of status for their owner.  It was a way to show off one’s wealth.  These embellishments included sewn patterns or leather work, gold accents, and wood or horn cravings as ornaments.  This evidence was present throughout different burial sites, where these artifacts were uncovered.


The Scythians were the first to develop a frame for the saddle.  It was a very rough frame consisting of two parallel leather cushions.    The girth then attached to these cushions.   The saddle also contained a pommel and a cantle with leather, bone, or horn facings.  It also contained leather thongs, a crupper, and breastplate to keep the saddle in place.  Underneath the saddle a felt shabrack was used.  These saddles were unearthed in burial site in Siberia.  They date back to 500-400 BC.  Saddles like this one have been depicted in many stone drawings and even depictions of Alexander the Great show him riding with this type of saddle.


The first saddles to be constructed around solid trees were of Asian design and appeared during the Han dynasty in the year 200 BC.  These saddles were built atop solid wood frames.  Another early model of this saddle was used by the Romans that consisted of four horn design. The development of a solid tree was monumental achievement.  A solid tree raised the rider above the horse’s back and evenly distributed the weight of the rider on either side of the animal’s spine.  This advancement prolonged the useful life of the animal.  Without the solid tree the invention of the stirrup as we know it today would not exist.


The first stirrup was developed in India in the 2nd century BC.  It simply was a leather strap in which the rider could place their toe.  The modern day stirrup design was thought to have been invented by the northern tribes of China.  This stirrup offered great support and was essential in later years for warfare.  The stirrup was widespread across China by 477 AD and then is spread into Europe.


During the middle ages the saddle had many improvements, including a higher cantle and pommel and a more solidly built wood tree.  These enhancements provided the knights with more security in the saddle.  This saddle became the predecessor to the modern western saddle, which was later modified for cow work and bullfighting.


At this point the saddle designs start to branch off in two directions, what we now consider the western and English saddles.  François Robinchon de la Guérinère, a French riding master, was influential in the art of classical dressage.  He helped to develop the English saddle ensuring that the saddle helped to promote the rider’s three point seat.  This became the modern dressage saddle. The 18th century brought fox hunting into popularity.  The high cantle and pommel designed saddles became a hindrance when jumping, a lower pommel and cantle saddle was then designed.  In the 20th century Captain Frederico Caprilli designed an English saddle with more forward placed flaps, necessary for higher jumps.  This became the modern jumping English saddle. 


The modern western saddle was developed from the Spanish Conquistadors saddles when they traveled to the Americas.  The saddles were changed to better suit the needs of cattle ranchers, vaqueros, and cowboys.  The biggest addition was that of the saddle horn.  This horn allowed the rider to tie off their lariat instead of holding it. 


So over the centuries the saddle has changed many times over.  Today modern saddle designers are still changing and improving saddle designs.