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Find out the beginnings

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Western Saddle

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The History of the Western Saddle – Riding High

The first horseback riders rode bareback, in fact for hundreds of
years they traveled, hunted for food and even waged war with
their enemies, all while riding without a saddle.

In 365 AD, a tribe called the Sarmations is thought to have
invented not only the first saddle, but also the first metal
stirrups and spurs. The Sarmations were known as serious
horsemen, using their horses in battle and sacrificing them to
their gods. The Huns invading from Central Asia brought the
Sarmation’s saddles and metal stirrups to Europe, the Europeans
finding the metal stirrups great for mounting, as well as aiding
the riders balance. Riders now could use the weapons of war of
the time, swords, axes and lances, with more skill and
efficiency. The next major improvements in saddles would wait for
the medieval knights.

The saddle we now know as the western saddle is actually an
evolved version of the Spanish Vaquero’s saddle used by the
working cowboys in Mexico. Things from the areas of New Mexico,
Mexico-New Spain, and Texas in the early 19th century were often
referred to as Spanish, and the saddle that we now know as the
western saddle would in fact have been referred to as a Spanish

The Saddle Tree

After the saddle tree was developed in the 19th century, not much
of the basic design changed. Leather tanning was rudimentary at
best with the early saddles, but as years went by, saddle makers
perfected the art of tanning. The new tanning processes produced
a softer, more supple leather that would “break-in” faster and
last longer than its predecessors. The saddles “tree” was
generally made of a carved solid piece of wood, later to be
covered with rawhide. Over the years, saddle makers have made
great advancement with the “trees” from lighter forms of wood, to
fiberglass or more recently, in some cases removal of the tree

As working cowboys used the early western saddles, they demanded
change in the styles and strength to withstand the rigors of the
Old West. These saddles had to be strong enough to hold a roped
calf, and be comfortable enough for the long hours the cowboys
had to spend in the saddle. Modifications eventually led to
different models being developed, even within the groups of
riders using western saddles.

Rodeos were initially contests designed to perfect a working
cowboy’s skills and to show off his abilities. Through these
weekend ranch rodeos, the sports developed into the rodeos we
watch today. Many of the individual events required specialized
styles, from barrel racing to roping saddles, and models were
designed to help the horse and rider’s speed and performance.
Along with timed events, other western saddles were needed for
riders who wanted to compete in horse shows. There are saddles
suited to western performance classes and others for reining and
cutting events, while still others require a show saddle for
western pleasure.

Not just for cowboys anymore

Over the years, as riding horses changed from a necessity to a
luxury, or a sport, the needs of the horsemen changed. The saddle
that was perfectly suited to ranch work was too cumbersome for
younger riders or some ladies to use. Out of respect for the
“fairer gender,” smaller, lighter western saddles were designed and
children’s saddles were offered for the first time.

Saddle makers had to work to keep up with the specific demands of
the individual riders and events, because the requirements seemed
to keep changing, from gaited horses needing saddles to suit
their particular way of going, to a mule needing a western saddle
able to fit their down-sloped back. Even Arabian horses required
specialized saddles to adapt to the differing bone structure
inherent to the breed. Saddle making was turning out to be a real
challenge. Heavily built roping saddles were made with strong
trees and horns, while barrel racing saddles grew lighter within
the longer horn and deeper seat demanded by the riders. Western
show saddles started to be adorned with silver Conchos and fancy

After having problems with conventional wooden trees, horsemen
demanded a solution. Faced with the challenge, a fiberglass tree
was developed. The new fiberglass tree was stronger and more
durable, with the added bonus of being very light. The reduced
weight of the new tree made it an immediate hit with the timed
event riders, any advancement that could help improve performance
was welcomed with great excitement.

Perfection pursued

Just when you thought they had perfected the western saddle, from
it’s hand tooled cow hide and silver conchos to its light weight
fiberglass tree, someone decided to get rid of the tree
altogether. The theory that the saddles with solid trees were
restrictive, even painful, to a horse, has started to infiltrate
both the English and Western industry. Some saddle makers, hoping
to promote a horse’s natural way of going and thus a better
performance, started designing western saddles without trees.
These “treeless” western saddles conformed to the shape of the
horses back by using layers of soft leather, instead of a rigid
piece of wood or fiberglass.

Some saddle makers have started to use synthetic materials
instead of the usual cowhide. Riders are finding these saddles
easier to clean and care for as well being lightweight and
available in a wide range of colors. These synthetic saddles are
growing in popularity and may be the biggest single change in
western saddle making. What remains to be seen is whether this is
a change that is here to stay or just a passing fancy.

With all the advancements in technology and the horse industry,
it is surprising that the western saddle has changed as little as
it has. An antique Spanish saddle today remains completely
recognizable as the predecessor to today’s western saddles. Even
the new “treeless” barrel racing saddles remain essentially the
same as the original western saddles in design with the pommel,
cantle, horn, and fenders changing very little over time.
Starting out with a good design has allowed western saddles to
evolve without changing the basic design.

Sandra Geldart is a freelance writer providing tips and advice
for consumers purchasing western saddles and horse supplies. Her
numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on
typically confusing topics.

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