Wedged under almost every cowboy that attempted to tame the frontier was a saddle. The culmination of craftsmanship and practicality, the western saddle is a key piece in the evolution of saddles. In the graphic below, the parts of a western saddle are identified.
Vamoose with the Vaquero Saddle
With predecessors tracing back to the Moorish Invaders of Spain in the 8th century, it is a wonder how the modern saddle came to be. Once the Moorish saddles with a substantial fork and cantle were picked up by the vaqueros of Mexico, functional changes occurred. The fork and cantle shrunk to enable rider freedom, while a horn was introduced to assist when roping livestock.
According to thefencepost.com, many Texas cowboys “were unable to rope the steer, turn the rope and horn before the animal pulled tight. Consequently, they lost their thumbs. This was the beginning of the Texas tradition of roping technique where the rope was first tied to the saddle horn to lasso the animal.”
Steady in the Stock Saddle
Another variation created for function was the stock saddle. This style of saddle is comfortable enough for a cowboy to work in from sun-up to sun-down. The saddle horn remains as part of the functional design for roping livestock, but this saddle is heavier and a touch sturdier while still being suitable for long days of work. The side strings provide benefit as well, creating space for gear such as bed bundles or extra rope to be tied to the saddle.
March in the McClellan Saddle
Designed by George B. McClellan, this saddle was used by the U.S. Military beginning in the 1850s. Being lightweight, sturdy, and inexpensive kept the heart of this saddle style in service until World War II. Though it faced some variations through its years in use, plenty of servicemen were familiar with the saddle. One such serviceman was Buffalo Bill or William F. Cody, who likely rode in a McClellan saddle in the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary during the Civil War and when he was a scout for the United States Army.
Pony up in the Pony Express Saddle
When whipping across the landscape for the 18 months in service, Pony Express riders depended on speed. Contributing to their quickness was the lightweight design of their saddles which were best suited for riders around 125 pounds. The mochila, or mail bag, would be placed over the horn and cantle of the saddle. To keep a quick pace, changing horses was as efficient as possible. Due to the standardized design of the saddle and mochila, the bag could be quickly switched over. Stops would take about two minutes and then the rider would hustle into the yonder.
When studying saddles, the theme that is highlighted time and time again is the customization of the saddle. Riders designed and tweaked their saddles to suit their needs. This contributed to the value a saddle held. It is possible to get a new horse when needed, but many cowboys kept their saddles throughout their careers. This commitment to the tool loaned itself to the creation of the phrase “selling my saddle” to indicate when someone is quitting. As I sell my saddle on this topic, I encourage you to explore the Center of the West to see saddles of famous riders like Adele Von Ohl Parker or those of everyday riders on display.