A Brief History of Saddles


This article is courtesy of the Alberta Horse Industry Association

By Carolyn Willekes, Ph.D.

RomanWhen was the last time you took a good look at your saddle? They are a piece of equipment that most of us take for granted. Saddles are also a bit of a mystery to most riders: we know what they are for and how they are generally supposed to work, but the nuances of saddle construction and fit remain a grey area for many of us. Modern saddles have also become very discipline specific: whether you ride English or western you are most likely going to purchase a saddle for a specific competitive event or job, be it jumping, dressage, reining, barrels, roping cattle, racing etc.

Riders have not always had the option of reaching for this very specialized piece of tack. The earliest riders rode bareback or with a plain saddlecloth. The first attempt at creating a ‘structured’ seat was made by the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia in the 5th-4th centuries BCE.

They created a pad saddle made up of two stuffed felt panels connected together by a wide strip of leather that served to balance the panels evenly on either side of the spine. Wooden saddle bows at the ‘pommel’ and ‘cantle’ also gave the pad saddle a bit of shape and support.  In many ways the Scythian pad saddle was not dissimilar to some modern treeless saddles (although it had no stirrups) as it helped to disperse the rider’s weight, but remained lightweight and flexible. The Scythians and the other Central Asian nomadic groups continued to use these pad saddles for hundreds of years; but in Western Europe something quite different was happening.

The first true treed saddle was the Roman saddle, which lacked stirrups, but had a curved horn on each corner of the saddle. The purpose of these horns was to anchor the rider in the saddle and the reason behind this was, as with so many other equestrian innovations: warfare. The nomads of the Eurasian Steppe were horse archers who wore very little in the way of protective armour, but the Roman cavalrymen and his counterparts were becoming ever more heavily armoured, and the Roman saddle was created to help support the extra weight of the arms and armour.  For the cavalrymen of Western Europe, the saddle became a necessary piece of military equipment. The Roman saddle evolved into the elaborate Medieval saddles with their characteristic high pommel and cantle, as well as a deep seat that encouraged a straight legged position.

In the 16th century the idea of riding as an art, rather than just for war began to emerge with the creation of the civilian riding schools and the fields of academic equitation and classical riding. This led to a change in saddle design as the civilian horseman did not require the same degree of support as the armoured cavalryman. The saddles of the riding school manège became lighter and more refined in appearance and were often elaborately decorated with luxurious fabrics incorporated into their design.  They nonetheless still maintained the basic structure of a high pommel and cantle with the deep seat.  Over the next few hundred years this saddle became continually more refined and specialized and became the modern dressage saddle which maintains the characteristic deep seat and straighter-legged riding position of its predecessors.

The western saddle family has a history that is remarkably similar to the dressage saddle.  It too evolved from the Medieval saddles of Western Europe.  Its origins lie predominantly in Spain with the doma vaquera saddle of the Spanish vaquero.  The vaquero saddle is a working saddle designed to provide comfort and security for the rider who spent long days in the saddle moving cattle and carrying out ranch work.  The Medieval origins of this saddle can be seen in the deep seat and high cantle.  This saddle was brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century.  When cattle ranching took off in North America, it was only natural that the working ranch saddles of the vaqueros would be adapted to suit the needs of the North American cowboy.  The biggest change in saddle design was the addition of the saddle horn for roping.  The vaqueros do not use a lasso to catch cattle, but instead control them with the garrocha (a spear/ lance).  The earliest versions of the western saddle also maintained the deep seated, straight legged position of their Medieval predecessors. While the working/ranch saddle is still a mainstay, western saddles have also become increasingly specialized for specific jobs or rodeo events.

Finally, we have the jumping saddle.  Its origins lie in Britain with the hunt, specifically the rise in popularity of fox hunting the late 17th century.  Fox hunting involved a lot of riding at speed over varying terrain and obstacles. This was quite different from the Medieval battlefield, the schooling manège and the cattle ranch.  Jumping made the high pommel and cantle impractical, and so the English hunting saddle had a much flatter seat.  The range of motion required by the hunt horse also necessitated the use of a more flexible saddle tree: hence the development of the iconic English spring tree.  Despite these changes in design, hunters continued to ride with a longer stirrup and tended to sit back in the saddle.  It was the Italian Federico Caprilli in the early 20th century who revolutionized jumping by getting his students to shorten their stirrups to get up off the horses back while galloping and jumping. This in turn led to the construction of saddles with a more forward cut flap which has resulted in the discipline specific close-contact saddles of today.

Carolyn Willekes received her PhD in Greek and Roman Studies from the University of Calgary in 2013. She has been a part of the Spruce Meadows School Tours programs since 2009 teaching the ‘Warhorse to Sport Horse’ exhibit and has a book coming out in 2016 titled “The Horse in the Ancient World: From Bucephalus to the Hippodrome.” In her spare time, Carolyn can be found traveling the world to archeological digs sites and competing in the equine sports of hunter & jumper.