I've been thinking about the importance of the saddle to the cattle trail cowboy. It seemed logical to me that there must be many reasons the saddle was considered a valuable possession, so I did a little follow-up research in Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters by Albert Marrin and The Cowboys by William H. Forbis, and a few other books.
One of the more obvious reasons the cowboy's saddle was important is comfort. Cowboys spent most of their lifetime in the saddle, so they were willing and wise to invest in a well-made, comfortable saddle. They did not skimp on quality. A saddle could be purchased for $30, a month's pay, but the top-notch saddle could cost $100, and if you'll recall the cost of a cattle trail horse, the cowboy's saddle often cost four to five times more than the value of the horse! The seasoned cowboy understood the importance of this investment, though. The saddle was expected to last for most of the cowboy's career, or at least 30 years. In fact, there was a saying among cowboys about saddles that signified when a cowboy was leaving the profession: "He's sold his saddle." No saddle, no cowboy.
As you'll recall, the horses on the cattle drive belonged to the owner of the cattle, but the saddle belonged to the cowboy. The price of the saddle was still tied to the health of the horse, though. Remember, part of the Cowboy Code is to be kind and compassionate toward animals. A cowboy with a good saddle could travel 70 miles a day on one horse and the horse would still feel strong at the end of the ride. A poor saddle could destroy a horse's posture, and I suppose the cowboy's too.
Like so much else in the world of the cowboy, the Western saddle also evolved from a Spanish invention, the Spanish war saddle. Spanish war saddles weighed as much as 40 pounds with thick velvet padding on a wood frame. They had pommels in front for the soldier to grab onto during a fight, or tie a rope to, and a high-curved cantle at the back to keep him from sliding off if the horse stumbled during battle. The Spanish war saddle's pommel and cantle was silver, and the saddle also had ornate silver plates descending from the pommel to prevent a sword or lance from piercing the horse beneath the saddle or shoving the saddle from the horse and sending the rider to the ground. The spurs hung much lower than those on Western saddles. In fact, the rider was practically standing on his horse.
The Western saddle evolved around the 19th century in cattle country. Each part of the saddle was created to meet a specific need for the cowboy on the trail. The horn was used for roping. The stirrups were generally broad to help the cowboy balance when riding down steep slopes and much higher than Spanish war saddles so Western cowboys were sitting more than standing during the ride. The wooden frame remained. The cantle remained, but was moved back and tilted for comfort--though modern chiropractors might disagree that this was a wise choice as it gave the cowboy the ability to slump a bit in the saddle. The pommel was changed to accommodate a lariat. The velvet, of course, was traded for quality leather. The silver thigh plates were removed and strings were added in various places so the cowboy could tie down anything he might need during travel.
In the 1830s, the California style saddle was invented, again by the Spanish vaqueros. The horn was slimmer than contemporary Western saddles. The stirrups were made of hollowed wood, but covered with leather flaps, called tapederas, to protect the rider and horse from cactus thorns. In the photos I am looking at, the tapederas appear to be about four inches wide.
In the 1850s, the Texas saddle appeared with changes to accommodate the special needs of cowboys moving longhorn cattle on the trails. The horn was thicker to hold more rope, much of the fancy--and heavy--leather work disappeared, the stirrups were made from steam-bent wood as opposed to the earlier versions of hollowed-out wood, which was an important change as they lasted much longer. Leather flaps, or fenders, were added to protect the cowboy's pant legs from the sweat of the horse during the heat of the day. Temperatures can reach as high as 110 degrees in Texas, sometimes higher, and for months at a time.
The Colorado cowboys created their own version of the saddle in the 1870s. The frame was longer, there was much more leather across the back of the horse, and once again the saddle weighed around 40 pounds. For the Spanish fighting a few hours in battle, this may have worked, but 40 pounds on the back of a horse working the sand and sage in 100 degree summertime temperatures, this saddle turned out to be a curse for the horse, creating saddle sores on their backs.
In the 1880s, the California saddle was revived. At least 10 pounds of leather was removed from the seat and sides. The horn was made slimmer, too, which also lightened the weight of the saddle. There was fancy tooling on the leather, but this proved to be more than decoration as it actually helped hold the rider in place.
There was another important difference added to the California--the double-cinch rig. The rigging rings were used to tie the saddle to the horse with canvas or cords and their placement proved to be critical to the balance of saddle and rider. The original Spanish war saddles had one rig toward the front so the cinch circled the horse's belly. This did not work for cattle trail cowboys as it caused the saddle to rise during roping and the rider could be thrown from the saddle. Saddle makers then tried a three-quarter rig with a strap behind the cantle and another in front of the horn. The side straps were shorter toward the front--thus the name three-quarters. This appeared to provide more stability during long rides--literally, when you look at pictures it does appear more stable--but during roping activities the cinch tended to slide forward causing the saddle to become loose and slide. I can't imagine anything more embarrassing to a cowboy than to suddenly find himself hanging upside down beneath his horse's belly.
The rig was then moved to the center for balance, which proved more stable during roping, but the double-cinch rig proved to be best for the heavy roping tasks required of cattle trail cowboys. The extra cinch in the rear provided more balance, and although it may appear to create the possibility of pulling or chafing on the back belly of the horse, it proved to be much healthier for the horse.
There is obviously more to discuss as far as gearing up a horse for a cattle drive, but I wanted to share what I'd found about the importance of the saddle and its evolution since I mentioned this in my last post and my next posts will return to discussions of the actual cattle drives and the cattle kings who started the movement of beef to the Eastern customers.