...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.
...Like to some branch of stars we see...
Hung in the golden galaxy
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot...
A mighty silver bugle hung
And as he rode, his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott
- - - Lord Alfred Tennyson,
“The Lady of Shallot”
The saddlery of Medieval war, the most beautiful and elegant in the history of horsemanship, is the direct ancestor of modern Western tack. (1) For all its glitter and bulkiness, it was highly functional. The heavily armored knights needed a high pommel, a deep seat and also a high cantle to support their awkward weight and to keep them seated during battle. Long stirrups helped keep them balanced during a charge.
A blow from a lance could leave a spectacular looking knight in shining armor laying in a tangled heap of dust and clanking tin on the ground.
The power of the huge war horse, in combination with all the heavy armor, charging behind the point of a lance, made a secure saddle very important.
Medieval warriors sometimes rode geldings, but they were a less prestigious mount than a stallion. Curb bits were used to control the spirited horses. They responded to a form of neck reining, with the reins being held in one hand while the other wielded a lance or sword.
Nosebands, (cavesons)which are now used to keep the horse’s mouth closed and on the bit, perhaps began with the muzzles worn by the war horse stallions while not in battle, to keep them from biting. The stallions were trained to bite and strike at the enemy with their front legs and to fight along with the knights.
You may have seen the intricate movements of the famous Austrian Lippizanners; these exercises had their beginning in war, and were designed to scare foot soldiers.(2)
To ride and keep under control these big, strong stallions with a single hand on he rein, while weighted down by armor and holding a heavy lance tucked under one arm, required a skilled degree of horsemanship. Knights have been portrayed in stories as unmoving pieces of metal while in the saddle, clunking around and moving like automatons.
But, considering all the handicaps given them, they were actually quite dextrous.
The Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century, and the had lighter saddles and a different riding style than the knights who were in the Spanish military. Their horses were fast and small and they had a tactical advantage in their manner of conducting war. Instead of the long stirrups the knights used for balance, the
Moors had short stirrups and were almost perched in the saddles, with light seats, clinging with their knees. They would actually drop their reins and use their balance while aiming their bows and arrows.
The Moors occupied Spain for seven centuries and a lot of their culture rubbed off on the Spanish, including horse care and saddlery. They had finely carved leatherwork on their saddles and bridles, including those used in war.(3)
The Spanish invaded America in the fifteenth century, and they brought their elaborate saddlery with them, including the traditional neck reins and intricately carved war saddles. Even noblemen came to conquer and they brought their best-trained horses along with them. The other conquistadores were men of modest living who were seeking their fortunes in the new land; even their horses were common, most being of Barb or Arab ancestry.
The knights had their big, deep-seated saddles and the modern western saddle helps the cowboy stay secure while riding, also. When rounding up cattle, wranglers need long stirrups and deep seats in order to brace themselves against a dropped steer’s dead weight. The nice, wide seat can be a rider’s comfortable chair for days at a time.
The Western saddle is quite practical: The horn holds the lariat and the cowboy wraps the rope around the pommel after the steer is downed. The horse is trained to pull and this creates tension on the line, keeping the steer like a fish. The flank girth is used to keep the saddle from flying up in back from the impact of the dropped animal.
Old time stirrups were made of light wood and were covered with the traditional tapaderos, or hoods, to protect the cowboy’s feet from thorns or briars and also to keep them dry and warm.
Saddle fenders protect the rider from the sweat of the animal; a hard working horse puts out a lot of sweat in a long day of working cattle. The rawhide strings attached to the saddle can tie all kinds of gear on. Things like a bed roll, rifle scabbard, food, slicker or tools.(4)
Good cowboys care about the condition of the horse’s back while it is under saddle. They want to protect it so it doesn’t get bruised or wind up with galls. Most Western saddles have fleece lining, and with the addition of a pad or blanket, a horse can remain comfortable after cinching up.
Cowboys are still working today out West, and they may appear sloppy about some aspects of horse care. But they are very interested in how a stock saddle is made and how it fits their horse. Often they will have a saddle custom-made to fit .
Utility stock saddles do not look like Paladin’s Parade Saddle; no fancy silver, sequins or diamonds.
Some of those parade saddles rival Medieval battle garb in their size and appearance. Often they weigh in at 300 pounds, not including be-jeweled bridle, sarape, breastplate - - - or the rider. Pity the small
Western horse, as well as admire him, as he prances along the parade route under all that entrapment.
Ladies and gentlemen, all this saddle talk has me wanting to take a jaunt through the fields, medieval-style. Why don’t you accompany me to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”?
1,2,3,4: “A Horse Around the House,” by Patricia Jacobson and Marcia Hayes