Art in Saddlery

Western Americana

I had a horse when I was three years old. It was pure white with a thick molded mane and flowing tail. The reins were red and the saddle blue. I don’t remember where my young imagination took me on that rocking white horse but I loved to sit in the saddle and ride, ride, ride.

Recently I rescued an old western saddle from under a pile of used auto parts, old blankets, discarded clothing and other detritus. Only the saddlehorn was showing. I tugged and pulled, pushed junk aside and finally got it free. The stirrups and some straps were missing and mice had chewed away some of the skirt. The saddle was too far gone to incur the cost of repair and too worn to ever sit astride a horse again. Although in poor condition the saddle and remaining cinch is entirely covered with an intricately carved floral pattern. An interesting western artifact. I dragged it home.

Later that afternoon a neighbor stopped by to visit and I showed him my latest find, which was still sitting on the porch. He agreed that the carving was done by a master of saddlery and noted my enthusiasm for getting the saddle cleaned and oiled for display. The next morning the same neighbor showed up at my porch with a saddle slung over his shoulder. I had this old saddle out in the barn, he said, and thought you might like it. Now I have two saddles, each different but equally interesting.

I’m fascinated by the art in saddlery. The intricate hand carved floral patterns, stamped geometric designs and artful precision stitching are simply amazing. The addition of silver conchos and other decorative elements make custom saddles a true work of art.

Searching the internet for retail saddle and tack stores I was able to compare prices for different saddles. A basic English saddle or simple Western saddle can be had for as low as $250 to $300 dollars. A fancy custom saddle like this one, is in the $3,000 dollar range.

Leatherwork has been practiced since prehistoric times. Animal hides, an available resource through the ages, have been used as shelter, clothing, footwear, household furniture and an array of mechanical and industrial components. There is a vast difference between a tradesman who works in leather and an artisan who practices leathercraft. One will produce items of leather that are functional and durable. The other, the artisan will create things of beauty using curiosity, skill, imagination and a thorough knowledge of materials and tools to be used. Compare the art of a Native American wedding dress complete with beaded moccasins or a pair of fine Italian shoes – to what? Artistic quality stands above all others.

The earliest known saddles were little more than a padded cloth held in place with a girth strap used by the Assyrian cavalry about 700 BC. The Scythians developed a leather saddle (500 – 400 BC) that included padding and embellishments such as elaborate sewing, leatherwork, precious metals, carved wood and horn. Saddles had become a way to display wealth and status. Saddles continued to evolve per country and region. Design also evolved to meet specific needs for hunting, travel and for military purposes. The saddle eventually branched off into two distinct designs, the modern English and Western saddles.

The Western saddle or stock saddle that we know today is an evolved version of the Spanish vaquero’s working saddle. As working cowboys used their saddles, they underwent a gradual change to meet the demands of life in the old west. Today you can find saddles that match their intended use. There are ranch saddles, trail or pleasure riding saddles, saddles for rodeo events like roping, cutting, barrel racing and many other types.

This particular saddle with a relatively wide seat, well positioned cantle at the back and good sweep to the pommel in front would provide some comfort to a rider who might be in the saddle all day. It would be suitable for long trail rides or inspecting miles and miles of fence line in a day. It appears that this saddle was double rigged, that is it would have a cinch strap fore and aft and indicated by the extra slot near the front of the fender there was probably a chest strap at one time. All of this would have had elaborate carving as does the rest of the saddle. Specialty leather carving knives in the hands of an artist were used to create the overall flowing floral patterns. A thing of beauty.

The other saddle I now have, the one given to me by a friend, is a working saddle once used for herding and rounding up livestock.The high cantle and pommel would keep a rider firmly centered in the saddle while making quick turns or sudden stops. This old saddle had seen a lot of use in it’s day.

Parts of this saddle have been replaced or repaired. The horn for instance has been wrapped in new leather. Probably due to continuous use of dallying a rope around the horn while lassoing steers and horses. The stirrups appear to have been replaced at some time. The adjustment to length would originally have had buckles. Now they are permanently set to the leg length of the former owner with rawhide lacing. The carved stirrup leather does not match with any other decoration and is surely a replacement.

I’d say the decoration on this saddle falls into the category of folk art. The artwork was done by someone with a creative spirit that wanted to personalize this favored item. While cleaning and oiling this saddle I discovered something special. On one of the straps, probably scratched in with a jackknife is the name Romero. This is the same family name as the man who built my 150 year old adobe house and the following generations that lived here. This saddle may have belonged to my former neighbor Jesus’ Romero or his father Jacinto or maybe even his grandfather.

The decorative artwork on this saddle was not done with a leather carving knife but stamped with a metal die. The artist repeats a modified heart design at different places around the saddle. A rough heart shape cut from leather was added as a concho placed above the original leather circle conchos. Was the artist having romantic notions or in love when he created this art? We will never know. Another design element was the application of silvery tacks outlining the stamped hearts and across the top of the pommel and cantle. These tacks did not last and are long gone but the holes left by them indicate the artists intent.

I’m proud to have inherited these saddles. The one has a direct connection with the Lower Farm. The other is a piece of Western Americana. Both harken back to a time when horseback was the primary mode of transportation in these mountains and valleys. They will never be ridden into the mountains again.

As a piece of art it would be impractical to hang a saddle on my wall. Instead I plan to build a wooden barrel shaped stand with sturdy legs for each. When visitors stop by they can be used as alternative seating western style and a guest can let their imagination transport them where it may, which is the purpose of much art.

Happy Trails, Dohn



About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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3 Responses to Art in Saddlery

  1. Cathy says:

    I like to see old things being restored and reused. We were given a wooden sled last autumn – 19th century, probably used for moving firewood and pulled by a pony. It will need some attention but looks great in our yard even now and is a talking point for visitors!

  2. How wonderful. I’m happy for you and for the saddles.

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