History of Saddle Decoration

From the very beginning of their creation, saddles have been decorated with embellishments to show off wealth, status, and personality.
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From the very beginning of their creation, saddles have been decorated with embellishments to show off wealth, status, and personality.
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400–500 B.C.

The North Iranian Eurasian nomads known in Europe as Scythians and in Asia as Saka developed an early form of saddle with a rudimentary frame, which included two parallel leather cushions with a girth attached to them; a pommel and cantle with detachable bone, horn, or hardened leather facings; leather thongs; a crupper; a breastplate; and a felt shabrack adorned with animal motifs. These were located in Pazyryk burial finds. These saddles, found in the Ukok Plateau, Siberia were dated to 500-400 BC.

1000s

In the early tenth century, northern China came under the control of the Qidan Liao, a nomadic people of Central Asia. In 1005, after decades of warfare, the Liao concluded a treaty with the Chinese Northern Song dynasty that stipulated diplomatic gifts to be presented to the Liao, including the type of saddle ornaments seen above. The Liao themselves had continued Tang dynasty styles in metalworking, including in engraved and repoussé silver, and sets of similar ornaments have been excavated in Liao tombs.

1400s

Saddles were improved upon during the Middle Ages, as knights needed saddles that were stronger and offered more support. The resulting saddle had a higher cantle and pommel to prevent the rider from being unseated in warfare and was built on a wooden tree that supported more weight from a rider with armor and weapons. The armor used in warfare became largely metallic. In jousting exhibitions, saddle decorations became more and more elaborate, but remained based on the warfare armor and useful for protection in the sport.

1700–1800s

In the Americas, saddle decoration was derived primarily from the Spanish tradition—which was no doubt influenced by both the European and Moor warfare garb later converted to stock saddles. The Spanish vaqueros of the Americas would create conchos from coins. Charlie Russell, the renowned artist and author of the West, describes the vaquero look in his book, Trails Plowed Under. “When the sun hits him with all his silver on, he blazes up like some big piece of jewelry. You can see him for miles when he’s ridin’ the high country.”

Some English and early American military influence remained as well. Breastplates, bridle rosettes, and insignia used in the cavalry during the Revolutionary and Civil wars made their way west with the opening of the plains.

Early 1900s

As the west became settled up, the fascination with the cowboy reached its zenith. Edward H. Bohlin capitalized on this popularity, becoming a saddlemaker to the stars. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were early clients and he built harness for epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. After becoming established, his style flourished. Influenced by Buffalo Bill and G.S. Garcia, his parade and exhibition saddles pushed the envelope of saddle décor. The Tournament of Roses Parade became a showcase for Bohlin’s work and made his work the standard for parade-style saddles. Roy Rogers and Clayton Moore—as the Lone Ranger—were among the many Hollywood cowboys who used his gear. Today, most saddles are decorated with simple conchos.