The Western ranch saddle we ride today evolved over centuries and across four continents. From the earliest animal-skin “saddles” used by the Assyrians in the late 8th-century B.C., to the invention of the saddletree three centuries later in Siberia, to the first full-foot stirrup in China in fourth century A.D., improvements over time were designed to make riding more comfortable for horse and rider. Whether to gain tactical advantage in battle, herd livestock, or ride great distances, the saddle helped complete the work at hand.
Spaniards are credited with adapting saddles for ranch work, first in Andalusia and then in the New World. Originally, Spanish cowboys (vaqueros) would rope a steer then attach their lariat to the horse’s tail or to the cinch’s D-ring. The Mexican roping saddle was born with the introduction of a large wooden saddle horn for securing the lariat. These early Western saddles did not have skirts or fenders. They were basically skeleton frameworks of a saddle with removable leather coverings called mochilas.
By the 1860s, the Mother Hubbard-style saddle (pictured above) attached the mochila covering to the saddle structure with saddle strings. A lightweight Texan variation of a roping saddle named for its wide skirts, the Mother Hubbard-style saddle was better suited for dense brush and long cattle drives. Less ornate than Californian saddles, it was the saddle of choice for ranchers from Texas to the Great Plains.
In the late 1870s to early 1900s, additional improvements were made, including the addition of a steel horn for extra strength; fenders, to prevent rubbing; the modern double cinch, for roping leverage; and skirting, to disperse pressure from the saddle frame. The Western saddle we ride today looks largely the same, although some styles of construction make use of lightweight fiberglass or stainless steel trees, tweak the seat angle, and implement synthetic materials instead of cowhide.