History of the Saddle
In our car-obsessed world, it's hard to imagine that just 150 years ago, horses were considered one of the primary methods of transportation. People have been riding horses for thousands of years — whether for war, transportation, leisure or sport. And over the course of the past three thousand years, the horse saddle has gone through a number of developments and iterations that lead to what you see today.
Knowing how the saddle originated and evolved will help you better understand and appreciate its nuances and features.
In the beginning...
An old saddle drawing from the 1800s by Pisanello.
Determining the origin of the saddle is difficult because when it was first created is still a matter of debate. While some evidence seems to suggest that the first saddle was developed shortly after horses were domesticated, which some believe could be as early as 4000 BC, the first definitive evidence saddles began appearing in the Iron Age around 1000 BC.
Up until then, it's likely that many people rode horses without saddles or cushioning. However, the Iron Age, which saw things like the advent of written language, was a time of better understanding and awareness of technology. So people began to realize that you can make horseback riding much more comfortable by putting padding underneath.
As you can expect, the early saddles were very rudimentary. The Assyrian warriors from the Middle East had decorative cloth saddles with straps to go around the girth of the horse in 700 BC. These saddles were nothing like the saddles we know today. They were simply pieces of clothes placed over the back to provide a barrier between the rider and the horse.
Seeds of the modern saddle
It wasn't until around 500 BC that we started to see the early structure of the modern saddle. A group of nomads who roamed around Europe and Asia created a basic wooden saddle tree with leather cushions. This is an early iteration of the present day metal saddle tree found beneath the seat of Western saddles. The riders did this to distribute their weight across the horse's back, which allowed the horses to ride longer without damage or injury.
The second major seed of the modern saddle was the creation of the stirrup. This was developed by people who were increasingly using horses to engage in battle. It was said that stirrups were added as a way to give the rider more balance and the ability to stand up and throw spears more effectively.
Saddles of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages, which is anywhere between the 5th Century and 15th Century, continued to build upon the saddles that were developed beforehand. The prevalence of knights on horses meant they needed more support and strength from their saddles. As a result, the cantle and pommel were made higher to better hold the rider in place and the saddle was covered in leather.
As people began riding horses for things other than warfare, such as cattle tending, bullfighting, messenger services, fox hunting and more, the design of the traditional saddle with a saddle tree adapted to the various purposes. For example, some saddles featured stirrups, different sized pommels and a horn for roping.
Generally, the saddle branched off into two styles: the English saddle, which was used for classical riding, and the Western saddle. The Western saddle was a mix of Moorish saddles, designed to allow better movement, and jousting saddles, which offered more control. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, the Western saddle slowly evolved to meet the rigorous demands of the Old West.Today, thousands of years after man first conceived of using a cloth to separate a rider from the horse, the saddle has become perfected over time to give the rider and horse maximum comfort and control.