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Horse Saddles Around the World
 By Winniefield Park   •   2nd Dec 2018   •   980 views   •   0 comments
It seems that it wasn’t very long after people started riding horses that they started to use saddles. If you’ve ridden bareback for a long time, you’ll know why this is. Most horse’s don’t have backs that are soft and comfortable, and they move around a lot. So, a little padding is needed to keep the rider comfortable and some extra security helps too. You can’t drape thick blankets or leather pads over a horse’s back and expect it to stay there. In fact, if you sit on a loose pad you may be even more unstable than if you sat right on the horse. So, no saddle is complete without some sort of cinch and girth. And as we’ll see, not all saddles, cinches and stirrups are the same all over the world.

Asia
The domestication of the horse was said to have begun somewhere in the Eurasian Steppes, a band of temperate grasslands that stretch from central Europe eastward to Northern China almost to the Pacific Ocean. There too might be the beginnings of the saddle. It’s hard to know, because leather decays easily, so unlike wood, bone or metal, it doesn’t endure time and elements. But we expect the earliest saddles to be pads of woven textiles and animal skins. It wasn’t long after that leather carving and other embellishments were added to saddles. The poorer folk would have very plain saddles, and the wealthy would have very ornately embellished saddles.

The Assyrians1 are thought to be the first people in the Middle or near East to learn how to ride their horses. But they may have ridden only with a saddle cloth at first. Horseman from the area of what is now Northern Iran and eventually throughout Asia invented saddles that had a structure somewhat like a tree. A wooden frame to which were attached two cushions and a cinch. There were no stirrups.

Asia Saddles
Image: Pixabay

Eventually these evolved into the saddles used by the people of the Steppes such as those in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The traditional Mongolian saddle is very different from our English and Western saddles. They are much narrower to fit the small horses they are used for. The frame or tree rises high above the horse's back. The seat is very short as the rider spends most of the time standing in the stirrups.

The Turkish saddle has a similar tree, but far more padding and is made so the rider can sit comfortably.

Europe
Very early saddles did not have fixed trees. One example of a Roman cavalry saddle is a thick pad covered in leather with four pommel like protrusions that the soldier would use to balance against. The forerunner of the modern English saddle was the Hungarian Saddle. It was broader and flatter than the saddles of the Steppes. The design persisted and eventually, the McClellan saddle used by the U.S. Cavalry looked almost identical, although built on a wood and metal frame. Another saddle was the type used in Spain. These early saddles had a very high pommel and cantle. Stirrups were added to help aid fighting from the saddle. Western saddles were modeled on the Spanish type saddles.

Asia Saddles
Image: Wikimedia Commons An early Spanish saddle

South East Asia
Saddles from Japan and China have some similarities with those found in early Eurasia. The tree is two flat planks fixed with high cantles and pommels. The seats are somewhat flatter as the rider is expected to sit. Saddles from the Ming Dynasty have a high pommel but low cantle and a seat similar to a western saddle. Ancient Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi's terracotta army (c. 210 BCE) has saddled horses, but the saddles do not appear to have stirrups. Japanese saddles have a lower, rounder pommel and cantle. The rider’s legs and the horse’s side are protected by flat wide flaps.

Asia Saddles
Image: By Vassil [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Australia
Australian saddles are a good example of how form is developed by function. The Aussie stock or poley saddle as it’s known is rather like a deep seated dressage saddle. It’s a mixture of the English and Spanish saddles, although some may look more like a western style saddle, complete with a horn for roping cattle. The distinctive feature on these saddles are the knee pads that in hilly, rough terrain help the rider stay secure.

Asia Saddles
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Professor Edwin Bates' saddle, 1910-1920

South America
The saddles of South America evolved from the Spanish styles saddles. Eventually, the horn was added to aid in working cattle. These were very padded, comfortable saddles made so the rider could endure long hours.

Asia Saddles
Image: Pixabay

North America
We almost see the evolution of the saddle all over again once the Native People of North American started riding horses. We often see images of riders riding their horses without saddles. But saddles were used, with some influences from the Spanish saddles. These were made by stretching bison rawhide over wood, bone and antler frames. Like the saddles of the Eurasian Steppes, these saddles had a very high cantle and pommel. Stirrups helped the rider balance while hunting of fighting. Furs, woven textiles, beads and other embellishments were used to decorate the saddles.

Asia Saddles
Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456] (Public Domain)

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1 helsinki.fi/science/saa/4.1%2006%20Noble.pdf
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