CowboySpirit.com – What does a cowboy need besides his horse and steady hands? Tall in the Saddle, Born to the Saddle, and Blazing Saddles are just a handful of the western movies that pay tribute to the equipment that made it possible to be a cowboy – the saddle. The western saddle familiar to American cowboys has a shadowy history, but it is possible to pinpoint a few steps in its development.
Until the Middle Ages, “saddles” were little more than cloth. The earliest saddles may have been developed in East Asia by the Mongols, being adopted West throughout Europe and, with the Conquistadors, into the Americas. As the Spanish settled the Americas with their cattle, vaqueros – cowboys – used “lassos” to control herds in the unfenced wilderness. The problem with lassoing is if an animal pulls the rope before the cowboy has his hands free of the knot, his thumbs can be severed. This provoked the great innovation of the western saddle – the horn, or pommel, at the front of the saddle anchors a lasso before the throw, preventing such accidents.
By the 1800s, there were three distinct types of western saddle. With the help of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood we can reference all three types through western movies. The earliest type was the Charro. In 3 Godfathers with John Wayne a joking reference is made to this comparatively backward saddle (“And that Charro saddle!”).
The second type, the Sante Fe, had wider stirrups to reduce the risk of being dragged and a contoured seat for long rides, and again we turn to John Wayne – a custom Sante Fe saddle he used in later films such as The Train Robbers recently auctioned for $71,700.
The third type, the Texas, wasn’t typically used in cow-herding as it was more ornate than useful, not to mention expensive. Clint Eastwood takes his opportunity to scoop one up in High Plains Drifter, when he’s making ready for the shoot-out by helping himself to the town’s supplies (they said anything he wanted, right?).
Of course, western movies aren’t required to tell us this interesting history. Saddles are just the way the good guy gets the girl, saves the town, and banishes the bad guys. Besides, the hero knows all about his saddle and why he picked it – he just doesn’t have to tell us about it.