History of Saddles

Three things you didn't know about the history of the horse saddle

By Aoife Byrne on 06 November 2018

Saddle up and learn about the history of the horse saddle

Let’s face it – if you haven’t got a saddle you’re unlikely to travel very far on a horse. Riding bareback needs exquisite balance and a high pain threshold and usually isn’t much fun for the horse or for the rider over long periods. Several thousand years ago our ancestors worked out that a saddle of sorts would provide greater comfort and stability during travel, work and warfare.

1. Rudimentary saddles

History tells us that it was the Assyrian cavalry back in 700 BC who first began to use pads and cloths, fixed to the horse’s back with a combination of girths, surcingles, breast straps and cruppers. Prior to this it seems that riders went bareback or sat on a piece of cloth or animal skin. Imagine the skill of Alexander the Great mounted on his beautiful black horse Bucephalus, leading his army to battle, all with no saddle or stirrups – today he would be a social media sensation!

The more ornate the saddle the wealthier and more important the rider was perceived to be. Leather, precious metals, jewels, cow hide, felt and hair were used as decorations. The combination of showy horse and saddle was the equivalent status symbol of today’s flashy car.

2. The first trees

Around 500 years later, in 200 BC it’s thought that a basic saddle tree was devised in Asia. It helped to distribute the weight across the horse’s back more evenly, keeping the rider’s weight off the horse’s spine, improving comfort for both horse and rider and prolonging its working life.

The Romans used a saddle based on a wooden tree with a four horn design – two at the front and two at the back, secured with a girth, breast strap and crupper. It didn’t have any stirrups and with all those horns looks like it may have been a challenge to mount!

3. The first leather saddles

The Samartians, fine horsemen of the 3rd century AD who also had women warriors in their ranks, developed leather saddles and are also believed to have introduced the stirrup and the spur. The Huns, a nomadic tribe of central Asia, brought these saddles back to Europe. 

During the next 1000 years saddles were improved, for better balance, safety and comfort. Mediaeval knights particularly relied on the development of a strong saddle with a higher cantle and pommel, to help keep them on board in battle. It was padded with wool or horse hair and covered with leather or cloth.

It is this style of saddle that has largely evolved into the saddles we use today.

Modern saddles

Today saddles have evolved to suit particular disciplines.

General purpose saddles allow the rider to adopt a dressage or jumping position and are a good all round saddle for an amateur rider.

Dressage saddles have a longer straighter saddle flap and a deeper seat to enable the rider to lengthen the leg and sit in an elegant, straight position. The girth straps on a dressage saddle are longer and the girth itself is shorter to prevent the buckles from coming into contact with the rider’s legs.

Jumping saddles have forward cut, padded saddle flaps to enable the rider to balance securely with shorter stirrups when jumping.

Racing saddles are extremely lightweight and have a flat seat and small, forward cut saddle flaps. The jockey rides with very short stirrups, crouched over the horse to minimise wind resistance as the horse gallops.

Side saddles are cleverly designed to enable the rider to sit centrally while both legs are on the same side. The rider places her left leg in a stirrup and the right leg is hooked over the ‘fixed head’. For greater stability there is a ‘leaping head’ under which the rider presses her upper left leg.

Show saddles are quite simply designed to show the conformation of the horse to best effect. They tend to have a long straight flap to expose the shoulder cleanly and no knee rolls.

Western saddles and stock saddles have a wider seat and cantle for comfort and a broader weight bearing area across the horse’s back.  They have wide stirrups and a horn at the front of the saddle which was originally used as an anchor point for roping cattle. The western saddle is secured to the horse but a cinch, tied with a leather strap rather than a buckle.

Did you know…
Saddles aren’t exclusively for horses………. camels, oxen, yaks, elephants and even reindeer, zebra and ostrich have been saddled up and ridden.






2. Give the saddle special treatment

Your saddle is a complex bit of kit and needs special treatment. Yes, you need to condition it after cleaning, but you need to be very careful about the girth straps because too much oil can weaken them3 and it’s important for safe riding that they remain strong. So condition the girth straps roughly once a year, but condition the rest of the saddle more frequently.

You should also invest in a proper saddle rack and saddle cover  – the former to help the saddle keep its shape and the latter to keep the dust off. Avoid stacking saddles on top of each other because this can damage the leather.

To manage your horse’s health routine – try our HorseDialog mobile app

3. Be on the watch for mould

Mould is a menace in the damp British climate. It can eat away at your horse tack, causing potentially dangerous equipment failures.4
Good ventilation helps to reduce the spread of mould, but don’t be tempted to leave your saddle in hot sun as a mould-prevention strategy; too much sun exposure will damage the leather too.

To reduce the risk of mouldy horse tack, clean it thoroughly with a water-based cleaner, make sure it’s dry before putting it away and keep your tack room well aired if possible.

4. Take extra care in winter

Think about how your skin feels in winter when you’re going from the freezing outdoors to the overheated indoors and back again. It’s the same thing with your horse’s tack: sudden changes in temperature can be very drying. So in winter, take extra care over conditioning your horse tackafter cleaning.

Winter might also be a time for you to take a break from riding, which means your horse tack will be stored for a while. If so, give your tack an extra good cleaning and conditioning session and make certain it’s completely dry before putting it away.

5. Ask the manufacturer

There is a huge range of different tack-care products on the market, some much more expensive than others. The wrong product, or a product used in the wrong way, could do more harm than good. To be sure that a product is right for a specific piece of tack, check the manufacturer’s guidelines. They often have a list of recommended products. If you’re still not sure, it might be worth contacting the manufacturer directly. They’re the experts on what’s right for the horse tack they make.

Other related content: 

Caring for your Horse’s teeth 


[1] Horse Magazine  

[2] Chronoof horse.com

[3] Saddlesense.com 

[4] Horsechannel.com 


Veterinary Surgeon

I'm Irish but studied at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Budapest, qualifying in 2007 with my degree & a doctoral research thesis. I started my career with an equine internship on the Curragh in Ireland for 12 months before working for an equine ambulatory practice for a further year. I wanted to gain equine reproduction experience so I followed this with a stud season, beginning in Argentina & then at the Beaufort Embryo Transfer Centre in Gloucestershire. Following that I worked at Rowe Equine incorporating the Equine Eye Clinic. When I got married I followed my husband (also an equine vet) to Norfolk where I now work for the Chapelfield Equine Clinic. My areas of interest are equine internal medicine, reproduction, ophthalmology & dermatology. In my free time I enjoy riding sidesaddle, sedately showing in the summer then galloping at speed hunting & racing in the winter!

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