Over the years I’ve tried to find the best saddle in my mind but couldn’t find one that ticked all of the boxes. Sure, some came close, but the slippers never fit. There was always a design flaw somewhere that I couldn’t agree with. I’ve had Ranch saddles that I felt were too big and heavy, leaving me feeling disconnected from the horse, and the weight of the saddle never felt fair to the horse. But, I loved the strength; it just doesn’t work for the kind of long distance backcountry riding I do. I’ve had (still have actually) an Australian saddle, its comfort is something I’ve never felt before in a saddle and I love the polys that lock you into your seat and how light weight it is, but it couldn’t stand up to the beating of riding and working in the American mountains. If your horse doesn’t have withers, well good luck because it's going to slip on you at some point. I’ve even had a 1904 McClellan Saddle that was designed by General McClellan for the US Calvary, but it's over 100 years old and isn’t something that you want to ride in all day, every day. The soldiers of the time who rode in these were much tougher back then, I can tell you that. But McClellan was onto something in his design, but still was lacking what I envisioned in my head and put to paper what I felt was the perfect saddle.
When I climbed on the back of Gary for the first time and got a mouthful of dirt, the problem was not with my ability to stay on a horse. No self-respecting man would admit to that. But honestly, my saddle had lot to do with it. You see I was using my Australian, which was not the best choice for these mustangs, as the saddle didn’t fit them well, but it was what I had. I got back on and rode things out with Gary nevertheless to finish on a good note.
(You can see in this picture of me coming off, that my saddle is literally on Gary’s side and not on his back as it is spinning. And never mind the stupid face I’m pulling…. I think we are all guilty of such a thing at some point.)
I got in the truck that very afternoon and drove to Ione, Ca to meet up with Trevor O’fferall. He’s a saddle maker over there that has real talent and was willing to let me use his shop, and his brain to take what I had on paper for a new saddle design a reality. All the while using old time methods to teach me how to make such a saddle.
The saddle I wanted to make was a saddle that one could work off of and keep the horses movements in mind. To keep the rider connected to the horse, and keep the weight of the gear down…something that could take me from Mexico to Canada.
I took parts of the 1904 McClellan saddle, and It’s stripped down design; basically it’s a saddletree with a little bit of leather on it. The center is completely open with no real seat and has rings and footman loops for days so a soldier could attach all of his gear to it. The Calvary was expected to ride for many miles for continuous days, and be able carry enough supplies. Much like what I will need to do while on the trail. But in my humble opinion, the McClellan is not the perfect saddle.
I based the Tree off their Lady Wade saddletree where the saddle bars are shorter by about 3 inches than your typical Wade saddle. One, to cut weight down and two, the back of a mustang is much shorter than our domesticated horses nowadays. I had hand holds put into the cantle (the seat) not only to make for a nice “oh shit” handle, but this allows the saddle to be converted into a pack saddle if need be.
I also had stirrup slots cut into the bars eliminating about 4 inches of leather on either side needed for the stirrups. All in all, with these modifications to the tree, and the design I came up with, Trevor and I were able to build a saddle that weighs in at 19lbs. Which is a lot lighter then most saddles nowadays that weigh in around 50lbs!
No self-respecting cowboy would have a saddle that didn’t tell his story a little through the artwork tooled into the leather. If you haven’t figured it out by now… let me tell you, cowboys are a little vain. But, we are patient and love working with a natural raw material. So after an evening spent alone under the light of the desk lamp…. here’s the story of a cowboy that comes from the Salish Sea.
I can’t thank Trevor enough for his help, and for letting me use his shop. If anyone wants a custom saddle built (before I get my shop up and running of course) I couldn’t recommend you to a better man than him.