Saddles have been thrown onto horses since the Bronze Age, at first for military purposes, then for working on the land and more recently for sport. In an age of mass production and synthetics they symbolise craftsmanship and a kind of earthy beauty. Ever since the Australian stock saddle was born in the 1800s, we’ve played a major part in their production.
Story By Pamela Robson
The perfect saddle is the Holy Grail of horse riding. Just gather together any group of riders – stockmen, polo players, endurance riders, camp drafters, showjumpers or jockeys – and they’ll soon get down to telling you that as each of us is different and each horse is different, the chance of finding the right permutation to fit human backside and horse’s back is up there with a lottery win. No two will agree on the perfect saddle because, like the Holy Grail, it’s always just out of reach.
One thing they will agree on, however, is that there have been some remarkable saddles and extraordinary saddle makers. Saddles have come a long way since someone threw a blanket or a sheepskin on their horse way back in the mists of time. And in the past 15 years, the saddle has probably undergone more development that at any time in its entire history. It’s largely for the good.
As community attitudes have changed towards animals, and scientific research has given us new insight into what makes them ‘tick’, we’re more concerned about the welfare of our horses. We’re less interested in the beautiful leather or the exquisite stitching – although a well crafted saddle can be a breath-stopping joy to behold – and we’re far more preoccupied with saddle fit and that the horse can do its job without injury. We’ve got better science and technology to help us do this. Anyone riding a couple of decades ago will recall in shame the white patches – saddle rubbing spots – on their horse’s back. Even as recently as a couple of decades ago, saddlers were often making saddles for undernourished, skinny station horses, some with spine curvatures. Saddles had to be built with a “banana bend” to fit the spine of the horse and had to accommodate its scrawny rib cage. Saddle sores and untreated injuries were commonplace. And while there were craftsmen saddlers making beautiful items there were also local tradesmen building bulky unwieldy burdens out of rough materials that suited neither rider nor beast.
No one knows who first thought of putting a saddle on a horse, but we do know that the Romans and Bronze Age Brits were using iron and bronze bits hundreds of years Before Christ that look just like the modern day snaffle. They also used leather reins but preferred to ride bareback. The Assyrians who lived in the area that is now Iraq, left sculptures and bas reliefs showing them going into battle in about 700 BC using decorated cloths fixed with a strap. The idea of having a saddle 'tree' to keep the rider's weight off the horse's back started in Asia in about 200 BC. Later the Romans had a peculiar-looking saddle made from leather with a rectangular seat with four upward points or horns. The rider sat between these short horns and used them for security.
Saddles weren’t used widely until mediaeval times. Crusading knights came back to Europe from the Holy Land with Arabian saddles. From there, two types of saddle developed: the Hungarian and the Moorish. The American cowboy (or western) saddle is the best-known example of the Moorish style, with a pommel and two girths, each tightened by a cinch strap. The English saddle is the most recognised of the Hungarian style. They have no high pommel and the stirrup is hung further forward. These two saddle types have led to the development of two distinct styles of riding.
As you might expect, the military has had a big influence on saddle design. Australia, too, has also played its part. Because whether you were going into battle or mustering cattle in the far flung reaches of the Australian interior, your life often depended on the strength and the durability of your equipment.
The Australian stock saddle came into being around the mid 1800s. The old pioneers soon learnt that the English styles of saddle they brought with them couldn’t handle the conditions; the terrain was rough and the horses often rougher. The leather could be salt rimmed from sweat, baked brittle by the sun, rain sodden or frozen. Whatever the conditions, a drover or stockman could expect to spend many hours each day in his saddle – and sometimes still be there when the moon came up.
Early Australian saddlers such as Jack Wieneke from Roma, western Queensland, started building bigger, sturdier saddles out of tough cowhide. They had big knee rolls, deep seats and high backs to help the rider stay put no matter what the topographical incline or equine inclination. They had higher pommels for white knuckles to grasp in moments of crisis. The idea was that no matter what the horse did under you, there was a fair chance you’d stay on board. And if the horse did, in fact, roll over the top of the saddle, it was less likely to snap in two.
Wieneke’s saddles became hugely popular with the stockmen out on the stations. He comes down the centuries to us as something of an entrepreneur and showman with strong and much-voiced opinions on how things should be done. The story goes that he got his first big break by taking a saddle to outback Queensland and putting it on a horse that was famously recalcitrant – under Jack’s saddle the horse became manageable. He called his saddle the Mitchell Break, after the town it all happened in and the effect the saddle had on the horse. Then he followed it up with the Roma Poley, the Charleville Poley and others.
Over the following decade, Wieneke’s saddles became more extreme. The knee rolls became deeper, the back and the pommel higher. Eventually the saddle became less practical and like most extreme fashions it had had its day. Horseman started seeking out a more conservative shape. Saddlers like George Schneider – credited with inventing the poley style of stock saddle – and craftsman English migrant John Hill – grandfather of the more famous Syd, established good solid businesses. Wieneke himself went into partnership with a number of other saddlers including Schneider and the Brisbane–based Butler Brothers who turned out his saddles on a production line. But invariably he fell out with them and went back to making saddles in his own way, each bearing the stamp: “A genuine, true to the label, Jack Wieneke, himself.”
Syd Hill was among a number of saddlers who paid five shillings or thereabouts for the privilege of making Wieneke saddles, and the originator himself was happy to sit back and take the licence money.
In the pre-car years of the early 19th century just about every small town in Australia had a saddler – HJ Holden’s father, James Alexander, was a saddler in Adelaide before he started making motor cars. But nowadays, the old-style craftsman saddlers are getting fewer. Grafton-based Warren Newcombe is one of them. He has been making stock saddles for 42 years. If you want one of the 50 or so saddles he builds each year, you’ll have to join the queue. The stock saddle – or the station saddle – is a much more refined piece of kit. He says about half of his buyers are people such as teachers, doctors and advertising executives who are into bush horse sports like campdrafting. Once it was only the station hands – who rode horses for a living – who bought stock saddles.
“Station saddles are less bulky, and more streamlined,” he says. “When I first started making saddles, there was a lot of padding. The rider used to sit way up on top of the horse. I could never understand why, even then. Now they want close contact – to be able to feel the horse and its movements. This means the saddle flaps are more streamlined, the leather softer, and the materials lighter. They still want the toughness. They don’t want the tree to break.” He still sees plenty of broken trees coming through the saddlery door. “Its amazing what they can do to them,” he says.
Warren makes his stock-saddle trees – the frame that gives the saddle its strength – out of beech wood with steel reinforcing. The leather is English and they are padded with pure wool stuffing. He likes to keep the materials natural.
He also makes a range of fender saddles, a style that has gained popularity in the past decade or so. Whereas the stock saddle, like the English saddle, has flaps either side and stirrups hung from narrow leather straps, the fender saddle has no flaps but wide panels of leather with the stirrups attached. They are a western-stock saddle hybrid with a western style of tree with a stock saddle seat. The fenders enable the rider to adopt a forward leg position and a more western riding style. Many people who work with unpredictable horses think the fender style gives them a better position. Warren uses tough but heavier American oak for the fender trees.
Schneider made the first fender saddle in 1925 and he was roundly laughed at. Warren gave it a go in 1968, and the response was much the same. However in the late 1980s, fenders started to gain in popularity. Now they account for a big percentage of bush saddle sales.
With saddles, it’s like everything else – you get what you pay for. Warren’s custom built stock saddles can cost anything up to $5500, but they’ll be a stable heirloom. At the other end of the scale, you can buy a mass-produced “Australian” stock saddle import from India for a little more than $300.
In these days of mass manufacture, Australia has become major force in saddlery. The Perth-based Bates/Wintec company is the largest producer of saddles in the world. Their success is down to their ability to mass produce saddles that are purpose-built for particular sports. The Bates cousins – Ron and Ken – have shown themselves excellent lateral thinkers in building up what was formerly a small family concern into a world beater. They’ve confidently adopted new technologies and brought in expert riders and sportspeople to help. These days, it’s the sports-playing customer who is driving saddle design, rather than the farmer or stockman.
Graham Aitken of Aitken Saddlery in Brisbane uses the analogy of athletics: “These days people don’t run in old sandshoes, they want high tech running shoes,” he says. “Just as running shoes help you run better, a well-designed modern saddle can help you ride better. They aim to place the rider in the best position whether it is for showjumping, dressage, endurance or eventing. If you ride bareback you naturally sit just behind the horse’s withers. If you sit further back you get bounced around. The aim of the saddle is to make sure that this is where the rider’s weight goes. It’s mostly common sense but somehow people have just woken up to it.”
Graham is a saddle fitter – a relatively recently developed, but most important profession. Now that we recognise that even the most expensive saddle can damage a horse’s back, the saddle fitter, along with the horse physio and the horse chiropractor, is an important member of the support team for any equestrian – even if they ride recreationally twice a week.
Each discipline has its own requirements: the dressage rider is looking for a deep seat and closeness to the horse; the show jumper and the eventer want a more forward position and a flat seat – so they don’t bump their behinds on the back of the saddle on landing. The endurance rider wants a saddle that can go for 160 kilometres at a time over all terrains, in all weathers and even at night, without rubbing, bumping, squeezing or otherwise damaging their horse.
The best saddles ensure the horse’s back is free to move and isn’t hindered by a too narrow gullet or wrongly-shaped tree. Expert riders will tell you that the difference a well-fitting saddle makes is huge – whether its dressage or endurance the horse steps out and is more “forward moving”.
There is one type of saddle, however, that stands separate: the racing saddle. These tiny saddles can be 15cms long and weigh 600 grams. Weight is all. Made from high-tech materials and tiny plastic half-trees, they have to be super-strong to withstand the forces placed upon them during a flat-out gallop. Given their microscopic size, they require that the rider is strong, fit and athletic.
The right saddle makes a huge difference to the experience of riding. It can help you stay on a belligerent horse. It can make life bearable – or otherwise – if you are in it for most of the day driving stock or pounding along a track as part of an endurance ride. It can help you jump a clear round, hurl yourself and your horse over three-day event tracks, gallop across a polo field, spin on a dime facing-off cattle or win at Flemington.
The saddle industry has transformed itself and although there are still plenty of station hands, the majority with their own stock saddle, as well as professionals such as breakers and trainers, the market has given way to the amateur sportsperson.
One thing that all riders will agree on is that having a close association with horses can be one of life’s most sublime pleasures. The old adage ‘the more you put in the more you get out’ was never truer than when it comes to the saddle.
This story excerpt is from Issue #54
Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007