The History of Western Leather
Spurs and Spur Straps, Cuffs, Chaps, Chinks and Saddles
We've gathered this historical information on saddles, spurs, spur straps, cuffs, chaps and chinks from several sources and blended the end results into what you see here. Many of our customers have asked the "where, why and how" the various leather goods were used in the old west which was a rough and ready place. Here we try to present the origins and make it interesting reading at the same time. If you are only interested in reading the about the history of one item please use the links below and you will go directly to that item on the page.
Spur Straps and Spurs
Horsemen have used spurs regularly since medieval times although the first example of spurs found have been dated to around 700 B.C. The spur came into prominence during the medieval times of feudal lords and kings. During these times a king or lord would award a horseman the right to wear spurs which also identified rank among warriors and knights. During medieval times in battle they were used not only to make a war horse lunge forward but also to take down foot soldiers. Why waste your lance when your spur will have the same effect when brought down on someone's face, head or upper body? For over four centuries the mounted soldiers wore spurs as a status symbol and to help control their horses in battle as the horses became lighter and more nimble* By the 16th century spurs found their way to "New Spain" (Mexico) with the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish vaqueros started using them when horseback riding. They were extremely proud of their horsemanship and many employed a type of spur with sharp pointed rowel styles that could severally injure a horse if mis-used. Eventually the use of the spur went northward and with the demand of horses for the US Cavalry many cowboys and ranchers culled the wild horse herds of the west and sold the horses to them after "breaking" the horses. Since many did this on essentially a commercial basis the use of spurs was used to help subdue the horse faster so that it took less time to deliver the horse and more profit was made. Each area of the southwest developed it's own style of spur and several designs for came about made from different metals from plain iron to pure silver. Eventually just about no cowboy in the west would be seen without a set of spurs on, it was not only a status symbol but you were considered "naked" without them. And in the west the cowboy often needed an extra burst of speed from the horse he was riding for many reasons and a pair of spurs judiciously applied would achieve that.** Many a cowboy spent the cold winter nights in the bunkhouse hammering out his own set of spurs and working on a pair of straps. The spur was used not only in the breaking of horses but gained popularity in the wild west shows, rodeos when riding a wild bronco, and various other rodeo events. Spur straps came in several styles and the designs went from plain to the highly ornate, with or without conchos and/or studs. If you bought them from a saddle maker they were available in several different varieties of leathers also. Click here to view our selection of custom spur straps.
*Note: In medieval times a war horse was typically used only in practice and battle. These horses were usually extremely large and some were trained not only to be ridden but to trample what was in front of them. Even if not trained to trample a well placed spur would achieve the same effect. Most of these horses were actually draft type horses or cross bred to achieve a very large, heavily muscled horse that could carry the weight not only of the body armor put on it but also of a man in full armor and his weapons. Speed was not of the essence with these horses, but body mass was.
**A large majority of cowboys did not own their own horses (just their saddles), and when on a cattle drive or working the range would sometimes ride several different horses at any given time and if on a big ranch might rarely ride the same horse very often. One day you might be riding a well broken responsive horse and the next the most ornery horse that could be imagined that would try to buck or scrape you off at any given opportunity. "Senior" cowboys usually got the pick of the herd and as anywhere those who came last were left with the least desirable mounts.
Chaps and Chinks
The concept of chaps was introduced by the Spanish to protect their legs from cactus, brush and thorns. They called it "Chaparehos" which meant leather breeches or "leg of iron". The first chaps were just large pieces of cowhide attached to the saddle and wrapped around the legs. Later the vaqueros modified this design by making a legging that hung from a belt around the waist and went down the leg to just below the knee and rawhide thongs would hold the chaps to the legs. Early pioneer Texans designed a heavy buckskin breech that fully encircled the leg and often had fringing. Chasing the wily longhorn that would run into dense thickets of thorns necessitated heavy protection. As the cowboy population grew throughout the west, western leather makers designed three types of chaps to accommodate the various general types of ranges and conditions they were used in. The three types were Shotgun, Bat Wing and Woolies. Texas cowboys wore chaps that protected there legs from sharp branches and thorny bushes and thistles. In the north cowboys not only used them for protecting their legs while riding through brush and rough terrain but also used them for the added warmth and some protection in wind, rain and snow. Click here to see our selection of custom chaps.
Shotgun Chaps - This is the plainest style of chaps and the simplest design. These seamless leather pants have a shape that reminded one of a double-barreled shotgun, hence the name "Shotgun Chaps. Typically they were held together by a belt that fit straight across the waist and often were decorated along the outside seam with long fringe. The chaps that didn't have a fringe were called "closed-leg" chaps. This style was popular from the 1870's thru the 1890's and because of their skin-tight cut and design were hard to put on or take off while wearing a pair of boots and spurs.
Shown here is a picture of C14H which are a southwestern version of the Shotgun Chap. These are our Arizona/New Mexico Chaps w/Spots, Fringe & Southwest Trim. The Leather Wrist Cuffs shown with the chaps are C50B - Cuffs w/Studs & Rattlesnake Inlay. Click here to view our Leather Wrist Cuffs
Wooly Chaps - this style chap became popular in the late 1800's in the northern plains, especially during cold and wet weather. They were made in a wide variety of furs including bear and buffalo but the most prized was Angora goat fur. These chaps were worn by not only cowboys in the far northern states but Wild West performers who loved how "showy" they were. The chaps were made from hides with the hair left on. Cowboys in the far north in states like Montana and North Dakota wore these as the hair repelled not only the rain and snow but kept the wearer warm and comfortable even in the most torrential downpour or heavy snowstorm. This is also why the same cowboys have saddlebags made in the wooly style for the same reason
Bat Wing Chaps - Appeared in the early 1900's and gained immediate acceptance because they had snap fasteners that allowed them to go on and come off easily. Because of their design they were easy to decorate and could be made extremely ornately. These pants had wide leather wings which flapped freely instead of being tightly tied down. In the western states cowboys would often unsnap their chaps
to allow for ventilation. This chap only buckled to the knee so the wearer could easily bend his legs. This worked well when working on the range especially when squatting down to tie off a cow for branding, as well as working the rodeo arena. The wide wings were perfect for leather tooling, overlay and inlay patterns of dyed leather, sharp-studded designs and conchos. Local saddle shops would offer custom designs with names, initials or anything else that you might want. The design shown to the left is C11B and is found on our Chaps/Chinks page.
Chinks - Most commonly used in the southwest. Chinks are a half-length chap that attaches at the waist and ends just below the knee, usually with a very long fringe at the bottom and along the sides which makes them appear much longer than they are. The cut is a cross between a batwing and shotgun and each leg usually has two fasteners located high up on the thigh. These are cooler to wear than a full length chap which is why they adopted for usage by southwestern cowboys not riding through tough terrain. The chinks shown here are C14C - Old-Time Chaps w/Leather Lacings. The Leather Wrist Cuffs shown with the chaps are C55 - Star Badge Cuffs w/Spots.
These cuffs first appeared in photographs and saddle catalogs in the 1890's and are believed to have derived from the military style leather gauntlet which was also worn by cowboys. The first cuffs tied around the wrist with laces and they had two functions. One was to protect the cuffs of the shirt which was the first part to wear out and a store-bought shirt at the time was fairly expensive. The second function of the cuff was to protect the wrist from kicking hooves when branding cattle, much as the high top boots protected the legs. These eventually became a traditional cowboy accessory and "fashion statement". They first started having carving or stamped designs and later they were decorated with spots and conchos. Rodeo riders loved them as they added flash when they were riding a bucking bronco or bull.
The cuffs shown here are C63 - Star Badge Cuffs w/Spots, click here to visit our Western Leather Cuffs page.
In the west the saddle was not only a tool that was used everyday but a symbol of stature. Many a cowboy didn't own their own horse but if they had their own saddle they could get a job just about anywhere. An average custom rig from a western saddle maker in the 1870's could cost between $30 to $50 which when you only earned a dollar a day was a huge investment. Most cowboys considered their rig their most important possession and by taking excellent care of a well made saddle it could last up to 20 years or more. Over time the saddle was broken in to the riders shape, becoming more comfortable and achieving the "rocking chair fit"....which made it even more valuable considering the hours and days upon end spent sitting on it.
The first horseback riders rode bareback and for hundreds of years they traveled, hunted and fought wars this way. There us a variety of information on when the saddle first came into use. The first "saddles" that weren't a saddle as such, they were actually Bareback Pads showed up around 700-800 BC with the Assyrians and then a couple of other peoples. They gave the rider a slight increase of comfort when riding the horse but that's about it. The Romans are said to have create the earliest true saddle around 200-250 AD, the earliest saddle with a solid saddle tree. They also made a "four-horn saddle design which although it didn't have stirrups it provided excellent support. In Asia more developments came with the saddle being made of felt that covered a wooden frame which is similar to the modern saddle tree that combines different padding over a solid tree and then a leather covering. The creation of the solid tree was significant for both the horse and rider. It distributed the riders weight on either side of the horses spine which made the horse more comfortable and gave the rider more security. Around 350-375 AD, the Sarmations used saddles but they added a breastplate and girth to help the saddle stay on. This tribe were known to be serious horsemen, using their horses not only in battle but also for sacrificing to their gods. The stirrup on the saddle is said to have been by the Sarmations but this is highly debated, some say India was where it originated. The nomadic tribes of northern China are thought to have created the modern stirrup. The saddles and metal stirrups arrived in Europe via the Huns invading from Central Asia. The Europeans quickly adapted to using the saddle and stirrups as it not only facilitated mounting but aided the rider in balance. This in turn greatly enhanced their skill and efficiency with their weapons (swords, axes and lances) which they used in war. This saddle is of course nothing like what we have today in either Western or English versions but it was the beginning of the evolution that brought what we have today into being.
In the Middle ages the saddle was improved upon due to the fact that the knights needed a saddle that could help hold them in the saddle and support the weight of their heavy armor and weapons. This resulted in a saddle that was built on a wooden tree with both a higher pommel and cantle. This enabled the knight to wear a full suit of armor on his war horse, carry heavy weaponry and it was much harder to knock him off during battle due to the higher pommel and cantle. This saddle was originally padded with wool or horsehair and covered in leather or fabric. If a knight was of rank and had wealth often embellishments would be added to a special saddle which included elaborate leatherwork, precious metals, jewels, fabrics and embroidery.
The American stock saddle evolved from the from the early Spanish war saddle used by the conquistadores. The Mexican vaquero's adapted the original saddle which had a heavy rigid tree, high fork and cantle, deep-dished seat and short stirrups. They made a few minor modifications and added a leather skirt. In the late 1700's the Mexican "California" saddle came about and it had a fixed skirt which was round and without jockeys along with a more substantial rigging which consisted of a cinch ring that hung down in line with the front fork and a horizontal strap that ran from the cinch to the back of the tree to secure the saddle. The strong high-peaked pommels of this saddle were ideal for taking a turn around a rope for holding an animal. The Texans then altered the design even more. They liked the basic overall design keeping the wooden tree, horn, cantle and stamped leather but they modified the wooden horn so it was short, thick and covered in leather. The skirt was changed to a plain square skirt and the stirrups were made out of wide steam bent pieces of wood which were much stronger than the carved ones previously used. A second cinch was also added to firmly anchor the saddle as dealing with longhorn cattle were much different than dealing with domesticated ones. In the 1870's they changed the horn again to a short metal one as the wooden ones often broke when dealing with a wild cow.
During this time saddle makers were spread throughout the west and were quite busy making and repairing saddles. Many new designs and innovations came about with the input that they received from their clientele, the ranchers and cowboys. With people moving into the west from the east there were many different styles of saddles seen. Georgia and the Carolinas had "Plantation-style", the "Morgan" came from the east. The "Hope" saddle was used by mountain men, pioneers and early cowboys. The "Cheyenne" saddle was distinguished by it's fancy rolled cantle. The saddle makers were ever inventive and blended many designs from different saddles to make new ones, such as designing a saddle tree which fit a horse's back and didn't chafe. Different saddles were more popular in some areas than others and below are some descriptions of some of them.
Montana Saddle - This saddle has large square skirts with wide fenders and exposed stirrup leathers. The saddle has a front and rear jockey along with a side jockey that is tacked onto the three-quarter inch seat and held in place with the front and center saddle strings. The rear cinch ring is usually riveted to the rear jockey and the front cinch ring is connected with Sam Stagg Rigging. This saddle was originally designed by the Moran Brothers.
Sam Stagg Rigging - With this type of construction the front rigging leather is looped around the horn and extended down each side of the slick fork to the cinch ring and is made from one piece of leather. The saddle maker who came up with this design was Joseph Alexander Samstag who came to California from the east during the Gold Rush.
Pueblo Saddle - The skirts of this saddle were larger than most, measuring up to 32 inches and the fenders made the rig seem even wider. It was developed by Gallup and Frazier in Pueblo, Colorado. This rig is quite beautiful and highly ornate and the wide skirt allows more decoration than normal. The saddle retained the double rigging and had a metal horn that was exposed. The metal horn was usually made of highly polished brass or nickel and was not practical for a serious cowboy that needed to rope much but was highly popular with those that didn't have to. The saddle makers would adapt the horn for the roper.
Texas Saddle - These saddles have low wooden horns, slick forks, square skirts and double rigging. They were designed to chase wild cattle through heavy underbrush. Saddle maker Gallatin built a heavy rugged saddle that was very close to the original saddles. S. D. Myers also made many of these types of saddles in his early years and he was known for his attention to details. He made many highly decorated and jewel bedecked saddles for people such as Pancho Villa and the President of Mexico.
California Saddle - This became the "classic cowboy saddle" by the late 1880's. More elaborate in design because of the Spanish/Mexican influence they weren't designed to chase wild cattle like the "Texas" saddle. It was more important to the Spanish ranchers that their tack be elaborately tooled and engraved with silver which showcased their pride in their horsemanship. One version of this saddle is known as the "Visalia".
Oregon Saddle - This saddle is of a similar design to the "California" but without all the ornamentation and it has a swell fork and was make for working cattle. Victor Mardin is said to have designed the swell fork around 1904. Before the swell fork the rider would have to wrap something around the pommel for a little more security on a rough mountain trail. To deliver cattle to the big towns in Oregon they had to take the cattle to the west through the Cascade Mountains and all the river valleys.
Questions and Answers:
What's the major distinguishing feature of an English saddle compared to a Western saddle? The major distinguishing feature of the English saddle is it's lack of a horn and it's "panels" which are a pair of pads attached to the underside of the seat and filled with wool, foam or air.
Do both Western and English saddles have different styles? There are several different styles of Western and English saddles. Specifically designed Western saddles are used by ropers, stunt and trick riders, etc. There are specific English saddles used for show jumping, hunt seat, dressage, saddle seat, horse racing and polo.
How did the two saddles come from the same concept when they are so different in design? The English saddle was developed from what was more like a western style saddle by a French riding master named Francois Robinchon de la Guérinière who made many contributions to the form known as "Classical Dressage". His greatest emphasis was the proper development of a "three point" seat that is still used today. When fox hunting became popular in England in the 18th century among the nobles the Guérinière saddle design became the favored saddle due to the low pommel and cantle that made jumping more comfortable and gave greater freedom to both horse and rider. Due to it's comfort it became popular throughout the Europe. The saddle further evolved in the US in the 1850's by George B. McClellan for the US Cavalry and the US Army and was used with some improvements until the 1940's. This saddle is still used today by ceremonial mounted units in the US Army. The basic design was also used by other military entities including Britain and Mexico. The Western saddle is based upon the original design that evolved in Europe before they developed the English Saddle. The Spanish conquistadors introduced it to Mexico and the basic design migrated northward.
What are the differences between a Western and an English saddle? Some differences between Western and English are a Western saddle has to have a saddle blanket for padding between the horse and saddle, an English does not. A Western saddle has much more substantial stirrups and uses a "cinch" instead of a "girth" and the western saddle is made of a much heavier leather.
Is the United States the only place that has cowboys and uses the Western style saddle? There are other countries such as Argentina and Australia that have cowboys and "stock saddles" which are much like the western saddles found here with a deep set, high cantle and made of heavy leather HOWEVER they don't have a horn.
Are there any other types of saddles? There are several different styles of saddles and we've listed some of them below.
Bareback Pad - A simple pad usually shaped like a saddle pad and made of leather or nylon. Padded with fleece, wool or synthetic foam it has a girth. Used to provide padding to both horse and rider instead or riding bareback. Depending on the materials it's made of it can give the rider's seat and legs more grip.
Endurance Riding Saddle - This saddle is designed for both horse and rider. It has broad panels but is of a lightweight design that is comfortable for both horse and rider for endurance riding over different terrains.
McClellan/Calvary Saddle - Used by the US Calvary before and during the Civil War. It has an English-type tree with a higher pommel and cantle. The area the rider sits on is divided into two sections with a gap between the panels.
Military/Police Saddle - Designed much like an English saddle but with a tree not only to provide security for the rider but for greater weight distribution of the rider for the comfort of the horse. This saddle makes it easier on the horse when carrying a man for hours on end.
Pack Saddle - Very similar to a cavalry saddle with simple construction. It's sole use is to support any bags, boxes or other cargo being put on the horses back.
Sidesaddle - a woman's saddle that was designed for a woman wearing a skirt and sitting basically sideways in the saddle with both legs on the same side of the saddle. This saddle is still used today in exhibitions, horse shows and parades. Requires skill, balance and an excellent seat to use this saddle.
Treeless Saddle - This comes in both English and Western designs. It does not have a solid saddle tree which means that it can't support a large person like a solid tree. It's designed to fit comfortably on various types and sizes of horses.
Saddle Cleaning: Sit saddle on a saddle rack, fence rail or sawhorse after removing from horse. Wipe the saddle down with a slightly damp soft cloth or sponge. This will remove the sweat and dirt (which can cause cracking in the leather) and you do this after every use of the saddle. After about a half a dozen rides you should clean your saddle with saddle soap and once clean apply a conditioner such as Neatsfoot oil to restore the natural oils back into the leather. There are many oils that can be used and some will darken the leather. Be careful not to over-oil or it may rot the stitching especially in areas with high humidity. The straps such as the stirrup leathers, cinch strap and strings also need conditioned but it depends on the area that you are living. Dry climate means you have to oil them or they may crack and thus snap or break. Humid climate means too much oil can weaken the leather. All of the leather on your saddle should be supple. A well made custom saddle can last for years if properly taken care of and it may even increase in value. An old quality saddle on EBay can go for amazing amounts. Cleaning also ensures your safety while riding as you are checking everything thoroughly while cleaning and knowing that your equipment is in as good a shape as your horse when going over treacherous trails or just riding miles from home is reassuring.