One of a Eugene’s most important tools as a cowboy was his saddle. Cowboys spent 12-15 hours/day on horseback, so a good saddle was essential. Importantly, however, a well-made saddle was needed for the comfort of the rider and his horse. A poor quality, ill-fitting saddle could make a horse sore in a short time, whereas a high-quality, well-fitting saddle meant a cowboy could ride longer and need to change his horse less frequently during his workday.
Nomadic horsemen in Central Asia were the first to use saddles; the technology of which arrived in Spain in the 8th century. The western stock saddle evolved from an early Spanish War saddle that Conquistador Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico in the 16th century.
Different saddles were designed for different uses, such as having a second cinch to firmly anchor the saddle to the horse or a heavy saddle horn to secure a lasso when roping a steer. The McClellan Saddle was developed to be lightweight, sturdy, and inexpensive—perfect for the US Cavalry and other military service men, while those used by Pony Express riders were even lighter still to facilitate a speedy journey with as little weight on the horse as possible. Although the saddletrees—the skeletons on which a saddles was built—were originally wood, modern saddles sometimes use fiberglass or even stainless steel.
Importantly, saddles were manufactured individually and could be customized to an individual cowboy’s physical and occupational needs. The cantle—the rear raised portion of the saddle—as one example, could be altered in shape, size, height, and degree of angle; all of which could make the saddle more comfortable for the rider and distribute the weight comfortably for his horse. The leather fenders on the side of the saddle could be modified in size and shape to assure that the cowboy’s legs didn’t chafe the horse whilst riding.
Because of the importance of a good saddle, a cowboy might invest a month or two of his wages into buying one. Indeed, many cowboys kept the same saddle throughout their careers and, when he retired, it was said that the cowboy “sold his saddle.”
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West offers a great primer on the modern western saddle. You can explore it here: https://centerofthewest.org/2021/08/20/parts-of-a-western-saddle-and-the-variations/.
Clayton, Lawrence (2001) “The Cowboy.” In Vaqueros, Cowboys, and Buckaroos, University of Texas Press, pp. 67-153.
The Cowboy Chronicle (2015) “History of the Western Saddle.” The Cowboy Chronicle: Publication of the NDCHF. The Dickinson Press, The Drill. Dickinson, North Dakota.
Jones, Kyla (2017) “Then & Now: Western Saddle—Modern Western saddles come from battle-tested, ranch ready predecessors.” The American Cowboy (americancowboy.com), February 14.
Risner, Genevieve (2021) “Parts of a Western Saddle and the Variations.” Buffalo Bill Center of the West (centerofthewest.org), August 20.
Slatta, Richard W. (2010) “Just a Continual Rumble and Roar”: A Texas Cowboy Remembers an 1884 Cattle Drive. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 114(2):172-178.
Wilder, Janeen (2003) “Reins, Riggings, and Reatas”: The Outfit of the Great Basin Buckaroo. Oregon Historical Quarterly 104(3):366-393.