Saddles of the World
When traveling aboard, leave behind your expectations, and your saddle. Learn how four horse cultures outside the United States put their own spin on stock saddles.
International equestrian travel allows you to broaden your horizons, explore new terrain on horseback, and improve your horsemanship skills. It's an experience that will push your in-the-saddle comfort level. But, just as a foreign visitor to the American West might give a Western saddle a try, the savvy American horseman should be prepared to ride like the locals when traveling abroad. To learn more about stock-saddle varieties used around the world, we spoke with international outfitters from some of the most popular destinations for North American equestrian travelers. Here’s what they shared:
Estancia Ranquilco (ranquilco.com)
"The gaucho saddle is a multi-layered design," explains Carrithers, outfitter for Estancia Ranquilco in western Argentina. "It includes the pelera (saddle blanket), the mandil (saddle pad), one of two shaped leather-seat designs, and a pellón (sheepskin blanket)."
The saddle, or recado as gauchos call it, evolved on the treeless Pampas, where wood was scarce. To build their saddles, gauchos used the materials at hand: leather (from both cattle and horses), wool and bunch grass (used for stuffing). On the Pampas, beds were just as scarce as wood. Gauchos roamed endlessly across the frontier, and their saddles could be disassembled and laid out across the ground when night fell.
"When riding these saddles, your first impression is how comfortable they are because of the sheepskin blanket," Carrithers says. "But it puts you in a different riding position than Americans are used to. You sit higher up off the horse's back, and your legs are spread wider, so you don't have the close leg contact to which Western riders are accustomed."
Ishestar Riding Tours (ishestar.is)
Iceland is one of the world's underappreciated horse cultures. On this North Atlantic island, one in five citizens belongs to a riding club, and Icelanders celebrate a heritage of cross-country trail riding that dates back a thousand years.
"A farmer would leave home with a couple extra horses, pick up his neighbors along the way, and end up driving a big horse herd across the country, just for the fun of it," explains Bollason.
An Icelandic horseback trek might average 20 miles a day, and last from one to two weeks. That much riding would be arduous if it weren't for the smooth gait of the Icelandic horse, and the comfort of the Icelandic saddle.
"Icelandic horses have a gait called the 'tolt.' They are a fast, but soft, ride," Bollason says. "Our saddles look like English saddles, but they are built deeper and wider to allow our gaited horses to move. The saddle has extra padding in the seat, and we ride with long stirrups, kind of like on a Western saddle."
Lucía Gutierrez de Schravesande
Cabalgatas la Sierra (mexicohorsevacation.com)
"The Mexican charro saddle evolved from the Spanish saddle brought to America by the conquistador Herman Cortes," says Gutierrez de Schravesande.
But the Spanish saddle did not have a horn. That feature is a Mexican invention. The Aztec Indians had taught settlers to braid and throw rope from the ground. They then adapted the skill for horseback work by building the iconic charro saddle horn recognized today.
"Compared to a Western saddle, the charro saddle has a wider seat and a bigger horn, and it's constructed with leather strings holding it together," Gutierrez explains. "Travelers on our trips find the Charro saddle well suited for riding in the Mexican mountains. The region has the same terrain and climate as Spain, where the saddle originally came from."
Boojum Expeditions (boojum.com)
"When Mongolians get on a horse, it's to travel somewhere – fast," says Linda Svendsen, of Boojum Expeditions, which specializes in adventure travel.
Consequently, the Mongolian saddle is built for speed, not comfort. The design features a high pommel and cantle to keep a rider seated over long distances. What little padding there is comes from blankets stuffed with camel hair. The saddle is strapped on using two cinches, but opposite to a western saddle, the rear cinch is the one that's kept tight. The front cinch is a stabilizer, keeping the saddle in place where it sits directly over the withers. The stirrups are kept "jockey short", which Svendsen says explains the unique Mongolian riding style.
"Mongolians stand up in the saddle when riding a long trot,” she says. “They also shift their weight into one stirrup to rest as they ride."
In addition to Mongolian saddles, Boojum uses a fleet of Russian cavalry saddles for Boojum’s Mongolian trips. It's a comfortable saddle that Svendsen says better suits the "western rear end.”
Ryan T. Bell is a Montana writer and outfitter.