There are those who believe the only true saddle is an English saddle, which, after all, is the type of saddle used for equestrian events in the Olympics and for playing polo, the sport of kings. The scruffy upstart is the stock saddle, the most famous variation of which is the Western saddle, which has a horn in the front and a steeply pitched cantle in the back. Though heavier than an English saddle, the Western saddle distributes its weight across the back of a horse more evenly, allowing both rider and animal to work in relative comfort for prolonged periods of time.

The development of the modern saddle in the United States is generally pegged to George B. McClellan, whose hornless saddle was used by Union Cavalry in the Civil War, and remained largely unchanged as the saddle of the U.S. Army from 1859 through World War II. McClellan claimed he got the idea for his saddle from observations he made during the Crimean War, but many saddle experts have pointed out that the McClellan saddle more closely resembles Spanish saddles used in Mexico at the time, so its true inspiration is in dispute.

After the Civil War, many ranchers tried to make use of the inexpensive McClellans, but the saddles were not suited for herding and branding cattle so Western saddles evolved. The most prominent feature of the Western saddle is its horn, which greenhorns assume was used as a handle for the rider but was really a tool for roping cattle. The leather on Western saddles was often tooled, buck stitched, and decorated with metal conchos and leather rosettes, while presentation or parade saddles might be covered with engraved or stamped silver. Also highly decorated were sidesaddles, while bareback saddles were more plain (as well as being something of a cowboy oxymoron).

Prominent saddle makers in the United States include Newton Porter, who opened his saddlery in Taylor, Texas, in 1875 before moving his shop to Phoenix in 1895 (it closed in the 1960s). Better know, perhaps, to fans of Westerns and other Wild West-themed movies are the saddles of Hollywood saddle maker Edward Bohlin, who is thought to have made some 12,000 saddles between 1920 and 1980, including stylish saddles for Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), and Roy Rogers.

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