Back in the saddle

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant

Figuratively, if not literally.

Actually, we do have a saddle here at the McGovern Historical Research Center.  It came with the Methodist Hospital collection, although nobody at Methodist could tell Elizabeth White, at the time it was donated, what was significant about it.  They simply insisted it went with the collection and that we would have to take it.

We still don’t know what is significant about it.  It’s a mystery, Charlie Brown.  Visitors always ask about it and we always have to tell them we just don’t know.  Nevertheless, let’s take a look.

This is our little Western saddle.  To say it has some miles on it would be an understatement:

It needed TLC a long time ago.

Western saddles[1] are descended mostly from Mexican cowboy saddles. They are made of leather flaps attached to a wooden frame.  This one is missing several pieces, including its stirrups.

I think it must have belonged to a child.  First, it has a 14-inch seat[2], which is short for a Western saddle[3] and suggests it was meant for a small person.  Second, notice that there is a leather strap attached to the front.  This isn’t a standard accessory on a Western saddle and I think it was for a child to hold on.  I can’t find any other Western saddles with this on it, but I did find some detachable ones for English saddles[4], which don’t have a horn on the front that a child might hold onto in the absence of a strap.

The long “strings” of leather are decorative, but also serve to hold the layers of leather in place.

I should digress.  Before you finish this post, take a minute to look over this diagram[5] of a Western saddle.  It will make things easier.  The horn[6], unsurprisingly, is the thing sticking out of the front of the saddle (most saddles are unicorns).  Horns are actually for wrapping a rope around when roping calves, not for the rider to hold onto; my riding teacher made me ride bareback if she thought I was getting too much in the habit of holding onto the saddle horn.

Fork, horn, hand-hold strap

The fork[6] is the arched piece in the front of the saddle.

This saddle is in pretty rough shape, both because it seems to have been used a lot and because it’s old and hasn’t been maintained in a long time.  Interestingly, it still smells like a saddle: Like leather and a bit like sweat.  I’m not kidding.

It has a smooth leather seat and the tooling [stamped or carved into the leather] pattern is almost worn off.  Somebody rode in this a lot.  Maybe generations of somebodies.

Smooth leather seat with worn tooling pattern

Part of the rigging–the straps and rings that hold the saddle onto the horse’s back–is missing, which means we can see the saddle tree:

Rawhide over wood

This one is rawhide over wood[7].  The wooden tree is covered in wet rawhide, which shrinks as it dries and holds the tree together tightly, but not too rigidly.  This also works for chair seats: The rawhide seat tightens and holds the wooden chair together.

Saddles are often stamped with a maker’s mark but I couldn’t find one on this; either it doesn’t have one or it’s become illegible with age.  Some other antique saddles can be seen here[9]; the Frazier saddle at the bottom of the page is a little like ours, although I have no way of knowing how old ours actually is.

[1] Wikipedia

[2] Horse Saddle Shop

[3] Wikipedia





[8] Horse Saddle Shop

[9] Fort Tumbleweed sales page.

Posted in Artifacts, Institutional Collection
3 comments on “Back in the saddle
  1. Marie Brannon says:

    Wonder if it could be the saddle for the riderless horse that walked behind the hearse in the funeral procession of George Hermann in 1914? Was Mr. Hermann a small-ish man who would’ve had a custom-fitted saddle made for him? We know the horse was named Leo and described as “Mr. Hermann’s faithful horse”.

    Maybe in 1914 the only place they could think of to send the saddle (for posterity) was to the people who were planning Methodist, which opened in 1919 and was the only hospital in town?

  2. mcgovernhrc says:

    Why wouldn’t it have been in the Hermann Estate collection, then? I don’t think Mr. Hermann had any connection to Methodist, and he certainly existed as a legal and financial entity and had an estate that could have managed heirlooms, so there would have been no obvious reason to donate the saddle to an unrelated organization, especially a hospital that would have had no use for it.

    I also sort of hope that any saddle with that sort of provenance would have been better documented and maintained, but of course that doesn’t always happen.

    I don’t know how tall Mr. Hermann was but, from the pictures I’ve seen, he does not appear to have been short, and I cannot think why he would have needed a hand-hold strap in the front of a saddle. I think it’s more likely that this belonged to a child, possibly of a Methodist Hospital doctor or administrator, and that the story has simply been completely lost, or that somebody at least was under the impression that the saddle was somehow associated with the hospital (whether or not they were right about that).

  3. Wenny says:

    I’ve worked to restore a few old saddles, and if I had to guess, I’d date this saddle to somewhere between 1930 and 1950. The rigging and six-concho style, together with the pattern of the tooling, points to that era. The rounded back skirts are indicative of a California style saddle, as compared to the Texas style, which had square skirts. It might not be too far gone to have it restored, and I’m sure there are plenty of saddle restorers in Texas that would be happy to give a consultation on this saddle.

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