A Saddle’s Tale

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1968 was a historically busy year for our nation and the world. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. US soldiers massacred men, women and children in My lai, while the war in Viet Nam raged on, and student protests against the war in and around the country began to gain momentum. An earthquake in Sicily killed 231 and injured another 262. The London Bridge was sold and later re-erected in Arizona. The Zodiac serial killer began his reign of terror in California. Jackie Kennedy remarried and The Beatles released their “White Album.” These were all just a few of the headlines that year.

As for me, I was eleven years old that summer and spending most of my days at a little horse ranch not far from where I lived. I had actually been hanging out at the little ranch since 1966, cleaning pens, helping feed and fill water tanks and watching the old man who owned the place as he worked with the twenty or so head of horses that dotted the pastures and corrals. I seldom, if ever got to ride in 1966, and rode only occasionally in 1967. But then in that summer of 1968, things began to change.

That summer, for some reason, the old man began to put me up on some of the horses. He showed me how to hold the reins and use my legs and sit in balance. I rode in the little arena he had out behind the barn, and in the pastures on either side of the driveway, and occasionally out on the trails. Sometimes we rode together, but mostly he just let me ride on my own.

The saddle I rode in that summer was much too big for me. It had a fifteen and a half inch seat, weighed some forty or fifty pounds and had stirrup leathers that were just a little too long for my legs. But the truth be told, I didn’t really know the difference. All I really knew was that I was being allowed to ride and I was having fun doing it!

About half way through the summer, however, I started experiencing some pain in my hips when I rode due to the excessive width of the saddle seat, and to try to get some relief, I began to lift myself out of the saddle by squeezing my knees against whatever horse I was riding. This, in turn was causing me to develop sores on the inside of my knees that never seemed to go away. The old man noticed my discomfort (along with the fact that around mid summer I started making excuses why I didn’t want to ride) and one day suggested that I switch saddles.

As far as I could tell, the old man had a total of three saddles. There was the one he rode in, the one I had been riding in, and the third was one that sat on a wooden stand in the corner of the tack room covered with saddle blankets. It was this third saddle that he brought out after suggesting the change.

This saddle was different from the other two in a number of ways. First, the cantle, or back of the saddle’s seat, was considerably higher than the others. Also, the pommel, or front of the saddle, had large swells – which some folks might refer to as “bucking rolls” – and the skirts on the saddle were large and square. The stirrup leathers were laced in place with leather strips as opposed to having buckles or Blevins, which made adjusting the length of the stirrups both difficult and time consuming. It was an old saddle, certainly older than the others, and while the old man never talked about the saddle’s history, it seemed to be one that he took special care of, and one that he, himself, never rode.

I would learn later that this particular saddle design was often referred to as a “bear trap.” They were called this because of the size of the pommel swells. On bear trap saddles, the swells are often so large that they “trap” the rider’s legs in the saddle regardless of how hard a horse bucks, making it difficult to get thrown from the horse’s back even in the worst of situations. The swells on this particular saddle weren’t quite as large as can be seen on some of the more aggressive bear traps, but they were definitely large enough to keep you in the saddle if need be.

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Sitting in the saddle for the first time was like putting on a set of custom made gloves. The saddle and I fit together as if we were made for each other, and from that point forward, if I was riding, it was in that saddle. It was heavy for me, weighing at least as much as the other saddle I rode in at around 45 pounds, and I struggled swinging it up on any horse over fifteen hands. But it didn’t matter. The more I rode in it the more comfortable I got and the better it seemed to help me ride. The weight of it seemed a small price to pay.

I continued to ride in the saddle the rest of that summer, into fall, and then into the next spring and summer. However, during that next summer, two things happened that would end up changing things forever. The first was that I had begun a growth spurt that over a four-month period beginning just before school let out would push me from my eleven-year-old height of about 5’6” to my adult height of around 6’. The second was that my parents had purchased a new home in a town some fifteen miles away. That meant we were going to be moving.

Still, I spent as much time as I could at the old man’s little ranch that next summer, working with, riding, and even training horses. However, as my body grew throughout the summer, the saddle that had been so comfortable for me just the year before began to feel a bit cramped. The old man helped me adjust the stirrups by unlacing the leathers, moving them and lacing them back up – not once, but three times – which helped.

Eventually, however, the time came when I needed to give up going to the ranch so that I could help the family pack for the move. As I unsaddled the horse I had been riding that final day, the old man showed up and asked me if I still liked the saddle. I told him I did and then he did something completely unexpected. He told me he wanted me to have it. When I told him that there weren’t many horses near where we were moving and that it was going to be hard for me to get back to his place on a regular basis, he simply said “You should keep it. You might need it one day.” He had told me the exact same thing about a week earlier when he gave me a headstall and reins that I had gotten in the habit of using when I rode.

I did end up accepting both gifts, but left them with him, as I really had no place to keep either one, what with us moving and all. Over the next couple years I was able to make it back to his place periodically to spend time with him and of course, ride and work with his horses. Admittedly, however, as I got older and high school, sports, a girl friend and a budding music career all began competing for my time, my trips to the little horse ranch became less and less frequent.

Then one summer day five years later, I stopped by his place just long enough to say hello and see how he was doing. We had a nice visit; he showed me some of the horses he was working with, a little addition he had made to the barn, and a new pen he had built. But before long, it had come time for me to leave. As I was making my way back to my car, he made a detour to the tack room. Soon after, he emerged with the old saddle I had been riding in all those years, along with the headstall and reins he had also given to me.

“Open the trunk.” He said without emotion. I retrieved the keys from my pocket and opened the trunk about the same time he got to the back of the car. He placed the saddle inside, and then hooked the headstall over the saddle horn before stepping back. “There,” he said. “You may need those one day.”

To be honest, I had half forgotten he had given them to me and just assumed he had too. But apparently, he hadn’t. “Trucks are more useful,” he lit a cigarette, snapped his lighter closed, turned and walked away. “Stop by again when you get a chance. You’re always welcome.”

It was one of the last times I would see him.

The next day I took the saddle from the trunk of the car, placed it on a wooden sawhorse in the corner of the garage and covered it with a small tarp. It sat there undisturbed until years later when I took a job on a ranch working horses and tending cattle. I had long since outgrown the saddle’s 14 inch seat and had no real use for it, but thought it might come in handy for someone on the ranch. It never really did, but from then on the saddle followed me to every ranch job I worked. It did get some use at a couple of the dude operations I managed, and was used pretty regularly by one of the wranglers who worked for me who, unbeknownst to me at the time, had replaced the laces on the stirrup leathers with a set of Blevins to make adjusting the stirrups easier.

After more years of limited use, I eventually brought the saddle home again, oiled it as well as I could and placed it on a saddle stand in a small metal shed behind our barn, covering it as the old man once had with well-used saddle blankets. It was the only thing in the little shed. While the headstall that he had given me has continuously traveled with me as we do our clinics, the saddle had sat there in that shed virtually untouched for nearly twenty-five years.

Then, a few months ago I was looking at a number of old keys on a key ring that I keep in the truck, trying to remember what they all might be for. It was then that I happened upon the key to the padlock on the door of that little metal shed behind the barn. Sadly, I had once again all but forgotten about the old saddle and as soon as I saw that key I immediately became concerned about the kind of shape it might be in after sitting in that shed for such a long time.

My heart sank when I first opened the door. The saddle was still covered with the old saddle blankets, but they had been shredded by mice and covered with a mixture of their feces, urine and in dust. The saddle’s rope cinch was all but non-existent, also having been used for many a mouse meal. But then, much to my surprise, as I removed the old blankets it became apparent that the blankets and cinch were the only real casualties of those many years of neglect. The saddle, although dried out, dirty, dusty and stained in places, was completely intact and unharmed.

The old saddle has since been cleaned and oiled and now sits with the other saddles in our tack room in the barn. Unfortunately, like so many other saddles of its time, there aren’t a whole lot of horses that it will actually fit anymore. It is simply too narrow and the bars are at the wrong angle to fit most modern day body shapes. But that doesn’t mean it will be locked away in a shed again any time soon.

Today, our plan for the old saddle is to replace the worn out sheepskin, remove the Blevins and replace the laces on the stirrup leathers, refurbish the leather and then place it in a prominent place in our home. While it may never again be used for the job for which it was built, it will forever be a reminder to me of where I’ve come from and who it was that started me on the path that I still travel today. In a larger sense, it has also become a reminder to me that no matter how busy our lives become, we should always find time and a place for those things that are important to us.

And in that sense, I believe the old man was right when he told me, “You should keep it. You might need it one day.”

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