Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Richard F. Burton on California saddle

today I will point my 'virtual horse' towards XIX century and writings of one of the pre-eminent travellers of the United Kingdom of the Victorian era.
Well, I dare say that any person with some interest in the past should have heard of Richard Francis Burton, extraordinary traveller and adventurer, linguist and writer ( translator of ''1000 and 1 night,'' & ''Kama sutra'' etc) of the  Victorian United Kingdom.I should add that I am a great fan of Sir Richard's writings.
In 1860 Burton came to the US and stayed here for a while travelling, eg he visited the South, went to visit the Mormons in Utah etc. He published a book about this visit and edited another, that edied work, in due time, should become the subject of my blog.
In his own book, published after the visit to the US, titled ''The city of the Saints : and across the Rocky mountains to California (1862)'' Sir Richard describes the California saddle as he saw it, with all his biases of an English-bred and educated gentleman, in his travels across the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and California:
   ''The Californian [saddle] is rather oval than circular; borrowed and improved from the Mexican, it has spread from the Pacific to the Atlantic slope of the Rocky Mountains, and the hardy and experienced mountaineer prefers it to all others: it much resembles the Hungarian [you can compare Burton's impression of the Hungarian saddle with contemporary depiction by Dwyer from my earlier blog post ], and in some points recalls to mind the old French cavalry 'demipique.'
It is composed of a single tree of light strong wood, admitting a freer circulation of air to the horse’s spine — an immense advantage  — and, being without iron, it can readily be taken to pieces, cleaned or mended, and refitted. The tree is strengthened by a covering of raw-hide carefully sewed on; it rests upon a “ sweat-leather,” a padded sheet covering the back, and it is finished off behind with an “ anchero”* of the same material protecting the loins.[see my depiction of the vaquero saddle and its elements in my earlier blog]
The pommel [fuste delantero] is high, like the crutch of a woman’s saddle, rendering impossible, under pain of barking the knuckles, that rule of good riding which directs the cavalier to keep his hands low. It prevents the inexperienced horseman being thrown forward, and enables him to “hold on” when likely to be dismounted; in the case of a good rider, its only use is to attach the lariat, riata*, or lasso.
The great merit of this “ unicorn” saddle is its girthing: with the English system, the strain of a wild bull or of a mustang “bucker” would soon dislodge the riding gear. The “sincho”*[cinch] is an elastic horsehair cingle*, five to six inches wide, connected with “lariat straps,” strong thongs passing round the pommel and cantle; it is girthed well back from the horse’s shoulder, and can be drawn till the animal suffers pain: instead of buckle, the long terminating strap is hitched two or three times through an iron ring.
The whole saddle is covered with a machila* [mochilla], here usually pronounced macheer, two pieces of thick leather handsomely and fancifully worked or stamped, joined by a running thong in the centre, and open to admit the pommel and cantle [fuste trasero]. If too long, it draws in the stirrup-leathers, and cramps the ankles of any but a bowlegged* man. The machila is sometimes garnished with pockets, always with straps behind to secure a valise, and a cloak can be fastened over the pommel, giving purchase and protection to the knees.
    The rider sits erect, with the legs in a continuation of the body line, and the security of the balance-seat enables him to use his arms freely: the pose is that of the French schools in the last century, heels up and toes down.[ well, see these posts of mine showing French riding school images from XVIII century]
   The advantages of this equipment are obvious; it is easier to horse and man probably than any yet invented.
On the other hand, the quantity of leather renders it expensive: without silver or other ornaments, the price would vary from $25 at San Francisco to $50 at Great Salt Lake City, and the high got-up rise to $250:£5O for a saddle!
If the saddle-cloth slips out, and this is an ‘accident which frequently occurs, the animal’s back will be galled. The stirrup-leathers can not be shortened or lengthened without dismounting, and without leggins* the board-like leather macheer soon makes the mollets* innocent of skin.
   The pommel is absolutely dangerous: during my short stay in the country I heard of two accidents [sic!], one fatal, caused by the rider being thrown forward on his fork. Finally, the long seat, which is obligatory, answers admirably with the Californian pacer or canterer*, but with the high-trotting military horse it would inevitably lead—as has been proved before the European stirrup-leather was shortened-—to hernias and other accidents.
    To the stirrups I have but one serious objection—they can not be made to open in case of the horse falling; when inside the stiff leather macheer, they cramp the legs by bowing them inward, but habit soon cures this. Instead of the light iron contrivances which before recovered play against the horse’s side, which freeze the feet in cold, and which toast them in hot weather, this stirrup is sensibly made of wood. 
In the Eastern States it is a lath bent somewhat in the shape of the dragoon form, and has too little weight; the Californian article is cut out of a solid block of wood, mountain mahogany being the best, then maple, and lastly the softer pine and cotton-wood. In some parts of the country it is made so narrow that only the toe fits in, and then the instep is liable to be bruised. For riding through bush and thorns, it is provided in front with 'zapateros'* or leathern curtains, secured to the straps above, and to the wood on both sides: they are curiously made, and the size, like that of the Turk’s lantern, denotes the owner’s fashionableness; dandies may be seen with the pointed angles of their stirrup-guards dangling almost to the ground.
The article was borrowed from Mexico-—the land of character dresses. When riding through prickly chapparal, the leathers begin higher up, and protect the leg from the knee downward. I would not recommend this stirrup for Hyde Park, or even Brighton; but in India and other barbarous parts of the British empire, where, on a cold morning’s march, men and officers may be seen with wisps of straw defending their feet from the iron, and on African journeys, where the bush is more than a match for any texture yet woven, it might, methinks, be advantageously used.
The same may be said of the spurs [old book - The History of the Spur] which, though cruel in appearance, are really more merciful than ours. The rowels have spikes about two inches long; in fact, are the shape and size of a small starfish; but they are never sharpened, and the tinkle near the animal’s sides serves to urge it on without a real application. The two little bell-like pendants of metal on each side of the rowel-hinge serve to increase the rattling, and when a poor rider is mounted upon a tricky horse, they lock the rowels, which are driven into the sincho, and thus afford another point d’appuii. If the rider’s legs be long enough, the spurs can be clinched under the p0ny’s belly. Like the Mexican, they can be made expensive: $25 a pair would be a common price.
well, I hope you find this depiction of this particular piece from the large arsenal of the American Western Horse Heritage written by a British writer, for all intensive purposes a foreigner.  This is my intro in the subject of California horsetack and horse, more will come in the future.
* original spelling


Elegant Details said...

Sir, please contact me. We have alot in common. I am a serious author of two saddle books and dozens of articles and, I am working on a third.


Ken R Knopp

Unknown said...

This particular weblog is seriously interesting, keep blogging good info.

riding gear california

Dario T. W. said...

Many thanks :)

Daniel said...

So the "Western" saddle is just the Mexican saddle, but improved. My question is, how was it improved? I've seen 19th century Mexican saddles and other than having gold and silver ornaments there is really not much difference.

Daniel said...

So the "Western" saddle is just the Mexican saddle, but improved. My question is, how was it improved? I've seen 19th century Mexican saddles and other than having gold and silver ornaments there is really not much difference.