The Peruvian Saddle:

A time-honored tradition

by Cheryl Aldrich


After hundreds of years of continued development, it is difficult to improve upon the functionality of a Peruvian saddle. It is similar to the saddles ridden by the knights around 1450 to 1500 and to the Estradiota saddle used in the first half of the 1600's which was designed to be as comfortable as the horse upon which it sat. The trees of these early saddles as well as the tree of the Peruvian saddle were made to hold the rider in the horse's center of balance with legs in a relaxed position and only a slight bend at the knee, the seat of a classical balanced rider of yesterday and today.

The popularity of the naturally gaited Peruvian breed is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Outside of Peru there is very little written about Peruvian saddles. Many of the saddling concepts applied to trotting breeds cannot be applied to Peruvian horses.

Selection of a well made saddle that is correctly suited to the rider and the particular event in which it is to be used, requires a clear understanding of saddles and their uses. The saddle's primary use must be the first criteria in selection since using a saddle designed for a specific activity will achieve the best results from the horse and rider. Peruvian saddles are constructed to aid in the high degree of collection required to properly execute the unique four beat lateral gait, the gait that has carried riders comfortably across vast Peruvian haciendas. This makes the Peruvian saddle the ultimate trail riding saddle.

Neither the Peruvian horse nor Peruvian saddle are versatile. Although they can be used for high speed riding, timed events, jumping and cutting cows, they will not perform as well as a horse and saddle made for those tasks. If one of these events is the primary pursuit of a Peruvian horse owner, then a saddle must be selected which is suited to that event. Using the wrong saddle is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

Few, if any, Peruvian saddles are sold at local tack stores. Peruvian tack distributors frequently advertise in breed publications. Trainers and longtime owners are also good sources for referrals to distributors that sell quality merchandise. The prices for Peruvian tack can vary widely and the warning, Buyer beware is very applicable. The best assurance of quality comes from product knowledge and the experience of the tack distributor. In the tack industry as a whole, few saddle makers or distributors are themselves riders. Many must rely on information told to them, rather than personal experience. This reliance on second hand information can lead to applying mistaken concepts to saddle construction. A prospective tack buyer should question the seller closely. Does the seller understand the basic principles of horsemanship? Does he know the function of each of the pieces of equipment? Can he put the pieces of tack on the horse? Does he ride and use his own equipment?

Most saddles are selected because the color compliments the color of the horse, or the tooling and metal work is well done. But without a doubt, the tree is the most important part of the saddle. It's size and style determine the saddle's ultimate use. Of equal importance is well tanned, supple leather held to the tree with screws, not nails. The hardware should be smooth without a tinny look or rough edges and be made of a metal or alloy that does not corrode. The exterior leather is only window dressing.

Almost since the beginning of the history of saddle making, trees have been made of wood and covered with rawhide. The natural give of the wooden bars helps absorb concussion between the rider and the horse's back. The size of the seat should be proportional to the width of the gullet and the length and depth of the bars which slope to match the contour of the horse's back. Exact construction is determined by the weight and size of the rider. The more the rider weighs, the larger the area of the bars must be to evenly distribute the rider's weight across the horse's hack.

Unlike trotting breeds, the smooth gait of the Peruvian horse transmits very little concussion between horse and rider. This, combined with a well designed Peruvian saddle, makes it difficult to find a horse whose sore back can be attributed to the saddle. "By far and away," says Dr. Robert Ball, a South Texas veterinarian for 11 years, "the largest cause of sore backs in horses is rider concussion. Most of the pain is caused by a lack of balanced, centered riding, as well as the nature of the events which horses are asked to perform. There are a myriad of problems that contribute to sore backs, ill fitting saddles are only a tiny part of it."

Nothing will adversely affect a horse quicker than dead weight. A rider who is constantly sitting off balance and to one side will cause pressure points to develop. Ultimately, the horse will cock its head, neck and body to avoid contact in the areas of pressure. Improper saddle placement can also contribute to a sore back. The Peruvian saddle should be placed far enough behind the shoulder blade to accommodate its movement, but not so far back that is sits on the horse's kidneys.

There are four basic styles of trees, all of which are available in varying sizes. The tree found on a work saddle has a closed-in, deeper seat with a steeper angle to the bars. This configuration allows the rider to give more pronounced aids to the green horse, while holding the rider in a balanced, correct position without movement to the front or back of the saddle. The bars are rounded on the corners and sloped to mimic the shape of the horse's back. The gullet widens from front to back and contact is made across the entire length and about half the width of the bars.

The most popular style of work saddle is called rigged. The rigging used to hold the saddle on the horse is the only leather added to the tree. A pellonera is used to help cushion the rider. With minimal leather, the rigged saddle requires less cleaning time to keep in good condition. Other saddles which have a work tree completely covered with leather are called work-show saddles.

The most commonly used style of show saddle has the same rounded, sloped bars of the work saddle. The main differences are that the show saddle is fully covered in leather, has a wider angle between the bars, is less deep and uses a pommel which slopes backward to accommodate the pellon.

Two other styles of saddle trees are the full tree, with arms extending down from the front and rear, and the halftree, which has arms only on the front. Both styles are padded underneath and can be used for work or show.

All of these saddles sit on a corona made of two pieces of leather slightly larger than the saddle. Beneath the corona is a saddle blanket to absorb sweat and protect the horse's back. A traditional Peruvian blanket is slightly smaller than the corona and is made of woven wool. Also available are blankets of quilted cotton with a pocket for 3/4" felt or closed cell foam to be inserted. Regardless of style, a correct blanket must be made of natural fiber which will absorb sweat without burning the horse's skin. Man-made fibers can often promote heat build-up. Peruvian blankets are not for decoration, but are designed to perform this specific and essential function.

The wood hex stirrup is the most unique piece of Peruvian tack. It has undergone a metamorphosis from the iron slippers of the Conquistadors to the wooden pyramid shape used today. The stir,rups are hung in front of the girth, forcing, the rider to drop the legs almost straight while seated back and deep in the saddle. Riders of trotting breeds, new to the Peruvian horse, anticipate the bounce of the trot and attempt to carry their weight in the Peruvian stirrup which only pushes the legs forward. On a Peruvian horse the weight should be carried in the seat with only light contact between foot and stirrup. The heavy weight and flat surfaces of the stirrups make them a valuable aid for trainers, and in addition they provide protection for riders going through dense bush.

The guarnicion, or tail piece, that attaches to the Peruvian saddle is quite unique in the horse world of today, although in the distant past it was common to see horses' rumps decorated in this fashion. The Royal Horse and Rider: Paintings, Sculpture and Horsemanship, 1500 to 1800 by Walter Liedtke, has many pictures of riders, riding in box saddles adorned with decorative tail pieces and mounted on laterally gaited horses. There are many stories about the origin and function of the guarnicion. Essentially it is simply a traditional part of the Peruvian saddle. Hidden under the guarnicion is a crupper which keeps the saddle from sliding forward.

Through the centuries, the basic principles of horsemanship have changed little, although the uses of horses have varied greatly. At the time when horses were the only means of transportation and most horses were laterally gaited, a style of riding was invented and a saddle developed to aid the rider. In time, as Peru became a distinct and separate entity, the Peruvian people refined their horses, tack and equitation into a perfect package of elegance and comfort. A horse, gaited and tacked to travel like a conqueror, yet with the ease of a flight of doves. . . the ultimate riding horse.

 Using the wrong saddle is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole... !

The illustrations depict an obvious misuse of saddles; a western style saddle impedes the correct body position and support for jumping. An English style saddle is not appropriate for western uses. For example, a western saddle gives the rider the necessary security for quick movements needed in cutting cattle.

Go to Rain Tree Peruvians Go to List of Articles Go to Pasos on the Web  

This article placed with permission of the author. It originally appeared in the July'92 issue of Conquistador Magazine.

This page created and placed 4/8/97 by Pasos on the Web!
Last Updated 10/02/2008