Much maligned and misunderstood, the McClellan saddle.
Shane Dowinton, 16th Nov
On my first horse safari in South Africa in 1993 I was introduced to a trail version of the McClellan saddle. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Growing up in the UK I was familiar with an “English” saddle and having spent 5 years in Australia I had spent many hours in Australian stock saddles and had in fact become partial to the American stock saddle or a western saddle as they are more often called.
In our beginnings at Horizon we used what we had to start our horse business. We had a “Universal” saddle which was a throwback to colonial days in India and has sometimes been called an Indian cavalry saddle. It had been used by SA mounted police and so it was available here as an alternative to an English saddle. We had an “Aussie’ stock saddle which was lent to us as we were breaking in at the time and I have to say I was grateful for the security of its knee swells on a number of occasions. And we had some rather dated English saddles that had been well used while the kids grew up. We used them all.
It didn’t take long before we could compare the benefits and the pitfalls of all said saddles and we became creative in protecting horse’s backs and human backsides. In a moment of flushness Ant bought a brand new McClellan saddle and because we were putting on a huge number of hours on our green horses it became worn in quickly and soon began to shine as it proved itself far better than everything else we had. In those hours I became a big fan of the McClellan saddle and as we grew as a business we introduced them as our saddle of choice. That was 24 years ago, I haven’t changed my mind.
The major considerations for a saddle on horse safaris are that it will be comfortable on a horse’s back and for a rider to sit in for long hours, often in high temperatures and doing strenuous work. It is also fairly important that it can carry some kit for those hours like a saddle bag, a water bottle or even a rifle. It must also be able to fit the conformation of many different horses, particularly over the wither. This is not a new problem, the cavalry, mounted divisions and working stock hands have had to solve these problems for centuries.
During the 1850’s on a tour of duty in Europe an American army officer by the name of George B McClellan was charged with investigating field equipment in the cavalry. He examined a number of different saddle designs including the Russian cavalry saddle and Hungarian cavalry saddle used by the Prussians. The latter appeared to have been modified from the tree of a Spanish saddle and it was this design that he chose to develop a new proposed cavalry saddle. This design was accepted by the war department in 1859 and became standard army issue until 1918.
The McClellan proved popular during the civil war and beyond. It became the saddle of choice for mounted police in the States, it was adopted by the Mexican army, it was used by dominion forces during the Boer war and more recently it was used by Rhodesian forces in the bush war.
Originally, of course it would have been built on a wood and rawhide tree but it is not uncommon to see them built on steel and fiber glass trees which makes them considerably lighter. Their broad bars and high gullet mean that the rider’s weight is spread over a large surface area and the gullet sits over the highest of withers. Their relatively high cantle and stirrup position maintain the rider in an upright and military posture not dissimilar to a dressage position.
I can see why it was such a longstanding military saddle as those same advantages that kept it in use with the army translate to the demands of bush horsemanship. They repair very easily, even in a pinch, with a simple strap rigging system and felt skirts. The great advantage of a rigid tree is that there is no need for re flocking as with English type saddles and broad bars mean a large area to spread weight over.
The McClellan has often been criticised as some kind of inferior saddle but time has proved to me its humble qualities in taking care of a horse and its rider for long hours over variable terrain. I learned many years ago to put my trust in it and have never been let down.
Experiencing a Tuli Safari with my daughter, Jesse.
Shane Dowinton, 2016
As our children career recklessly from our arms to school, “teenagerdom” and beyond it is hard not to want to slow things down and enjoy the precious moments of parenthood. Our daughter is 17 going on 25 and her eyes are already on a horizon far beyond the cosy warmth of home and I find myself jealously hoarding the ‘memory moments’ for future perusal when the nest is empty.
Jess and I have always ridden together, from the lead rein when she cried as I told her to put her heels down, to the games of Polocrosse with her friends, horses have been the backdrop to her childhood and my parenthood. So the opportunity for several days together in the wilds of Africa riding through the pristine Mashatu reserve needed hardly a thought.
There are rare pockets of true Africa these days, it is sad to say. Beautiful gems of unspoilt wilderness where the topography matches your imaginations and the heat of the sunbaked earth soaks through to your bones, they seem to be isolated patches in a densely populated continent. But here, just north of the great Limpopo River there is a vast chunk of primevil Africa thick in vegetation and wildlife that reminds you that Africa is still Africa.
Riding beautifully sure footed and resolute horses through the endless river plains, taking shade beneath vast and towering Mashatu trees I was immediately caught up in the adventures of Rider Haggard in search of King Solomon’s mines. Jess too sensed the enormity of the land and though she has grown up a “bush girl” the stirrings of a greater Africa were welling up in her as we rode. It is hard not be stirred when confronted with a herd of stately matriarch Elephants gently nudging their young before them or suddenly finding yourself cantering alongside a dusty cloud of Eland. Our guides, West and Tsoane with quiet yet capable assurance directed our journey from camp to camp, breaking the beautiful silence occasionally with an observation or a thought like a perfectly placed comma in a great sentence.
And the camps, each one wonderfully wild and embraced by the bushveld. Crackling fires and camp cooked cuisine to fill your belly and restore your weary bones. There is no conversation like campfire conversation, sharing tall bush stories and laughing as the night sky turns on its axis overhead. The night sounds too remind you that just beyond the warmth and security of the firelight is the wilderness and its nocturnal friends, Hyena mocking our comfort, Lions in the distance moaning at the darkness. As if to reassure us that all is well, our equine companions snort occasionally or stamp as they work slowly through their haynet ration of lucerne, wonderfully content on their nightline in our midst.
Coffee to greet the dawn and mounted in the cool of the day the horses are lively in step at the prospect of moving camp. There is a real joy in the relationship after days in the saddle, discovering each others quirks, adjusting to each pace along the track, there is a bond between us that carries far beyond the journey. I see in Jess too a familiarity with her mount, a security in familiar company, she is relaxed in the seat as her eyes survey the land for movement.
What value can you put on a trip like that? What price on a memory shared in the experience of a vast land teeming with game, canvas and firelight, equine friends and great company. Jess and I are eager to return to relive those moments of adventure together, a place in the wilderness that seems for the moment to defy the pull of the world.
Coming Soon ...
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Horizon Horseback, established in 1993, operates horse riding safaris in both South Africa and Bostwana. Copyright reserved.