A saddle for Africa – The McClellan

McClellan saddle and horse


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.

McClellan saddle

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.

McClellan Saddle

REOriginally, 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 fiberglass 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.