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Clinical Observations on the Collecting of Military Saddles
by: Joseph Sullivan

As Guy Brown pointed out in the Society’s last meeting there is probably no such thing as a prudent collector – and one might add, if one really does exist, no one we know has ever met him. However, even within the realm of systematic, compulsive acquisitive behavior, this whole business of collecting old army saddles is a bit odd. If you’re going to do it right, you have to master as much arcane detail as if you were trying to pass the bar exam, except in this case the information is more or less useless outside the somewhat limited world of saddle collectors and re-enactors (talk about odd), and possibly the stray museum curator. Then, of course there’s the time spent in actually looking for and handling the goods, in determining authenticity, in negotiating purchases, in keeping the stuff decent condition, and in coming up with plausible justifications for the use of household funds to purchase large impractical objects that collect dust.

You’ll observe that I still have not significantly differentiated saddle collecting from other kinds of collecting. What makes the saddle collector unique is that his disorder, while apparently rooted in the mind, can metasticise. It is not enough simply to own saddles, one must have books about saddles, and books about people who used the saddles, and pictures of people using those saddles. One generally wants to have the equipment that went with the saddles, at the minimum spurs and bridles and bits and such, but also uniforms and boots, tools, implements, sabers and other weapons. In its more advanced stages disorder leads to the ownership of horses – as the collector slips into a world of imagination while using the more durable pieces of his collection the way he thinks a trained person might have used them. And of course there are movies, of which the John Wayne cavalry trilogy is a darn good start.

However it must be said that collecting military saddles can be a very interesting and satisfying hobby with only a certain regrettable minimum of anti-social aspects. Furthermore, the person who feels that he or she is being pulled in to deeply can always chuck the whole thing, sell out, and quit. Quitting is not that hard; like W.C. Fields, I myself have done it, and may do it again in the future.

In my role as an "enabler" of those who like to partake in military saddle collecting, I offer the following pretexts and justifications. You will get the most use out of them when nosey people ask you why you collect, but they are also helpful in holding at bay would-be helpful relatives and counselors. Here they are:

  • You are perpetuating the romance of the westward movement;
  • You are preserving fast-disappearing physical elements of our national patrimony;
  • You are making it possible for generations of schoolchildren yet unborn to see and touch the past in a concrete way;
  • Scholars and artists rely on artifacts like yours for accuracy in their work;
  • The McClellan saddle (in its still-rideable 1904 and later versions) encourages the rider into an almost ideal balanced seat, while being easier on the horse than most other designs;
  • It is, after all, really neat stuff.

The nice thing is, all of the above are more or less true, so you can say them while looking someone right in the eye.

In truth, the powerful romance of military saddle collecting is not easy to explain. Someone once said that there are two things that cannot be described. One of them is a sunset. I would add a third – the vivid, emotional associations and mental projections that go with physically touching and handling a real piece of history. We collectors are a bit like children in some respects. Our connection with things is much more real, much closer, much more personal, to the extent that we can use multiple senses to take them in (oddly, including the sense of ownership). Most of us have outgrown the tasting-things phase, but to the extent that we can feel and smell, as well as see an object, it seems to grow in reality. I still regret that I couldn’t actually touch the 17th century warship Vasa when I visited her in Sweden. For no rational reason I ached to do so, but the clever Swedes had forseen the consequences of lines of tourists pawing their national treasure, and built effective barricades. On the other hand, the English maintain Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory in a state of commissioned near-readiness, and actually let me walk around in it and touch things. It was a remarkable, evocative experience. To own, touch, feel, maintain, and in some cases actually use saddles and cavalry equipment is to partake in the same kind of experience on a smaller scale.

A study of saddles can teach about broader cultural patterns as well. Saddles are transportation. Just as the designs of today’s transportation – automobiles – tell us quite a lot about the decades in which they were made, saddles speak of their own times. While more utilitarian than civilian models, military saddles were nonetheless affected by cultural influences. Some periods were more ornate, some less, reflecting then-current fashions, concepts of national identity, and prevailing views of the military. Saddles reflect a much more significant influence as well. In the early days of the nation, American military saddles were dead ringers for English and French gear. During the expansion west, though, concepts of cavalry changed, as did the conditions and needs of the fighting man – at the same time that Americans were making increased contact with the outposts of the Spanish empire. Spanish saddles and techniques, learned from the Moors in ancient wars, and well adapted to use on the vast expanses of the new world, were far better suited to frontier conditions. The practical men of the fledgling United States picked them up rather quickly beginning in the first quarter of the 19th century, both in terms of a series of military saddle designs , and in the evolution of what we now call the "western" or "cowboy" saddle. The shapes of the saddles changed, as did concepts of equitation. In the first half of the 20th century, free of the demands of indian warfare, and without much other fighting to do, the cavalry drifted back to English and French-influenced equipment and techniques, in search of European style and finesse.

If, you want to collect, you must learn about the subject and its markets. The best way to start is by reading the standard works and talking with others who share your affliction. There is a four volume set of lavishly-illustrated books by Randy Steffen, called The Horse Soldier. While in time you’ll find that Steffen has made a few errors and omissions, he is by far the best and most comprehensive introduction to the subject of U.S. military saddles and horse equipment. To get a feel for how the stuff was used, and lives and actions of the men who used it, there are good many historical and biographical books and articles available. I highly recommend you find time for a few, if only just for a darn good read. You might include Rickey’s 40 Miles a Day on Beans and Hay, Libby Custer’s marketing masterpiece Boots and Saddles, Thrapp’s Conquest of Apacheria, and McConnell’s Five Years a Cavalryman. A broader view of a specific fort in its time and place is J. Evetts Haley’s Fort Concho and the Texas Frontier. To talk with other collectors, you can go to collector’s meetings and cavalry re-enactments. You can also "talk" on the World Wide Web through the medium of the cavalry-oriented forums. They are a sort of electronic group help session. I know of two good ones: The Military Horse Forum, and The Cavalry Forum [now defunct]. You can post messages and questions, or participate in debates and discussions. None of this takes place in what computer folk like to call "real time", but it is fun and informative nonetheless.

Purchasing is a challenge. If you look hard enough and long enough, almost anything you want is available – for a price. It is no simple matter to judge the fairness of that price when it comes to the rarer objects. Some more modern stuff, such as Model 1904 saddles, and 20th century spurs, are virtually commodities that can easily be valued, depending on condition. You can find things in a variety of places. Flea markets, estate sales, and old "antique" shops in ratty roadside buildings are always promising. Gun shows once were prime hunting grounds, but have been very disappointing over the last year or two. A new and very fruitful source is the World Wide Web. There are several commercial sale and auction sites, which are highly productive of cavalry stuff. The most fun is eBay, which auctions off objects over a period of a week or so, through "live" bids. EBay has lots of good stuff. Be warned, though, there are no guarantees or controls. You’d better know what you are looking at, and prices tend to run a bit high. Finally, most collectors have a duplicate or two they will sell. Prices from collectors depend on the object, and how much they like you personally.

So, in summary, be warned. Military saddle collecting may be more absorbing than you can guess, and more fun than you can stand.