In recent times, one of the most mysterious of the U.S. military saddles was the one selected in 1833, obtained for the 1st Regiment of Dragoons. Despite clear descriptions of the saddle in both frontier explorers’ accounts and in actual government purchasing contracts, the lack of actual specimens and rampant speculation has muddied the waters for many years. Indeed, the publication of a widely distributed and popular series of books by Randy Steffen, which are periodically re-issued by their publisher, continue to promote a completely inaccurate representation of this pattern. In these books (‘U.S. Military Saddles, 1812-1943’ and ‘The Horse Soldier, Vol. I’), Mr. Steffen described a saddle that is essentially an American style flat saddle.
The late Dr. James S. Hutchins, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, did quite a bit of original research into early nineteenth century western horse equipment, and wrote a section on this subject in “Man Made Mobile”, published in 1980. In this publication, he included significant portions of the actual contract letters for the 1833 dragoon equipment, and published the relevant sections verbatim – these letters included detailed descriptions (click to view).
Additionally, a recent document discovery shows that the information included in these contract letters is corroborated by the record of contract and payments to Thornton Grimsley for dragoon saddles in the ‘United States congressional serial set. 256’ (1833/34), page 39. With this corroboration, there can be no more question that the 1833 dragoon saddle was the spanish tree as described in the contract letters.
Where Did The Idea of the ‘Flat’ Saddle Come From?
Mr. Steffen’s theory about the flat ‘American’ style saddle was actually adopted from one of his contemporaries that wrote a few articles for The Company of Military Historians back in the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Stanley J. Olsen. Dr. Olsen first outlined this concept in an article titled “The Development of the U.S. Army Saddle”. He directly referenced a 1834 publication titled “A System of Tactics…for the Cavalry and Light Infantry and Riflemen of the United States; By Authority of the Department of War” (Francis Preston Blair, 1834).
A plate in this book shows an example of the extravagant-looking French hussar saddle, and what looks to be an additional image of a typical ‘American’ flat style saddle. Click on this thumbnail image at right for a more detailed look at this source.
The rub comes in that this book was actually a direct reprint of an 1826 publication for militia organizations in the U.S., and does not actually show the saddle that was contracted for the new dragoon regiment in 1833. Indeed, both the 1826 and 1834 editions are largely direct translations of a French manual. The flat saddle was added to the 1834 manual plate. Both the 1826 and 1834 ‘System of Tactics’ manuals were specifically ordered by Congress for distribution to the militia. 
That being said, a single plate in a tactics manual does not constitute irrefutable evidence of the actual saddle being used by the then existing dragoon regiment. Indeed, if one was to suppose this to actually be the case, why not consider the larger of the two images as the accepted style? The manual actually recommended the illustrated French hussar saddle, and refers to the added flat saddle image as being “commonly in use in the United States”.
The modern mindset, especially those familiar with modern military culture, is to view manuals as being closely intertwined with their subject – equipment shown in them is invariably the equipment being issued and used. This is NOT consistent with a lot of 19th century manuals, especially those prepared in the era characterized by a large and active militia, as the 19th century was. The militia and it’s needs cannot be ignored in these assessments of 19th century references.
The manual itself wasn’t even available to the dragoon regiment until their return from their 1835 expeditions, as noted in an editorial in the “Army and Navy Chronicle”  .
On top of all of that – the manual wasn’t approved by Congress for reprinting until early December, 1834,  and was not delivered from the printer until the late spring of 1835. Since it is known that the saddle purchased and used by the dragoon regiment in 1833 and 1834 was a spanish saddle made by Thornton Grimsley – why was this not represented in the manual? Because the manual was for the militia of the various states, and this was the sort of equipment they were using. The frontier gear of the dragoon ‘constabulary’ wasn’t in common use by these forces.
For those that would perversely cling to the Olsen/Steffen flat saddle theory and the depiction in the 1834 manual, there might be a thought that the Spanish was quickly dropped and replaced with the flat saddle – except that the government did not provide saddlery to the militia. Saddlery depicted for the militia is not reflective of the government issue items, as they did not receive those issue items.
While Dr. Olsen was highly respected in his professional field ( vertebrate paleontology), the 1955 article was clearly not one of his better works. There seems to have been a predilection to apply the date of a published source to the artifact being portrayed – Grimsley artillery saddle as M-1862, as it was in the 1862 Ordnance Manual. The 1830s artillery saddles (flat/paneled style) are labeled M1845, as he found them in a manual dated 1845. Other odd assumptions are made, such Grimsley dragoon equipment, as shown in a Horstmann catalog plate of regulation 1851 gear (see at right), is identified as 1841 dragoon saddle, with the pack saddle in that plate id’ed as 1841 Grimsley pack saddle. As a whole, this article is not credible and should be discounted as a source citation.
Mr. Steffan accepted Olsen’s theory at face value and added another layer in 1962 – by identifying a saddle in a storage area of the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Ft. Riley, using that presumptive plate image. The problem is this – that saddle had no details associated with it, and many knowledgeable persons who have seen this saddle believe it to be a common flat (or park) saddle from about the 1850s. I’ve looked at it myself, and it certainly appears to be a typical civilian style with little about it to give an indication of military design and utility. If you would like to see for yourself, check out below to view photographs of this very specimen. Just because an object is found in an army museum collection does not necessary mean it was used by Army personnel.
The Enigmatic Flat Saddle of Ft. Riley, OR 'Steffens Dragoon'
It was quite a thrill to be allowed to view and photograph one of the more controversial pieces of saddlery in the country, and here are some photographs of that actual specimen. Many thanks to the staff at the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Ft. Riley, Kansas for their kind assistance.
This shows the two distinctive features of this otherwise nondescript flat saddle, and that is the extremely thin and tall square cantle, and the lobe-like skirt (not the larger flap below it, but the piece that covers the stirrup bar).
Here is the pommel, with minor separation of the bottom half from the top. Note that there are absolutely no hardware items (other than four pommel head nails) or any evidence (marks, impressions, holes, etc.) to show that there ever was any hardware on front edge/pommel area of saddle.
A view of the central underside channel from the gullet – you can just make out the seat straining webbing that the rest of the top half of seat is built on. Note the modern muslin repair, and the gigantic yellow paint accession number that some ‘old-school’ curator put on it in days gone by.
A rear view of the tall cantle, which is exceptionally thin from front to back, which would be very susceptible to damage. You can just make out the stitched leather loop or ring that is let into the body seam between the near side cantle edge and the crupper loop. There is evidence that another loop was on the other side, opposite this one.
A slightly closer look at the crupper loop – this is a fairly light gauge iron wire, formed in one piece. The ends appear to come together inside the seam, and attach with one fastener, which the loop can pivot slightly with. It’s a very lightly rendered piece, that would not take much abuse.
The saddle sports a full underskirt, made with a leather top, and a canvas lining. Long looped stitches in vertical rows give this the quilted look.
The near side stirrup bar is a hand-forged iron wire, flattened at the ends to allow it to be screwed into the tree. This near side piece has been repaired or reinstalled at some point.
The off side stirrup bar is in very good condition (naturally), with the leather tree-covering piece intact.
A look at the top of the off side inner flap, with the tip of the saddletree head leg or tip tucked into it’s pocket. You can just make out the single billet slightly behind it. It is very difficult to see if there was ever a second billet per side, as only these singles remain. There is a place that is logical for a second billet just ahead of these, but no readily apparent evidence that one was ever mounted there.
2 United States congressional serial set. 256 (1833/34), pg .39
3 “The Development of the U.S. Army Saddle”, Dr. Stanley J. Olsen, 'Military Collector & Historian' Vol VII, No. 1 (Spring 1955), The Company of Military Historians.
 'The public statutes at large of the United States ... v.4 (1824-1834)', pg. 195
 'A Checklist of American Imprints', Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow Press., 1834 pg. 451
 "Army and Navy Chronicle", Volume I, 1835
 'United States Army. Regulations for the Uniform & Dress of the Army of the United States.' William H. Horstmann & Sons, Philadelphia. June 1851.