L’inspiration de l’Europe

French Hussar Saddle, as depicted in 1826 and 1834 Manual of Tactics

For many years, I’ve seen in many sources comments about the horse equipment, especially saddles, being largely inspired by French hussar equipment.  That sort of discussion is informative, if you know what French hussar equipment looked like.  So began a longtime hit and miss search of foreign designs and influences on the horse equipment of the US, and it was plentiful.  In this post, I’ll try to show just how significant this influence was on the mounted forces in the US.

This first plate is the illustration used in the 1826 cavalry tactics manual that was a direct translation of a similar French manual. The somewhat infamous 1834 tactics manual is a near direct reprint.[1] The point of including this image here is to give an idea of the common perception of what the hussar saddle was supposed to look like – it’s a mighty sexy thing, no?  These manuals were printed for the militia in the US, and it’s safe to assume that the hussar saddle was used with at least some of the more affluent militia units.

The French Inspiration

First Empire and Years Immediately Following – The French hussar saddle of the First Empire (Napoleon) and the years immediately following is clearly illustrated in this plate of a typical French hussar saddle of the period.[2]

This first image (left) is the entire plate, showing a convenient collection of views of all the pieces and parts. This shows the deceptive simplicity of the design. The concepts and parts are simple, but the volume of separate parts increases the complexity in ‘assembling’ this saddle on the horse for actual use.

The seat itself is formed of the hardwood tree, a rawhide seat nailed to pommel and cantle, and laced to the sidebars with heavy rawhide thongs.  The saddle was held on by a single leather girth, with the padded seat placed on top of the rawhide ‘sling’ seat. A leather overgirth, or surcingle, was then placed over this.  As shown in the 1826 plate illustration, additional layers were often found, with shabraques and sheepskin pads.

Common accessories shown in the plate include horseshoe case, stirrups and leathers, carbine boot, crupper, breaststrap, and pistol holsters.

Hussar quilted leather seat pad

Here is a view of the removable seat pad, with it’s stitched quilting. This would have been a black leather cover, and shows the ‘look’ that would have been distinctive for the French hussar saddle.

The next image show very familiar detail, when considering the Ringgold saddle. The iron support arches, and the embedded crupper staples in the rear face of the cantle where clearly the inspiration for Ringgold’s saddle details. The French cantle is also sporting a brass edge binding. The cantle was exposed, and therefore was a distinctive attribute of the hussar rig.


Views of saddle tree

July Monarchy and the Second Empire
 – The old style hussar saddle was later supplanted or replaced with a more ‘unified’ design in the 1830s and 1840s that carried over many of the characteristics of the earlier multi-part hussar pattern.  This new style light cavalry pattern, well known and identified with the later Second Empire period, must have had a very significant impact on Ringgold and his design.  The Ringgold roughly mirrored what was happening in France, as both the later French model and the Ringgold carry much of the design of the classic hussar, without the various important components being separate.  Saddle frame, seat pad, surcingle/girth are all part of the seat, making saddling the horse simpler, and the whole arrangement less likely to get out of position while in use.

[3] Example of Second Empire French light cavalry saddle- courtesy Leclere Maison De Ventes.

[4] Modern reproduction, photos courtesy M. Fabien Scaillet, www.uniformesdempire.be

Now, you have a bit of information that should help you to understand the design aesthetic that came to dominate the dragoon saddles designed by Ringgold, and later Grimsley.

[1] “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.

[2] “Tracé descriptif des divers objets d’habillement, d’équipement et de harnachement à l’usage de l’armée française” (“Descriptive drawings of the several items of clothing, accoutrements and horse equipment in use in the French Army”) by Commandant (Major) Felix Hecquet, 1824 (merci beaucoup à Eric Crepin-LeBlond pour cette référence!)

[3] Example of Second Empire vintage French light cavalry saddle, images from Leclere Maison De Ventes. Je vous remercie!

[4] www.uniformesdempire.be, M. Fabien Scaillet, Street of Corenne, 30, B5620 Florennes, Belgium. Je vous remercie!