Nicaragua’s Saddles And Its Equestrian Tradition

By Pat Werner

Watching one of Nicaragua´s hípicos, or horse parades, give one the opportunity to reflect on the horses, riders, and saddles, bits and tack that passes before one`s eyes. Watching such a parade is sort of like watching a costume party where everyone can pick the saddle or tradition one wishes to pretend: American Rodeo Association saddles, Peruvian sillas de montar of the 16th century, Indian grass saddles, and an occasional McClellan American Cavalry saddle, all mixed up.

What is more interesting is that there are several saddle, and equestrian, traditions at work in Nicaragua. Obviously, the equestrian tradition began with the coming of the Spaniards in 1522, the leaders of whom came on horseback. So it is safe to assume that they brought with them the Hispanic tradition. What is interesting is that there were two different Iberian traditions, one Christian, and one Arabic. The Christian tradition was characterized by big, heavy, clunky everything, with stirrup leathers extended as long as possible. Bits were also big, with the most innovative being the snaffle bit, invented possibly in France in the 13th century. The Arabic tradition, which included Arab horses, was characterized by light tack, short stirrup leathers, light spurs of bronze, and the ring bit and its close cousin, the jáquima, now called in Nicaragua the bosal. Christian saddles were big and heavy with high cantles and swells, with Arab saddles being little more than a surcingle with extra padding.

Surprisingly, recent historical archaeology has shed light on which tradition was present in colonial America, at least at the beginning. Archaeologist Kathleen Deagan did an extensive dig at Columbus´ first permanent settlement on Hispaniola, Puerto Real. She found over a half million artifacts, including a couple of horseshoes. More importantly, she found one spur, made of bronze, in the classic Arabic tradition. And in El Salvador, archaeologist William Fowler, in excavating the first San Salvador, located by Suchitoto, found in those ruins a ring bit, complete with rein chains. And finally, in Nicaragua, though no iron 16th century horse tack has been found (yet), the first Spaniards wasted no time in ordering the Chorotega Indians of the village of Niquinohomo to produce out of henequen dozens of ¨jáquimas¨. All three of these example represent clear, Arabic influence in horse tack, with bits particularly following Arabic traditions, at last in the 16th century.

Crossbuck pack saddle. Made by author, 1982, Jackson Hole.

Crossbuck pack saddle. Made by author, 1982, Jackson Hole.

No sixteenth century saddles have survived, but it is known that early on much riding of long distances took place, including riding from Leon Viejo to El Realejo, riding from Leon Viejo to Granada, and riding from Leon Viejo to the villa of Nueva Segovia, located on the shores of the Coco River, a distance of over 300 km.  Clearly, light saddle tack was much more useful in long distance rides than heavy, clunky saddles at home most on the jousting field, and not traversing mountains. So what saddle tradition prevailed from 1600 to 1950 is hard to determine, based on the lack of surviving examples.

Modern saddles in use may give some glimmers of the past. And in this several differing traditions can be seen. First is the grass saddle, or albarda. Its origin may possibly be found in 16th century legislation that prohibited Indians from riding horseback. In the distant province such as Nicaragua enforcement may have been lax, and the letter of the law may have been transmogrified to mean no Indian could ride Spanish saddles or use an iron bit. The grass saddle is little more than a surcingle with two grass pads encased in a piece of leather, or mochila, covering the horse´s back to sit on.   Coupled with a jáquima, the Indian rider would arguably not be violating the law by using Spanish tack to get around. And, the grass saddle is one of the easiest on the horse´s back and withers. These are very widespread in the countryside and probably the most common saddle in use in Nicaragua.

The other common saddle is the old American, cast off cavalry saddle, mostly the Model 1904 McClellan. How they got to Nicaragua is a mystery, though they may be a holdover from the War in the Segovias of the 1920´s and Somoza regime, even though there never were that many Marines in Nicaragua at one time. No matter, The U.S. Cavalry sold off all if its saddles by about 1955, and obviously many of them made their way south. A curious aspect is that McClellans, not the grass saddle, seem to predominate in the northern mountains, where the Spaniards never really dominated the Indians and could set up no encomiendas. If one travels to Quilalí, the archtype Nicaraguan mountain town that much approximates the American wild west, one sees McClellans and a few grass saddles, If you visit a saddle shop in Quilalí, you see many McClellans, and a few grass saddles.

5/8 single rigged Californio saddle. Made by Soza Brothers, Monimbo.

5/8 single rigged Californio saddle. Made by Soza Brothers, Monimbo.

The McClellan has a lot going for it. Designed by General George B. McClellan right before the Civil War, it was regular cavalry issue until the end of World War II, when the horse cavalry was disbanded. The saddle weighs 17 pounds and is a leather covered tree with an adjustable cinch, that can be rigged from a pure centerfire to close to a full rigged cinch. They are easy on the horse´s back and make ample provision for space for the horse´s withers. And they are just about indestructible, with cantle and pommel high enough to help the new rider from losing balance. Rebuilding the McClellan is a cottage industry and in the old saddle making center of Esteli they actually caste the brass fittings needed to rebuild old saddles. Internally, the McClellan is a wooden tree made of soft, flexible wood (in the States cottonwood; in Nicaragua wild avocado tree), covered with wet rawhide, which is allowed to dry. Then it is varnished and covered with russet colored leather, stirrup leathers, and the adjustable cinch strapped on. That´s it and the saddle is ready.  Its only enemy is time and termites; A horse or mule rolling over on it can do little harm. It is narrow enough so that it fits easily on the back of most horses and mules and seldom becomes uncomfortable to ride. It is quite a saddle. And in some way it has been in Nicaragua long enough to honestly claim it is part of the Nicaraguan saddle tradition.

A third saddle seen in Nicaragua can be an abomination, the so called Association, or television cowboy saddle. It combines various incongruences. It is usually double full rigged, which puts the rider substantially back of the horse´s center of gravity, or pivot point. It is an adaption of the old Western stock saddle with the major modification of having an overly low cantle to win increased points in roping contests by making it quicker to swing the leg over a low cantle. It is worse than useless in rolling or mountainous country, where a higher cantle gives substantial back support. And worst of all, it has a padded seat, popular among some elements in favor of divers world views. In mountainous country, riders with padded seats are easily picked out because they have wet backsides from riding around on spongy, padded seats that never dry out. No padding is necessary in a McClellan, which seems to fit the anatomy of both horse and rider perfectly, with no padding needed. Brought to Nicaragua through reruns of 1950´s horse operas, it should be immediately abandoned. Unfortunately is appears to be the most popular saddle in hípicos and so its ugly presence promises to remain in Nicaragua for some time. But in all cases, it is a species of embarrassment. And a padded McClellan is a double abomination.

Model 1904 McClellan saddle. Made by Sosa Saddle Shop, Monimbo.

Model 1904 McClellan saddle. Made by Sosa Saddle Shop, Monimbo.

Lastly, since the victory of Violeta Chamorro, some enterprising riders picked up somewhere the image of the 16th century silla de montar, or Spanish war saddle, possibly still used somewhat in Peru and Chile, and in bullfights. It is never seen in the Nicaraguan countryside and would be an embarrassment if anyone were seen riding it outside of a hípico. It is a first rate saddle for jousting or fighting the Moors with a lance since the combination of long stirrups and exaggerated cantle and pommel give the rider lots of leverage for sticking an enemy or a mad bull with a lance.  The saddle weighs a ton and will soon kill any horse but a gigantic Belgian or Percherón with its weight, regardless of whether or not the rider is wearing clinking, metallic, body armor.   All other uses are a type of Saturday affectation. Somewhat surprisingly, classic saddles of equitation, which are the highest development of the saddle, while seen in use in the few equitation schools in Nicaragua, and well and properly used, are seldom fare for the hípicos.

One other equestrian tradition bears mention, the tradition of pack saddles.   While speaking of saddles, one automatically thinks of riding saddles, when now, as in the past, the most common saddle in daily use has been the pack saddle. And here there is a curious tradition in Nicaragua. The two ancient forms of the pack saddle are: the cross buck pack saddle, probably used for thousands of years on horses, mules, and even camels; the second tradition, clearly Hispanic, is the aparejo, or surcingle with padding to allow the packer, or arriero, to sling just about anything on the back of a horse or mule, using either a diamond hitch or squaw hitch to lash the cargo to the aparejo. Prescott recounts that Isabel and Ferdinand maintained a pack train of over 14,000 mules to outfit their armies in the last phase of the reconquest. In the United States, General George Crook instituted a Hispanic style pack train to chase down the various Indian tribes in the Plains Indian wars after Civil War. What is interesting about the Nicaraguan pack saddle is that its construction is that of a cross buck pack saddle but with the cross bucks cut off and smoothed over and with two ledges placed on either side of the pack animal to act as a shelf to hold cargo. And, as with the McClellan, the place of most use of the Nicaraguan pack saddle is the northern mountains, where there are many small caseríos that are accessible only by pack animal and horseback riding.

At least one town, Ocotal, still moves on the back of mules and many burros, who transport everything from firewood to cases of Coca Cola to car batteries to power televisions in chosas high in the mountains where electricity does not extend and telenovelas must be watched.   And Ocotal is the only town in Nicaragua where one still wakes up to the symphony of braying burros at dawn, a magnificent chorus loved by all right thinking equestrians. Hopefully, this magnificent cultural tradition will never disappear.

For Further Reading

  • Beatie, Russel H. Saddles. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1981.
  • Daly, H.W. Manual Of Pack Transportation. Quartermaster Corps, U.S. Army, 1916 [Facsimile. 1981, Quail Ranch Books, Santa Monica, CA.]
  • Deagan, Kathleen, Puerto Real: The Archaeology of a Sixteenth Century Spanish Town in Hispaniola, University of Florida Press, Boca Raton, 1995.
  • Steffen, Randy. United States Military Saddles, 1812-1943. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1973.

One Comment on “Nicaragua’s Saddles And Its Equestrian Tradition

  1. How much do McClellan saddles go for in Nicaragua. I’m in nicauagua now and w0as thinking of getting myself ap present. Ps I love your blog

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