When we first posted this blog entry, several people contacted us to note that the crupper is erroneously shown tied to the saddle’s front (narrow) end. Curator Laura Peers of Pitt Rivers Museum notes that much of the Pitt Rivers Museum collection was packed quickly and evacuated for safety during the Second World War. She thinks it likely that the crupper was attached to the saddle incorrectly at this time. “I could well understand a collections manager tying things together hastily to preserve their former association in the chaos of a collections move,” she notes. The crupper and stirrups have remained tied to the saddle ever since. We thank these keen-eyed horse gear experts for their corrections, and we welcome their thoughts on other puzzling aspects of this piece. The hole through which the crupper is tied to the saddle, for example, is curious. What is the purpose of a hole at the front of the saddle? We also wonder about the crupper’s unusually small size. Might it have been made as a show piece, rather than for actual use? Perhaps it was made for a different saddle? Object Lives and the Pitt Rivers Museum would be pleased to add your thoughts of these intriguing items to our blog and to the Museum’s online database. Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pad saddles and buffalo runners
This style of saddle is called a pad saddle. It’s a man’s saddle and was reserved for use with an elite class of horse known as a buffalo runner. Buffalo runners were used only for hunting buffalo, warfare, and dress parade. Unlike a more rigid frame saddle, a pad saddle enhanced mobility. Accelerating to overtake a panicked buffalo, taking aim and firing, then cutting away–these movements required maximum flexibility.
Making a pad saddle
Pad saddles were usually made of buffalo hide, although elk, deer and antelope were also used. The women who made them cut two pieces of hide to the pattern they desired, placed one on top of the other, and sewed them together lengthwise down the middle. They then sewed the edges of the top and bottom together, leaving openings through which to insert buffalo hair or grass stuffing.
The stirrups are made of a wood frame wrapped in rawhide. The crupper, attached at the saddle’s rear (as noted above, incorrectly shown here attached to the front), was designed to prevent the saddle from sliding forward once it was placed on the horse.
Imported European materials are used sparingly–there are large yellow glass beads at the base of the quill wrapping on the crupper’s fringes, and some of the dyes used in colouring the porcupine quills may be commercial. Otherwise, this complex set of horse gear was made entirely from indigenous products.
Design elements: rosettes
While our group didn’t have solid provenance information with which to work, our discussion of the saddle’s design elements raised some interesting points.
Pad saddles dating to the first half of the 19th century often feature four rosettes, one at each corner. Contemporary depictions of First Nations and Métis horse gear by artists like Peter Rindisbacher and Paul Kane show saddles with this design. On the Pitt Rivers saddle, these rosettes are created with porcupine quills.
For many northern Plains people, quilled rosettes represent the Sun. There are other meanings, too: Norman Feder writes that rosettes in Arapaho and Atsina quillwork variously signify the Whirlwind, the course of Whirlwind woman, tipis, and a child’s head. The Lakota Sioux word for rosette translates as “four directions”, or “where the four winds spring up from”1.
The presence of this recognizable design element on saddles from diverse places on the northern Plains suggests the wide-ranging diplomatic and trade networks in which horses–and saddles–moved.
Design elements: bilateral asymmetry
Looking closely at the Pitt Rivers saddle, we can see that the motifs in the front corners are mirror images of one another. The design elements in the rear corners also mirror one another, yet differ from the images in the front corners. The rosettes at the wider back (to the left in the photo) are larger than those in the narrower front (to the right in the photo), and they employ different colours.
Bilateral asymmetry is not an invariable rule of pad saddle design, but it holds true for a high percentage of saddles in museum collections.
The rosettes on a pad saddle from the Royal Alberta Museum, acquired by the 9th Earl of Southesk on a Canadian hunting expedition in 1859, follow the same layout. They are embroidered with glass beads rather than porcupine quills.
The bilateral, four-cornered design layout is consistent for pad saddles made much later and employing different designs. Consider this saddle in the McCord Museum collections, which we studied at our Montreal workshop. While the motifs are large floral sprays, not rosettes, they are arranged in the same manner as on the Southesk and Pitt Rivers saddles. The McCord’s records identify the saddle as Blackfoot, collected by one-time Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hayter Reed.
A contemporary saddle in the RAM collections, made by Janette Netowayseeson of Kandahar, SK, is fully beaded but retains the design structure of paired motifs at front and back.
There may be some practical value to bilateral asymmetry–you can tell immediately which is the saddle front and which its back when saddling a horse. But there is doubtless something else at play, too. The number four is significant in northern Plains life. It’s linked with the four cardinal directions, symbolism that seems well-suited to a saddle that carries people on journeys. Artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle suggests that the placement of paired design motifs speaks to the idea of passage or journey. The paired designs at the front acknowledge the future, into which you’re heading; the designs at the rear recognize the past from which you’re coming 2 . Both are part of the journey.
Design elements on the crupper generated much discussion. The circular motifs may reference a shield painted with the owner’s protective design; the black triangles around the circumference might then signify feathers attached to the shield’s rim. Alternatively, the circle motif may represent a buffalo pound, or corral.
Intriguingly, workshop participants noted a similarity between the circular design on the crupper and circular motifs on a Métis moose hide coat, also at Pitt Rivers (see previous Object Lives post). Is there a connection?
At this point, we can’t say with authority what the different design elements on the saddle represent. This beautiful piece of horse gear, though, clearly expresses deep respect for the horse. It may also act as a form of prayer seeking spiritual protection, a successful hunt, and the safe return of horse and rider 3.
1 Norman Feder, “Plains Pictographic Painting and Quilled Rosettes: A Clue to Tribal Identification”, American Indian Art Magazine. Spring 1980.
2 Cheryl L’Hirondelle, personal communication. Oct. 20, 2017.
3 Sherry Farrell Racette considers how elaborately embellished horse gear may be a way of soliciting good fortune in Sherry Farrell Racette, Sewing Ourselves Together: Clothing, Decorative Arts and the Expression of Metis and Half Breed Identity, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Manitoba, 2004. See especially pp. 209-212.