How to Use a Vintage McClellan Saddle on a Modern Horse

Place appropriate saddle pad on horse’s back near the withers. Then slide back to the shoulders. Then place the saddle on on the saddle pad keeping the saddle behind the shoulders. Attach girth (cinch) to off side. Then buckle loosely to near side billets. Your entire hand should fit between your horse’s side and the girth. DO NOT MOUNT.

If you are a historical re-enactor: DO NOT MOUNT. Unbuckle girth and remove saddle and place on an appropriate saddle stand for display. It’s difficult to see the saddle when it’s on the horse and you’re standing on the ground.

Re-enactors are educators that make history come alive. The best re-enactments include more than a battle. An encampment is usually set up with authentic tents and other equipment. The public is invited to engage with the re-enactors to learn about different aspects of the era being re-enacted. Visitors learn about everyday life of the soldiers…what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore and much more. And in the case of cavalry soldiers who used McClellan saddles, there is far more than charging into battle with guns blazing. If you really want to educate the public about the cavalry, be prepared with the following information.

You will be using a modern saddle, NOT A MCCLELLAN SADDLE, for the battle re-enactment because….

The average cavalry soldier was smaller than most modern re-enactors. He was about 5’6? tall or shorter and he weighed about 120 pounds. He was very strong and lean and spent many hours every day riding. McClellan saddles were designed for riders built like this.

Cavalry horses were narrow and barely bigger than a pony. They were specially bred by the army to fit the McClellan saddles. Since your personal horse is was not bred to fit the saddle, it would be inhumane to subject him to such a painful saddle for entertainment of others. Even a short ride by a heavy rider can damage a horse’s back if the saddle doesn’t fit properly.

Even though the McClellan saddle was designed with a hole in the center to relieve pressure on the horse’s spine, it still doesn’t fit your horse properly. Horses can go lame from saddles that do not fit properly, especially when ridden by heavier, taller riders.

It is uncomfortable for most riders. and certainly torture for most horses. But cavalry soldiers didn’t whine and cry. They toughed it out. Horses suffered too. They often went lame and were destroyed when they were no longer useful. Most cavalry horses did not reach retirement age.

If you are a trail rider: DO NOT MOUNT. Even though your McClellan saddle has lots of handy rings and dees for attaching stuff, it was not designed for trail riding on modern horses. It will damage your horse. Take the saddle off and place in a dumpster. Then lock the dumpster so no one will “salvage” it. Do not sell the saddle. It will only be purchased and used by someone who is uneducated about saddle fit and cause suffering to a different horse.

If you are a mounted police officer: DO NOT MOUNT. Even though a variation of the McClellan saddle has been used by some big city police forces for years, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable for your mount (or you). But police officers, like cavalry soldiers, do not whine and cry about it. Most police forces with mounted units have horses of different breeds. Horses retire. Others are purchased or donated. McClellan saddles cannot be refitted to new horses. One size DOES NOT fit all. Add a large rider up on the saddle. Many (not all) police officers are tall and muscular and therefore, while certainly not fat, are heavy. And they sit on the horse’s back for 6 – 8 hour shifts. Police horses can quickly become back sore, unusable and rack up vet bills while they continue to eat hay even though they are on “medical leave”. City officials have budget concerns. It is far more cost effective to use modern saddles on police horses that can be refitted to new horses, as needed, or to current horses as their shape changes throughout their life. You must appeal to your police chief for proper equipment that can be refitted many times. I know that humanity towards our animals won’t get you very far, so don’t use that approach. But you could mention how proper equipment will save the city money by reducing vet bills, and keeping more horses on active duty. Perhaps the best approach would be to compare the expense and care of sore backed horses to the cost of modern saddles and refitting.

If you are a member of a ceremonial unit: DO NOT MOUNT. It doesn’t matter that you ride only in a few parades and funerals. Pain is always pain. And a horse in pain is a dangerous thing, especially when combined with gun shots, low flying aircraft, motorcycles, bands playing and all manner of funny looking people and scary activities. A berserk horse in a crowd….I don’t want to think about it. Relegate those McClellan saddles to a museum.

More than a century ago, Smith-Worthington made thousands of these saddles for the army. After the Civil War was over, many thousands remained in government warehouses. This overstock kept the army supplied in saddles until there was no longer a cavalry. If your vintage McClellan saddle is in excellent condition, it should be displayed in a museum. These saddles are not rare and thousands of others should be thrown away. They are a dime a dozen and not worth the damage they cause.

We worked with the Connecticut 1st Company Governor’s Horse Guard and their vet, the knowledgeable Dr. Peter Conserva. Last month (April) he graphically demonstrated to officers where the McClellan saddles pinched the spine, dug into the shoulders, bridged across dropped backs and put extreme pressure on two small areas at the rear edge of the saddle.

If you’re thinking of using a McClellan saddle, talk to your horse’s vet, talk with you saddle fitter and listen to your horse. “If your horse ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

13 Responses to “How to Use a Vintage McClellan Saddle on a Modern Horse”

  • Steve:

    So glad you went to describe this saddle. I thought they looked good and was going to buy one from someone on Ebay here in Australia. The seller said it didn’t fit his horse – now thanks to you I know why.

  • Marti Masters:

    This article is absolutely false. My grandfather was an expert horseman and highly respected. He was 6 feet tall, weighed 160 pounds, and I have his McLellan military saddle. It is fine for morgans, Arabs, and half-Arabs. Why do you think military saddles were designed for short light men? Do you think in the 20th century were frail midgets?

    Your article is misleading and unless a saddle is not in good condition or does not have the propper panels, there is no reason not to use a military saddle.

  • McClellan saddles were not designed for lighter riders. But most riders were lighter when McClellan saddles were developed, therefore minimizing the damage done to the horse. Your grandfather was a tall, lean and probably very fit and strong. Most riders today are NOT. Today, most riders work at office jobs and ride on weekends. Most do not take regular lessons and are very mediocre riders.

    Yes, a McClellan saddle might fit some Morgans, some Arabs, some half Arabs. I ride a Morab. I have never seen a McClellan saddle that would fit her. And there is nothing that can be done to change the fit. Yes, you can add pads if the saddle is too wide, but if the saddle is too narrow, this will only make the problem worse. Most horses today are more broadly built than the horses of a century ago.

    And if, by chance, your McClellan saddle does fit your horse…..there will come a day when it won’t. We all change shape with diet. level of fitness, training and age. This includes our horses. (I know that I cannot wear the same pair of jeans I comfortably wore 20 years ago.) When purchasing any saddle, one should keep in mind the ability to refit when necessary.

  • mark Gassert:

    I have a 1918 Smith-Worthington McClellan saddle. It worked when my Arabian was young and narrow.I trail ride in the mountains of California and he quickly muscled out of it. I think if we rode the plump horses they ride in the northeast I would never try to ride in one. They are great to look at and imagine the adventures that happened during their service.

  • Plump horses in the northeast? Plump horses are everywhere. Plump people are everywhere and they tend to ride plump horses. Neither rider or horse gets much exercise except for a few hours on weekends. Unfortunate, but true. These are the very horses and riders that should NEVER use McClellan saddles. And as you know, a broad backed, well muscled horse is not appropriate for a McClellan saddle either.

  • Jennifer:

    The average Civil War soldier was about 5’8″ to 5’9″ and weighed 140-150 pounds. Regulations for cavalry horses did NOT call for “ponies”; quite the contrary. Most were 15 hands or better. Not sure where you got your info –? But average 19th century men were NOT midgets! Without a doubt, today’s average horses and riders ARE much plumper than their 19th century countparts. McClellands are not suitable for most. However, it is simply a matter of fit. There can actually be a wide variance between one McClelland saddle and another. Does it fit your horse? Is it safe and well-made? Those should be the first questions regardless of the type of saddle, the maker, or the cost. Expensive does not necessarily mean best for your horse. Brand-of-the-day-endorsed-by-somebody-with-a-video does not necessarily mean it will work for your horse. How does it fit? And yes, some vintage military saddles do fit some modern horses.

  • I must agree with you. Especially “Does it fit your horse? Is it safe and well-made? Those should be the first questions regardless of the type of saddle, the maker, or the cost.” If a McClellan saddle fits the horse (and rider) then it’s OK to use it. However, I have never seen one properly fit the horse on which it was used.

  • Paul McDaniel:

    George A. Custer was about 5’11″ tall and was considered a large man in the cavalry. The average size of the troopers in his command was about 5’7″ tall. Anyone who has done any research on the cavalry would know that they recruited smaller men for obvious reasons. The long patrols over hard country was tough enough on the horses without having to carry any more weight then they had too. The men were rangy as were their horses.

  • While individual soldiers may have cared deeply for their mounts, the U.S. army viewed horses as expendable. Generally, they were worked hard, poorly fed, and occasionally eaten by starving soldiers.

  • Cav Steve:

    You need to understand the horse. I have been ridding Macs for over 40 years, on many different types of horses. If you use 2 blankets, and cinch the saddle correct, you can ride for as long as YOU can stand it. Never had a cold spot, or any other problems, and neither has any of the troopers I have ridden with.

  • You have been very fortunate. These saddles don’t fit most horses. And when you combine poor saddle fit and an untrained and overweight rider, you have a recipe for a very sore horse.

  • This article is very poorly researched indeed. The Army remount program was to breed local mares to thoroughbred studs throughout the west. This program routinely produced horses in the range of 15 to 16 hands. The part about it being narrow is true enough, but I own a MODERN horse, who is quite narrow in the shoulders and a Mcclellan fits him perfectly. As a teenager, I rode my quarter horse in a McClellan for 7 years and he never had a sore back. Someone needs to learn a little history from the U.S. Army cavalry manual like the one sitting on my bookshelf. The only way to tell if a saddle fits a horse is to PUT the saddle on the horse and look!

  • Did the army actually use all those foals born to those TB studs and local mares in the cavalry? I’m willing to bet that they only used those with narrow backs. In those days horses were used to haul everything from A to Z and those foals that developed into broader horses had other uses.

    Not all modern horses are wide just as not all horses of a century ago were narrow. (How many hands tall is irrelevant.) Apparently you have always had the “narrow” variety. You are correct that the only way to tell if a saddle fits a horse is to put it on him and look. And you must continue to evaluate saddle fit as your horse matures and changes shape throughout its life. We humans change shape and so do our horses.

    It is also important that the saddle fit the rider. Many of the people who want to use McClellan saddles are re-enactors. While some, like the original cavalry riders, are lean and muscular and have been riders their entire lives, this is not always the case. Many are quite sedentary, overweight, out of shape and have taken only a few lessons. When you combine a mediocre, overweight rider on a saddle that is too small for him/her and doesn’t fit the horse either… you have a perfect storm for disaster.

    The U.S.Cavalry manual is only one source. I have seen one, but don’t own a copy. I believe there were a number of editions as revisions were made over time. The one I saw had lots of information about how to fold a blanket to adjust fit of the McClellan saddle. Even the army admitted that the McClellan saddles didn’t fit all horses properly. Was it written by soldiers who actually used the saddles? Or was it written by someone in the War Department in Washington D.C. I don’t know. Keep in mind that this manual was written more than a hundred years ago.

    All I know is that McClellan saddles don’t fit most modern horses. If you own a McClellan saddle and have managed to use it without damaging your horse, you are either:
    A. very lucky
    B. you share the military apathy regarding animal suffering
    For your horses’ sakes, I hope you were and will continue to be lucky.

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