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.”

26 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.

  • Just found this blog post, quite interesting.

    I would like to add something positive to the discussion, and point out that it appears to me that people are viewing ‘the McClellan’ as a set design, with a singular geometry. This is not the case, though I cannot fault anyone for thinking so based on the physical evidence most people have seen and experienced.

    “The McClellan” most people have come into contact with is the M1904 made under war contracts in 1917 and 1918 (easily identified by the brass stirrup strap loops on the seat). Given that over 940,000 were made in that short time frame, it would be odd that any horseman hasn’t come across one of these at some point. And that is the problem with ‘the McClellan’, since the fitment of these war contract saddles is significantly different than most military McClellans made before that time.

    The ‘War Contract McClellans’ had sidebars with a slightly more pronounced twist toward the front of the bars, which had the net effect of making the gullet narrower and the angle of the sidebar tips more vertical. Earlier model McClellans (while still requiring a horse with actual withers) can fit a particular animal quite well, where a war contract McClellan will sit on the same animal with most of the front section resting on the sidebar edge. Photos of cavalry horses from the ’20s and ’30s tend to show a LOT of white hair in this very area.

    While I’m still researching the exact cause for this change, right now it appears that a faulty specification drawing was made in the rush of activity to get contractors producing equipment, in April/May of 1917. The drawings went out to manufacturers with strict instructions that the DRAWINGS would be used to inspect the saddles, and not any previously made arsenal samples.

    It would appear that what most people consider to be “the McClellan”, is actually one of the worst examples of the type, a flawed creation from the very beginning of WW1.

  • Thank you, Todd, for this information. I believe that most re-enactors are unaware to the different versions of “McClellan”. I also was unaware that a mistake caused many hundreds of cavalry horses lots of pain.

  • In chatting with the first sergeant of the Fort Huachuca Ceremonial Cavalry troop I was very impressed. He mentioned the various attributes of the cavalry saddle. He also mentioned that they had commissioned a new McClellan with semi quarter horse bars to fit modern saddle horses. And they had to make a full quarter horse McClellan to fit the horses used in the Washington DC Ceremonial troop. The army vets had concluded that the old model 1904s just would not fit the round wide backs of modern mounts.
    There were two types of people who rode a McClellan. Those who hated it and those who loved it. There were not any in between people. I am of the first variety. So I have to get a modernized semi quarter horse 1904.
    If I ride a western saddle it is of the high pommel type with NO swells. And I want a high cantle.
    I concur that a saddle must fit the horse correctly. The Indians always said the cavalry troops were easy to follow. They just followed the trail of dead horses and broken wagons.
    thank you

  • Mike W:

    The army knew saddle fitment was a problem and designed the 1912 Board of Officers saddle with adjustable bars. Metallurgical limitations prevented its adoption as standard.

  • Interesting! What did they look like? Do you have any pictures?

  • Jim French:

    This article is complete nonsense.

  • Why do think it is “complete nonsense”? While we may not agree, I hope we can have intelligent discussion.

  • Greg Smith:

    I have been reenacting for 25 years and have never had a problem with a McClellan saddle. The earlier trees fit the horses better then the 04 models. The horses were not the size of ponies in the past. You can look at horse bones and other historical photographs to confirm if you like. My saddle has the bars widened for the comfort of the horse and most others do the same. Im not sure of your horse experience. I have been riding for 40 years. Lived on a ranch in Wyoming and compete in ranch roping’s with well known horsemen.

  • I’m glad that your horses have not experienced the pain of the horses used by our rlocal re-enactors. They don’t call themselves “re-enactors” but rather call themselves The First Company Governor’s Horse Guard. Most of these riders are beginners and depend on the “officers” for guidance and instruction. This historic military unit (part of the Connecticut National Guard) used McClellan saddles and their horses were so back sore that their vet, Dr. Peter Conserva, told them to get rid of the McClellans or find a new vet. On Dr. Conserva’s recommendation, the state military department purchased new saddles with steel and wood spring trees which were custom fitted to each horse. These were modern all-purpose saddles outfitted with extra dees and rings for attaching military paraphernalia. The saddles were adjusted several times as the horses’ atrophied backs recovered and built muscle. Eventually, the horses stabilized and only occasional adjustments are now necessary.
    Like any saddle, if it fits the horse and rider, there are no problems. But when they don’t fit, it is the horse that suffers. We, and Dr. Conserva, have seen several of these horses and stand by our recommendation that McClellan saddles belong in a museum, not on a horse’s back.
    Since we’ve never seen a McClellan saddle with bars that could be widened, I’m interested in this new information. Can you send us a photo?

  • mark dudrow:

    i also am very disappointed in your lack of research. i use a thoroughbred with a mcclellan for living history at our national parks. i have done so for 25 years and had no problems. i care deeply for my horse and take extra care not to cause her any pain. my mac fits here fine. as for your reference to the soldiers and horses. i have reference to one soldier in a maryland regiment being 6′ and 180 pounds when captured at new market va. in 1864 and i can produce many others. also horses for the service were to be 4 -8 years old and at least 15 hands. most horses were thoroughbreds, arabs or morgans. General John Buford’s horse was a thoroughbred and General Grant’s horse was 16 hands. do your research and don’t make generalizations.

  • I stand by my previous posts. If you own a McClellan saddle and it fits your horse, fine. Use it. But McClellans don’t fit most modern horses. Modern horses are often quarter horse crosses or warmblood crosses, most of which are broad backed. Even Morgans are quite broad backed. A couple years ago, I did a partial lease on a Morab (Morgan X Arab) mare. This smallish horse required a wider saddle than the Percheron/TB owned by our office manager. It doesn’t matter how many hands high a horse is. All that matters is those 320 or so square inches of their backs where the saddle rests. Breed doesn’t matter either. There are wide AND narrow thoroughbreds and everything in between. We don’t breed modern horses to fit saddles. We usually adjust a saddle to the horse.

    Riders considering purchase of a McClellan style saddle, should consult with a competent saddle fitter (especially larger riders). I know….the army didn’t consult saddle fitters and they had large riders. But I believe there are more large riders today. And many of them are beginners. My research on rider size is purely my own observations. We sell lots of big saddles… up to 19.5″ and have requests for even larger sizes that we cannot fulfill. A 6′ tall 180 pound rider is not large by today’s standards. Riders are not immune to the obesity epidemic currently facing this country.

    I don’t know at which National Park you ride for the living history museum, but since the mid 19th century, we have come a long way in humane treatment of our animals. If your roll is to play the part of a Civil War era soldier I can understand why you maintain this antiquated idea of saddle fit. It’s good that you are using an appropriate horse and hopefully, you are a good rider. I hope that you have the opportunity to educate the public on the importance of saddle fit and explain why you feel that your saddle fits your horse.

  • thomas burdette:

    Not worth anything? Have you been to an auction lately? Even one with rotted out stitching and all coming apart with bring $100 for yard decoration to hang on a fence. They are rare today, just as the bits, the saddle bags and even a metal stirrup. Telling people to put it in the dumpster is not only robbing our nation of its history, its stupid to put hundreds of dollars in the trash when someone would like to decorate their basement or living room with it and pay a pretty penny.

  • If every old McClellan saddle were used for decorative purposes or in a museum, I would agree. But these saddles should NOT be used on a modern horse unless it fits. When it doesn’t fit, it causes the horse serious pain. It can even cause lameness. Talk to your horse’s vet if you want an independent opinion.

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