How to Properly Fit a McClellan Saddle
By Dan Gilmore
January 15, 2016
For a while now I have gotten a number of requests to write an article on the proper fitting of the McClellan Saddle. The best and most detailed description of the proper fitting of this saddle can be found in the “FM 25-5 Basic Field Manual, Animal Transport, Prepared under direction of the Chief of Cavalry, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1939"
A few brief comments must be considered concerning the McClellan saddle before discussing it's proper fitting to the horse's back.
The McClellan Saddle (M1904 and later) was designed with purely military applications in mind. The saddle came in seat sizes ranging from approximately eleven to 12 ½ inches with some rare exceptions. The seat sizes accommodate a wide range of riders within the desired weight of those riders as well as the combined weight of rider an kit (which could be upwards of 250 lbs total).
The trees were of fairly uniform size and configuration in terms of the width, length and angles involved. Under ideal conditions, horses were selected to fit the saddle. In practice, and as a general rule, a one-size-fits-all saddle usually ends up not fitting most horses properly. The Cavalry Service Regulations took this into consideration and adjustments to fitting of the saddle are detailed in ¶310 of those regulations. The Army treated horses as expendable and only expected a horse to last about thirty days in the field under combat patrol conditions. Hence, despite all the wonderful claims about the McClellan Saddle, its use can be somewhat unpleasant to the horse if it is not properly fitted to the horse.
Today, the McClellan Saddle is still in use by cavalry re-enactors and still popular with some endurance and trail riders. A McClellan saddle custom made for a particular horse or a vintage saddle that fits a particular horse offers a ride that is comparable to modern Western working or trail saddles in fit and comfort provided the rider knows the proper seat in which to ride this saddle design.
Riding in a forward seat (Fort Riley Seat in this instance) is somewhat cumbersome in a McClellan even if the saddle is an M1928 or a 1931 Whiting Modification version. Jumping in these saddles is not a pleasant proposition and they are not suited to jumping anything but the occasional low obstacle one might encounter in the field. If one is to use a McClellan Saddle for anything beyond casual riding and not an everyday saddle, the fit of the saddle should be carefully adjusted as described in the Cavalry Service Regulations.
(Extract from: “FM 25-5 Basic Field Manual, Animal Transport, Prepared under direction of the Chief of Cavalry, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1939")
11. Fitting of horse equipment. - a. Proper fitting of bits and saddles should receive systematic, continuous attention. Habitual attention to the ordinary measures for the prevention of sore backs, all adjustments for avoidance of unnecessary irritation to the animal are indispensable to the efficiency of a mounted organization.
Figure 2.- Parts of saddle. McClellan, M11904. Cavalry.
b. The following principles are of general application in
(1) The withers must not be pinched nor pressed upon.
(2) The central line of the back must have no pressure upon it.
(3) The shoulder blades must have free and unhampered movement.
(4) The weight must be evenly distributed over a surface which extends from the rear of the shoulders to the last true rib.
c. The bits should be of proper width to fit the horse's mouth, the branches of the curb touching lightly the outer surfaces of the lips.
12. To fold the saddle blanket.-a. The blanket, after being well shaken out, should be folded into six thicknesses, as follows:
(1) Hold up by two corners, so that long edge of blanket is up and down.
(2) Double lengthwise, folded corner between thumb and forefinger of right hand, thumb pointing to left.
(3) Slip left hand down folded edge two-thirds its length and seize with thumb and second finger.
(4) Raise hands to height of shoulders, blanket extended between them.
(5) Bring hands together, double fold falling outward.
(6) Pass folded corner from right hand into left hand.
(7) Slip second finger of right hand between folds and grasp double-folded corners.
(8) Turn left (disengaged) corner in and grasp with thumb and forefinger of right hand, the second finger of right hand stretching and evening the folds.
(9) Grasp corners and shake blanket well in order to smooth the folds.
(10) Raise blanket and place upper edge between the chin and breast.
(11) Slip hands halfway down blanket, first two fingers outside, other fingers and thumb of each hand inside.
(12) Grasp blanket and let the part under the chin fall forward.
(13) Hold blanket up, arms extended, even the lower edges, then flip outside part over right arm.
(14) Hold blanket thus until ready to place it on the horse. The description given in a above is the normal method of folding the saddle blanket. Departure from this method may be resorted to, however, in order to prevent undue wear on the hearing surface and along the folded edges of the blanket and, on occasion, for the relief or prevention of sore backs.
13. To stand to heel.-The horses being tied on the picket line or in their respective stalls in the stable, at the command. Stand to heel, each man stands at attention 1 yard in rear of and facing his horse.
14. To put on blanket and surcingle.-The instructor commands: BLANKET.
a. Approach horse on left side, with blanket folded and held as described in paragraph 12.
b. Place blanket well forward on horse's back by tossing the part of blanket over right arm to right side of the horse, still keeping hold of the middle points.
c. Slide blanket once or twice from front to rear to smooth the hair on the horse's back, being careful to raise blanket in bringing it forward.
d. Place blanket with forefinger of left hand on the withers and forefinger of right hand on the loin.
e. Pass buckle end of surcingle over middle of blanket.
f. Buckle surcingle on left side of the horse a little below the edge of blanket.
15. To saddle.-a. McClellanl saddle.- (1) For instruction, the saddle may be placed 4 yards in rear of the horse, the stirrups crossed over the seat, right one uppermost; the cinch and cinch strap crossed above the stirrups, the strap uppermost; saddle blanket folded, horse side in, folded edge to the front, double fold to the right, across the seat of the saddle.
(2) The instructor commands: BLANKET. Approach horse on left side, with blanket folded and held as described in paragraph.
12. Place blanket (less surcingle) as described in paragraph 14.
(3) The blanket having been placed on the horse, the instructor commands: SADDLE.
(a) Grasp pommel of saddle with left hand and cantle with right.
(b) Approach horse on left side and place center of saddle on the middle of the horse's back, front end of side bar about four fingerbreadths behind the point of shoulder blade and about the width of a man's hand in rear of double-folded edge of blanket.
(c) Let down cinch strap and cinch.
(d) Pass to right side, adjust cinch and strap, and see that blanket is smooth.
(c) Return to left side and raise blanket slightly under pommel arch so that the withers will not be compressed.
(f) Take cinch strap in right hand and reach under the horse and seize cinch ring with left hand.
(g) Pass end of strap through ring from underneath (from inside to outside), then up and through upper ring from the outside; if necessary, make another fold in the same manner. Do not get cinch too tight. When adjusted, the flat open hand should fit snugly between the cinch and the horse.
(4) Inspect to see that the withers are not pressed or pinched.
B. Modified McClellan saddle.-When the modified McClellan saddle is used, the instructions given in a above govern except as indicated below:
(1) After saddle has been placed on the horse's neck, pass to right side and see that blanket is smooth, and let down the girth.
(2) Return to left side and raise blanket slightly under pommel arch. Reach under horse and seize end of girth with left hand. Raise saddle skirt with right hand. Insert front girth strap in front buckle of girth and draw up snugly. Repeat the same operation with rear strap and rear buckle.
16. To adjust length of stirrup straps.-To approximate the correct length of stirrup straps, before mounting, they are adjusted so that the length of stirrup strap, including stirrup, is about one inch less than the length of the arm, fingers extended.
17. To unsaddle. - a. McClellan saddle.-The instructor commands: UNSADDLE.
(1) Cross left stirrup over saddle and loosen cinch strap and let down cinch.
(2) Pass to right side and cross right stirrup, then cinch.
(3) Pass to left side and cross cinch strap over saddle.
(4) Grasp pommel with left hand, cantle with right hand and, removing saddle toward croup, place it in rear of the horse, pommel to front.
Figure 3. Parts of saddle, McClellan, M1928 (modified), Cavalry.
Fitting Instructions for the M1914 "Experimental" saddle.
(5) Grasp blanket at the withers with left hand and at the loin with right hand.
(6) Remove blanket in direction of the croup, edges falling together, wet side in.
(7) Place blanket on saddle, folded edge on pommel.
b. Modified McClellan saddle.--When the modified McClellan saddle is used, the instructions given in a above govern, substituting the words "unbuckle and let down girth" for "loosen cinch strap and let down cinch."
A second fitting manual worth is for the M1912 “Experimental” saddle tested during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico, 1916-1917. The following section comes from paragraph 310; Cavalry Service Regulations, United States Army (Experimental) 1914; War Department: Chief of staff; Government Printing Office, Washinton, DC, 1914.
"Fitting The Saddle
¶310. There are six axioms in saddle fitting:
(a) The withers must not be pinched nor pressed upon.
(b) The central line of the back must have no pressure put upon it.
(c) The shoulder blades must have full and unhampered movement.
(d) The loins must not carry weight.
(e) The weight must be put upon the ribs through the medium of the muscles covering them.
(f) The weight must be evenly distributed over a surface which extends from the play of the shoulders to the last true rib.
The regulation saddle adjusts itself automatically to the width of the horse's back. This automatic adjustment is brought about by applying all the weight that is to come upon the side bars, through their center of rotation, thus leaving the side bar of the loaded saddle free to adapt itself to the varying width of the back.
In order to preserve this freedom, no attachments of any kind should be placed on the side bar, other than as issued, and no weight should be permitted to rest on the side bars other than that transmitted to them through the hinges. The cantle roll support and straps have been devised especially to raise the roll and keep all weight off the side bars.
While the side bars adapt themselves automatically to the slope of the horse's back it is necessary to ascertain whether they bear evenly on the back and whether the arch and seat are clear of the spine.
To determine this, the saddle is placed first on the naked back, the front of the side bar resting in the pit of the shoulder (the hollow back of the shoulder blade). If there is then sufficient clearance of the withers and backbone no trouble will be encountered when the saddle is put on with a blanket.
A new blanket is then folded and placed in proper position on the back and the saddle placed on the blanket so that the front end of the side bar approaches closely the shoulder blade without pressing upon it. The blanket is pushed well up into the pommel arch. The saddle is now girthed and a man placed in the saddle.
It must be kept in mind that the blanket reduces the width of the pommel arch and narrows the saddle across the top of the side bars.
The fit of the saddle can never be determined without seeing a man in it; parts may appear out of harm's way, when no weight is in the saddle, which are brought dangerously close under the pressure of a man's weight.
The first thing to ascertain is the freedom from pressure on the withers; the hand must pass readily between the blanket and the withers, over the top as well as along the side.
In applying this test the man in the saddle should lean forward and the examiner must not be satisfied with anything less than the introduction of the entire hand.
The next thing is to ascertain freedom from pressure on the shoulder blade. This is done by passing the hand underneath the blanket from the front until the play of the shoulder blade can be felt. The foreleg is raised and advanced to its full extent to the front by an assistant while the hand is in this position. If this can be done, while the man in the saddle is leaning forward, without pinching the fingers between the side bars and the shoulder blade the fit in this respect is satisfactory. The test should be made on both shoulders.
If the fingers are pinched the shoulder blades will be pinched and the saddle must be raised by folding the saddle blanket up on each side, so as to place extra thickness under the bare or by placing extra felt on the side bars.
The rear ends of the bars are next tested for loin pressure with the man in the saddle leaning back. The flat of the hand should find ready admission between the ends of the bars and the loins.
Assuming that the above defects have been remedied the saddle should be ridden in for half an hour or more to ascertain whether the pressure of the side bars is evenly distributed.
On completion of the ride the saddle is carefully ungirthed and lifted from the blanket without disturbing it in any way. The blanket will be found to bear the imprint of the side bars and an examination of this depression will show at a glance whether the bars press evenly from top to bottom and from front to rear.
The examination must be quickly made as the blanket soon loses the impression of the side bars.
Any irregularity in the fit of the side bars may be remedied by the introduction of pieces of felt to fill up the spaces between the side bars and the blanket. With very little practice these pieces of felt may be cut to the required shape and thickness with a very sharp knife. Some edges will need to be as thin as a knife edge; other parts may require the addition of more than one thickness.
After determining where these pieces of felt are to rest on the wooden side bars they are placed in the upper and inner side of the felt coverings of these bars and fastened in the proper place with a few stitches of thread.
The most radical alterations in the fit of the side bar can be affected with these strips; the method is simple and quick, and does not require a trained workman.
It must not be forgotten that no matter how much care may be taken in fitting a saddle, such fitting is only adapted to the horse in the condition in which he is at the time.
On active service the saddles require daily attention. They should be inspected as regularly as are the feet. Every weak point in the fit of a saddle in the squadron should be known and the remedy arranged for. In no other way is it possible to bring horses through severe work with sound backs."
McClellan Saddle image credit: Image Credit: "Horses, Saddles and Bridles; General William H. Carter, United States Army; Lord Baltimore Press, 1900; pg. 129."
Copyright ©2011, Dan Gilmore, all rights reserved.