American cowboy with Mexican saddle, c. 1895. Today commonly known as the Western saddle in the U.S., the charro saddle was called the Spanish saddle prior to 1900.
As American as apple pie and pozole
by Susanna Kirchberg
Cowboys-- solitary men on horseback who rode the open plains, valleys
and mountains tending their grazing herds are the Everyman of
American heritage. Practical, hardworking men, they formed the
backbone of the western hemisphere's developing nations with their
unique code of honor and style. As rugged as the land they worked,
these unsung folk figures of our past put food on the table for
thousands of city dwellers, helped open new frontiers and tamed
uncultivated lands. In the United States and Mexico the traditional
cowboy evokes feelings of pride, romanticism and a "We can do it!"
spirit that few other heroes offer the average joe.
The Mexican charro or vaquero is predecessor to the "wild west"
cowboys of the United States. The occupation of breading large herds
of livestock on the open range developed almost immediately after the
Spanish conquest, due in part to the importation of the first horses
to the western continents from Europe. The Americas earliest cowboys
were men whose lineage was 100% Spanish, that is to say they were not
the offspring of European and indigenous or European and African
parents. Men of "non-European and mixed blood" were forbidden by law
to own or ride a horse until 1619, nearly one hundred years after the
On November 16th, 1619 Diego Fernández de Córdoba, the Jesuit owner
of a large hacienda in central Mexico issued twenty-two written
permits to indigenous men allowing them to ride horses "with saddles,
bits and spurs" while working, guarding and transporting the
plantation's cattle. It is easy to imagine that the determination and
sense of pride one associates with the cowboy spirit was born with
these twenty-two men who had faced incredible odds to earn the
privilege of mounting and riding a horse.
The charro's elaborate costume and trappings reflect the merging of
three distinct cultures that create the Mexican cowboy: Arabian,
Spanish and indigenous American. His garments-- the short fitted
jackets and pants, wide hat and heavy spurs, can be traced back to
the peasant dress of Salamanca, Navarra and Andalucía in Moorish
Spain. By the early 17th century, production of charro clothing was
one of Mexico's largest national industries. Gentleman cowboys
adorned their trousers with silver buttons down the heavily
embroidered outside seams. The short jackets and wide-brim, cone-
shaped hats were trimmed in a likewise fashion. The country cowboy's
outfit was simpler and more resistant for daily use and labor. It
consisted of fitted heavy cotton pants, shirt, jacket, boots,
sombrero and the always-present heavy Mexican spurs.
The charro's saddle is a modified version of earlier Spanish and
Arabian designs, with elements added to make it more comfortable for
the rough work of stock raising and general use in the New World. A
large pommel and horn, which was used by the mounted rider to anchor
the lariat when roping livestock, and lengthened stirrup leathers for
a more comfortable ride on the range, are among some of the
adjustments made. Heavy, but sturdy and comfortable for long trips
over rugged land, the charro saddle is the precursor of the "Texas"
or "western" saddle used today in the United States.
The "saddletree" of the charro saddle, as the base form is called,
consists of four parts: two bridges, properly termed the fork or
pommel and the cantle (the rear mound of the saddle); and two lateral
pieces, known as sideboards. The wooden framework is joined with pegs
and glue, then covered with wet rawhide and stitched. The rawhide
dries tight over the frame, adding strength to the tree structure.
The charro's riding equipment is a combination of practical and
elegant trappings. Over the saddletree he would place large removable
leather mochilas, which are saddlebags or a leather covering similar
to a blanket. On the back of the saddle a leather tailpiece, known as
an anquera, covers the rump and flanks of the horse, protecting it
from heavy brush and also serving to accustom the animal to carrying
weight behind the saddle. These pieces were often heavily embroidered
and embossed. Wealthier charros would add silver adornments and
buttons to the worked leather trappings for showy appearances during
festivals and parades.
From the saddlehorn the cowboy would dangle long leathers which could
be drawn over the rider's thighs like an apron, shielding against
rough shrubbery on the range. Up north these strips of leather were
later modified into articles of cowboy garb known as "chaps." Topping
off the outfit were spurs with large rawls, often embellished with
fancy designs in sterling silver overlay; carved wood or embossed
leather stirrups with open or closed fronts; and ornate, hand-forged
iron "spade" bits.
In the United States, open-range farming and ranching didn't catch on
until 1865. Although there were men in Texas and other parts of the
Great Plains before this time who tended their herds on these rugged
and open lands, it wasn't until after 1865 that the American cowboy
emerged as a distinct vocational sector in the western U.S.
Prior to the 1820s, the "English" saddle and style of riding was the
standard in northeastern America. As the United States began pushing
westward, the limitations of using the shallow-seat, heavily padded
English style saddle in rugged territory became obvious. As early as
1805, explorers such as Captains Meriweather Lewis and William Clark
were aware of the greater security and comfort the "Spanish"* saddle
offered travelers working on demanding land.
By 1833 the U.S. War Department had adopted the "Spanish" saddle for
use as standard issue. Soon afterwards saddles based on the Mexican
cowboy design were being manufactured and sold "ready-made" in Saint
Louis, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, and throughout the state of
The new American cowboy utilized and modified numerous articles of
his work gear from his Mexican counterpart and from indigenous North
Americans. Early California and Texas bit and spur makers from the
mid-1800s used designs based upon Mexican "Chihuahua" spurs
and "spade" bits, apparel that the charro had been using during work
on the range for over a hundred and fifty years.. Charro style
mochilas, saddlebags and longer stirrup leathers also augmented the
American cowboy's trappings. From the northwestern indigenous, long
six to seven inch leather cuffs, which gave the cowboy extra wrist
support when roping livestock, were incorporated into daily wear.
Articles unique to the western U.S. cowboy include canvas Levis
pants, subdued colored shirts, cotton bandanas used to cover the nose
and mouth when stampeding cattle kicked up dust, and long
leather "dusters" which protected the cowboy against rain and heavy
The preservation of cowboy traditions can be easily evidenced in
Mexico and the United States. South of the Rio Grande nearly every
town and city has at least one charro association, with some cities
boasting over a dozen. All are branches of the National Association
of Charros, created in Mexico City in 1933 to help conserve the
native Mexican cowboy's riding style, costume, trappings and
In the United States collecting cowboy memorabilia has become a
prevalent means of preserving and passing on a portion of the
heritage these stoic and resilient men left the peoples of the
western hemisphere-- from Montana to Chiapas, and all the vast land
The cowboy-- an imperfect but hard working and noble man-- is the
true American hero, north and south of the Rio Grande.
*Note: What is today commonly known as the "western" style saddle in
the United States was referred to as the "Spanish" saddle prior to
1900. The term "Spanish" was used loosely in the U.S. during this
period to indicate an item or trend which originated from Mexico or
any of the Spanish colonies in the New World.