Fitting a McClellan Saddle to your horse

A few of the reproduction McClellan saddles offered today are on fairly good modern repro trees with proportions only slightly different than the original 1896/1904. But, many more of the trees that the repro saddle fitters use are a cobbled western tree that they like to call a “modified Quarter Horse spread". This tree simply reverses the wither pressure problem of the original McClellan saddle and places the rider's weight back onto the cantle and flat onto the horse’s back, just in front of the kidneys. Unfortunately this tree is in wide use and many repro fitters are still using it despite the sore back problems that it causes. This repro tree is nothing more than an “off the rack” commercial tree made to look like a McClellan and is no better a fit to your horse than an original or true copy of the 1896/04 McClellan tree. So unless the horse has been fit specifically for a tree by an experienced saddle fitter, my suggestion is to start with the original and work up from there to a custom fit tree if necessary. When shopping for a tree don’t buy into the foolish notion put forth by some of the repro saddle fitters that the horses of today are different than the horses of the Civil War. I have studied more than 100 veterinarian sources, both Military and civilian and can prove this sales pitch to be so much nonsense.

Many reenactor complaints and the source of several saddle fit problems with the repro 1859 Pattern McClellan is the “center fire” rigging. The center fire rigging has been a problem with the McClellan since 1859 and was remedied somewhat with the "self locating and adjustable" quarter straps of the 1904 McClellan. The reenactors repro ‘59 McClellan is a step back in "McClellan technology" from the adjustable '04, but to be truly authentic C/W-I/W period, the reenactor must have a proper period saddle, and thus runs the risk of punishing his horse. Not only with a poorly fit tree, but also with the fixed girth straps. This makes proper saddle fit a critical issue for all reenactors.

The McClellan saddle should be placed on the horse in the same manner as with most any saddle, with the lowest point of the saddle seat over, or as near as possible to the horse's center of motion (not center of gravity). The girth should fit, where all girths should fit, about 3-4 inches behind the horse’s elbow. On a horse with perfect "McClellan conformation" the saddle and girth will remain in place and will move forward only as much as the rider's seat will allow. Unfortunately, now as back then, very few horses have perfect "McClellan conformation". So the rider must determine at which specific points the saddle does not properly fit and try to adjust the fit if possible. If the “best fit” for a particular saddle is still causing discomfort to the horse, there are just four possible solutions: 1. Change saddles and see if a better fit is possible (unlikely) 2. Have a custom saddle maker fit and make a saddletree to fit the horse. (can be expensive) 3. Change horses, find a horse with a more McClellan conformation (can be frustrating) 4. Find a new hobby (man's pleasure must not punish the horse).

When I fit a horse for a new saddle there are few limitations or constraints other than type, (ie: English flat, western , dressage, etc.) so a “perfect fit” can usually be obtained. With the McClellan it is much more difficult because there is no latitude. The saddle "is as it is" and the best fit is usually less than perfect. It is often easier to fit the horse to the McClellan saddle than it is to fit the saddle to the horse. I ride McClellans that I have made over original '04 trees and on trees custom made to my sizing specifications. More importantly I pick my horses very carefully. I am 6'0'' 168lbs and have ridden competitively for more than 43 years. I started riding McClellans in endurance competition in the 1950s. My "McClellan" horses have always been 15/15-2 hands, slightly narrower in the chest than most western QHs, closer coupled, (medium length back) with about a 4'' top line drop and medium width, medium-low withers. These characteristics along with good muscle tone and conditioning will provide the best fit for the McClellan saddle. Here's why:

When fitting a saddle (any saddle) there are more than 20 specific elements to consider, most of these are for the saddle maker's art, but there are about five of these that are requirements for general saddle fitting that everyone should know;

(Fit the saddle on a bare back first then add the lightest blanket/pad possible. A military saddle blanket in six layers is about right)

1. Position/Placement- Nominally the front point of the sidebars should be 2-3 finger widths behind the scapula (shoulder blade), but in any event should not interfere with the movement of the shoulder.

2. Balance Point- The lowest point of the saddle should lie at the horse's center of motion, which is usually the lowest point of the horse's back. (15th vertebrae)

3. Tree size- Width; Nominally 2-3 fingers width between the top of the withers and the inner arc center of the pommel. Length; Sidebars should extend only to the last true rib.

4. Width of gullet and channel- Free of contact with the horse's spine along its entire length. (While the horse is in motion as well as at rest)

5. Stability- The tree should neither "rock" nor should it “bridge". It should lie flat and in contact with the horse's back throughout the full length of the sidebars.


In order to achieve an optimum in the above five elements of fit for a McClellan saddle a horse with the conformation characteristics close to what I've described above would be required. This can be easily verified. Take a McClellan saddle and fit it to a variety of horses. The results will graphically demonstrate that the optimum fit will be to the horse described. Purchase descriptions used by military horse buyers describe a similar horse. Which did not change for nearly 85 years.

As far as the horse is concerned the McClellan saddle only comes in one size. The seat sizes 11-11 1/2-12 do not affect the gullet width or other tree dimensions. Except that the length of the sidebars do change by 1/2 inch for each seat size. Which is not significant for McClellan saddle fitting, except in extreme cases such as an abnormally short back. Also keep in mind that horses change for many reasons such as, age, fitness, health, feed, exercise, type of activity, environment etc. A saddle that fits this year may be all wrong next year. Refit the saddle every year or at any noticeable change in the horse.

Often ignored by reenactors, and I suppose, riders in general is the importance of the proper relationship of the rider's seat, proper saddle fit and sore backs. The cavalry was very sensitive to the proper seat, specifically because of the difficulty in correctly fitting the McClellan saddle. They took great pains in training the trooper in the discipline of body position. In the late 1880s the cavalry issued a bulletin to the field that said, "The exact balance of the weight of the saddle is of so much importance that all concerned must be made to understand how serious may be the least variation. Riders should not be permitted to sit a little more to one side than the other, to ride with one stirrup longer than the other, nor to ride straight legged with their buttocks pushed back against the cantle. No other seat than that described in regulations should be tolerated, since this seat is designated as much for the prevention of sore backs as for any other purpose."

Every reenactor should study and school in the proper regulation military seat as part of saddle fit and general good health. Without describing the military seat in detail, it is simply sitting deep in the center of the saddle well onto the seat bones, legs hanging naturally, but in contact with the horse with a line from the heel to the hip to the shoulder. There is much more to the seat, but the details can be found in most any period U.S. cavalry manual.

Adding blanket or padding to relieve pressure on the horse's back and withers should be done with extreme care. Less is better. Too much padding will aggravate the poor fit problem. Sort of like putting on an extra pair of socks to fix tight boots.

Do not try to remedy the slipping of the McClellan saddle forward by using a crupper.    When used on a riding saddle, the crupper is a device that is intended to inhibit the forward movement of the saddle when going down steep grades and pressure is not meant to be constantly applied. When the crupper is used as a corrective device for poor saddle fit it is in constant application and exerts severe pressure on the underside of the horse's tail at the dock. This can cause severe chafing, discomfort and sores. If used too long the horse may become disabled in the hindquarters. Inability to correctly adjust the crupper is why the cavalry eventually discontinued its use. Martingales (fixed and running) and breast collars are usually unnecessary for well-schooled horses with properly fitted saddles.

The McClellan saddle is not an easy saddle to fit even to the most ideal of horses. That is simply a fact and it plagued the cavalry for 85 years. The “best fit” versus the “perfect fit” will satisfy most horses. When fitting the saddle try to achieve the best fit and then listen to your horse. With a little extra care from the rider and the use of a good seat the McClellan experience can be enjoyable for both the horse and rider.

Article written by Jim Ottevaere