Saddlery and Harness
The tack (harness, saddles, bridles, halters, etc.) used in World War 1 had changed little since the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, fifty years before. For that matter, there have been few changes in the hundred years hence, though saddles are much more padded for both horse and rider, and synthetic materials, not yet invented in 1917, may be used for padding or in place of leather.
An experienced horseman in 2017 would easily recognize all the parts of a WW1-era saddle or harness and could quickly put it on his or her modern horse.
When the war began, practically all Army purchases of harness were made thorough the Jeffersonville, Indiana Quartermaster Depot.1 Early in 1918, purchasing was moved to Chicago because most of the suppliers were near that city. Given the vast extent of the stockyard and cattle slaughter industry in Chicago, it is not surprising that leather-related industries also grew up there.
Just as in the wagon industry, the beginning of the war saw shortages of manufacturing facilities for harness. The Quartermaster Corps made a careful survey of all possible suppliers, and “every manufacturer having proper facilities has been consulted regarding needs, and in a majority of cases induced to take on his proper share of the work.”2
This hardly sounds as if the manufacturers were eager to jump into war work!
Some insight can be gained into this seemingly-odd response by looking at the specifications that were being laid on the manufacturers. The Society of the Military Horse has this explanation:
“The familiarity of the McClellan [saddle] and its equipments was well known to many manufacturers around the country, with many of them having provided these items during the Spanish-American war, and in the twenty years following that. To effect a rapid mobilization while minimizing potential production bottlenecks, the Ordnance Dept. decided that the McClellan equipments would be the most rational choice, given the short turn-around times required.”
“To assist in this effort, updated schematics and drawings were prepared in April and May of 1917, to be used by these private firms to fulfill the flood of contracts that was being prepared.
“The manufacturers, for their part, had been on a war footing since late 1914. A vast amount of material had been produced for European nations since the beginning of the war in Europe, and their processes, equipment and labor was (for many) firmly established and ready to go.”
Why, then, would they be reluctant to enter into contracts for the U.S. Army?
The answer almost certainly lies in the new specifications.
“The prepared drawings of April and May were similar to those that had been around for years, but show a distinctly different focus on absolute precision. Comparison to drawings of even a few months before show greater specificity in angles, radii, measurements and small finish details. Contractors were clearly informed that their product would be inspected and judged by the specification drawing that they were provided with.”3
The producers were probably reluctant to sign up to the new and stricter specifications – but sign up they did, eventually, and huge amounts of leather goods were produced. A congressional investigation in 1922 estimated that well over 900,000 saddles were produced – more than 3 saddles for every horse the A.E.F. had the entire time it was in France, and most of those being draft or pack animals. These saddles flooded the army surplus market for years thereafter, and McClellan saddles were quite commonly used for recreational riding for at least 50 years after the war ended.
The greatest difficulty in the harness industry was the supply of leather. The army managed the supply to some extent via the Quartermaster Corps consolidated purchasing process.
The Quartermaster of the Army reported that, in the one-year period between June 30, 1917 - June 30, 1918, the Corps contracted for 1,500,000 halters at $3 each, though only 1,300,000 were delivered. During the same period, 40,250 aparejo pack saddles were ordered, but only 3,000 were delivered.5 A halter is perhaps the simplest and most common of all harness equipment, and surely every factory would have been capable of manufacturing them. The aparejo, on the other hand, would have been a far more specialized item with only a few suppliers. Still, the report does not provide an explanation as to how so many could have been ordered while so few were received.
Three major types of saddles were used by U.S. troops during World War 1.
The McClellan Saddle
The cavalry - though bear in mind that by the time the U.S. entered the war, cavalry battles were not being fought - would have used a version of the McClellan saddle. Resembling a stripped-down U.S. stock or western saddle, the McClellan was first introduced not long after the Civil War and had changed little over the years. It had a wooden framework, or tree, which was leather covered but had no padding on the side presented to the rider (on some saddles, there was sheepskin on the side for the horse.)
A saddle blanket, folded several times, provided some additional cushioning for the horse’s back but the rider was left to sit on a thin covering of leather stretched directly over the wooden saddle tree. Some found this quite comfortable, many did not, and the long open channel that divided the two halves of the tree over the horse’s spine was a particular source of rider irritation.
The stirrups were made of wood and had leather covers over their fronts, both to protect the front of the rider’s foot and to provide warmth in cold weather.
There were no saddle flaps, that is, the leather panels that hang down the sides of the horse and cover the girth. Rather, there were on each side, two angled straps which formed a triangle, fastened to the front (pommel), rear (cantle), and at their base to the billet straps, which in turn fastened to the girth, or cincha.
The cincha was made of 24 strands of 6-ply spun and twisted horsehair rope, knotted on the ends to a ring to which the billet straps were tied.6
To keep the trooper’s leg from being rubbed by the straps and the horse’s side, the rider wore short boots topped with canvas leggings, which had buckles that fastened around multiple levels between knee and ankle.
Periodic efforts to improve the McClellan saddle had surfaced from time to time in the cavalry. In fact, when the U.S. entered the war, a trial design had recently been tested but had failed to perform adequately and was being re-worked. But because there was a large supply of saddles already in the army inventory, and a general reluctance to move to a relatively untried design, the army chose to use the old 1904/1908 model through the war years.
The saddle had several rings, holders, and straps on which to fasten things like bedrolls, ammunition pouches, and of course the rider’s sabre. Fully loaded, the saddle and the rider’s equipment weighed about 45 pounds.
McClellan saddles were also used with horses who pulled guns and limbers. These vehicles did not have a place for a driver to sit, and consequently, one horse in each pair of pulling horses or mules was also carrying a rider, who guided and controlled that pair. In fact, most of the McClellan saddles in France were worn by draft horses, not by saddle horses.
Just as numerous as the McClellan in France were quartermaster saddles, that is, those used for horses that were in harness and were pulling supply wagons, water carts, ambulances, rolling kitchens, etc. – everything but guns. Just as with the gun horses, one horse in each pair carried a rider. But rather than using a McClellan saddle, a simple flat saddle was used for service other than in the artillery.
The quartermaster saddles were a very plain design, with minimal hardware and smooth leather flaps and seat. The stirrups were open, not covered, and were metal with arched uppers and flat treads. They resembled officer’s saddles but were made of a lesser grade of leather and overall were less well finished.
Officers of all specialties used horses to get around the battlefield, and usually used saddles that were much like the quartermaster saddle – that is, plain, with a flat seat, sometimes with panels that extended behind the seat to spread the weight of the rider over a larger area. They had open metal stirrups and ample flaps. This design was known as the Whitman saddle, or with slight variations, the officer’s field saddle.
While upper level enlisted men sometimes used McClellan saddles, senior officers and in particular cavalry officers, always used flat saddles. Cavalry officers were more attuned to saddle type than many other officers, and preferred saddles of French design and manufacture. These would not have had the extended panels and altogether were more trim and minimalist than the field saddle.
According to the Cavalry Journal, “the end and aim of the flat saddle is comfort for horse and not for the rider (though the latter was not admitted) in that it conforms more readily to the average back and is much less conducive to sores and no other or better reason for its use is required. Then, too, a high pommel and cantle, either impose an inflexible seat or encourage lounging and both must worry and chafe a troop horse ridden day after day by the same trooper.”7
There were, however, some who disagreed with the desirability of the open metal stirrup, claiming that they were “cold, not easily found by the foot if lost at a rough and rapid gait and may on occasion drag the rider. The wooden hood-stirrup protects from cold or wet and mud and, if lost, swings back automatically until the ball of the foot holds it.”8
Officers wore knee-high leather boots rather than the ankle boots and canvas leggings worn by enlisted troopers. Dress boots had no laces at the instep, while “undress” or field boots had laces at the instep and a buckle at the top.9
Mules have backs that are shaped differently from horses, and a special saddle was designed for the mules that were ridden alongside pack trains. It had two cinchas and a horn, clearly marking it as a piece of working equipment rather than a fighting saddle. The horn could be used as an attachment point for rope which then led backward over the thigh of the rider to a small load being dragged behind, or for a multitude of other uses.
Saddle blankets deserve a bit of attention because they were essential for the health of the horse’s back. With the McClellan saddle having virtually no padding, a 72” x 84” wool blanket folded multiple times was the only thing between the wooden saddle tree and the horse’s back.
If the blanket was not shaken out, aired, and re-folded before every use, it would quickly become worn and rotted on the surface that faced the horse. Though this might seem obvious, it was not army protocol and only some units adhered to this practice.10
Army specifications were very clear about the blanket: “The blanket will be made of pure wool; no Colorado wool, or what is known as “carpet wool,” or kemp, to be used. The yarn to be evenly spun with a moderate twist and free from lumps or shreds.”11
All saddle horses in the army wore either a curb bit with a single rein, or for officer’s mounts, a double bridle with a curb and a snaffle bit together. The curb bits were made in three mouthpiece sizes: 4.5”, 4.75”, and 5”and the middle size was needed for seventy-five per cent of animals.12
In 1912 a new model of cavalry bridle was issued on an experimental basis, basically permitting the double bridle to become a standard for cavalry troopers as well as officers. Snaffle bridles were issued as “watering bridles,” not for riding.
In 1912 a new model of cavalry bridle was issued on an experimental basis, basically permitting the double bridle to become a standard for cavalry troopers as well as officers.
Other Mounted Equipment
Cavalry soldiers carried a great deal of other equipment, all regulation and all made to specifications. This included a canteen with a cup made to fit over the bottom so the two nested together; currycomb, horse brush, wire cutters, saddle soap box, and small sponge to clean tack with.
There were also feed bags and grain bags, one for feeding the horse out of, the other for carrying extra grain while on the march.
A tent, raincoat, bed blanket, rifle carrier boot, saber and saber carrier, intrenching tool, picket pin for staking out the horse, ration bags for the trooper’s own food, and lariat might all be carried, though if possible and to spare the horse, the bed blanket and some of the other equipment might be carried in wagons.13
Vast quantities of harness for draft horses and mules were produced for use during the war. Most of this would be very much like harness worn by driving horses both before and after the war. Unlike saddlery, harness design has not changed very much over the years.
Two basic designs of harness allow horses and mules to pull vehicles. One uses a neck collar, a padded roll of leather stuffed with wool, that places the load on the front of the shoulders and on the upper breast. Collars cannot, of course, be placed in such a way as to obstruct the neck or hinder breathing. The remainder of the harness basically serves to keep the collar in place, and to attach the animal to the vehicle.
The second design uses a strap across the breast, known as a breast collar. This is a wide, flat leather strap, usually doubled and with stitching and some padding, that fits horizontally about mid-way down the animal’s chest between the base of the neck and the top of the front legs.
Although there is some choice in which harness design to use, it is largely determined by the vehicle that is being pulled and how high the attachment point on the vehicle is in relation to the harness and animal. This is known as the “line of draft (draught)” and for greatest efficiency, this line should angle slightly up from the vehicle to where it attaches to the harness.
Most photos, but by no means all, show World War 1 horses wearing breast collars.
For some areas of information there emerges a single authoritative source that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. Randy Steffen’s four-volume work The Horse Solder 1776-1943 is such a work. Its subtitle, “The United States Cavalryman: His Uniforms, Arms, Accoutrements, and Equipment” sums up the contents, but Steffen’s meticulous attention to detail and inclusion of every possible piece of equipment from saddle soap box to picket pins, bridles to longe lines, is what sets this work apart. Many items are illustrated with his own line drawings, and many of the illustrations in this section are reproduced from his books.
Photos and diagrams of harness as noted, are reproduced courtesy of Ralph Lovett and the Lovett Artillery Collection, http://www.lovettartillery.com.
- Report of the Quartermaster General U.S. Army to the Secretary of War, 1918. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1918. p. 30.
- Ibid, Quartermaster Report, p.30.
- Society if the Military Horse, 1904 McClellan War Contract Saddle (Pattern III). https://www.militaryhorse.org/mcclellan-saddle/the-model-1904-mcclellan-saddle-pattern-iii
- Ibid, Quartermaster Report, p. 31.
- Ibid, Quartermaster Report, p. 31.
- Steffen, Randy. The Horse Soldier: The United States Cavalryman - His Uniforms, Arms, Accoutrements, and Equipments, Vol III, 1881-1916. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1992. p. 194.
- Journal of the U.S. Cavalry Association, Vol XXV, No. 106, April 1915, p. 575.
- Ibid, Cavalry Journal.
- Steffen, Randy. The Horse Soldier Vol IV, The Horse Soldier: The United States Cavalryman - His Uniforms, Arms, Accoutrements, and Equipments - World War I, the Peacetime Army, World War II, 1917-1943, Vol. 4. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1993. p. 26.
- Journal of the U.S. Cavalry Association, “Care of the Saddle Blanket.” Vol XVII, April 1917, p. 56.
- Ibid, Steffen, Vol III, p. 195.
- Ibid, Steffen, Vol III, p. 196.
- Ibid, Steffen, Vol III, p. 245.