If you measure tradition of horsemanship by its equipment, the Kabardian horseback riding culture has definitely something to say. For example, there’s only a few unique saddle types actually being used in the world (and plenty of slight modifications) - and the Circassian (Kabardian) saddle is one of them, not resembling any other saddle.
The Circassian saddle is unique in its construction and deeply thought details which evolved over several hundred years of documented history of horsemanship in Caucasus and probably several thousands year before.
Because most male Kabardians spent significant part of their life in the saddle, travelling thousands of kilometers each month during military operations, the saddles were designed fulfill several basic aims:
- rider's comfort,
- horse's comfort,
- rider's stability,
- durability of the saddle.
Once you look at the Kabardian (Circassian) saddle, it may look big, heavy and keeping the gravity center very high. But once you sit in it and make a few steps you suddenly discover ancient saddle makers' wisdom. After 15 minutes of trot you start to like it, after 1 hour of trot you love it and after whole day of trot you wouldn't change it for anything else.
Kabardian Saddle ConstructionThe Kabardian saddle is based on a tree similiar to the ones used in army saddles, spreading the weight of the rider on horse's back. Nowadays saddle makers Podium and especially McLellan make trees of similiar shape. The tree is relatively short, but itself it lies on a long and elastic, leather pad, which prevents the saddle from blocking horse's shoulders movement while spreading the weight on a longer part of the back. Biggest secret of the of the saddle is a square-shaped pillow, made of soft leather and stuffed with mountain goat's hair. Thanks to the specific shape it's not only comfortable but also with body pressure it squeezes around rider's legs, stabilizes him and amortizes him protecting both rider and horse. The pillow is extremely helpful during long time trails, especially in trot. At the same time, the pillow helps to keep (or actually enforces) correct body posittion in the saddle. Contrary to what you might think looking at the photos, the rider is not located high - in the very middle pillow is not filled with hair and rider's hip its located just over the tree, as in English saddles. Kabardian saddles are usually used together with traditional breast collar and crupper. These, and the head collar are all made from natural leather with very little sewing used. For example, head collars and halters (kab. nokhta) are made only with knots. Another interesting detail of the Kabardian saddle are three girths, with the last one going far back on the horse's belly (this one is optional, and if used it's not very tight). This improves saddle's stability a lot during steep descends and ascends in the mountains. Three independent girths also provide more redundancy in case one breaks.
Kabardian Saddle NowadaysSaddle makers who saw our Kabardian saddles at various competitions all over Europe expressed great interest in this saddle and saw many interesting details in the saddle design, some of which we pointed out above. This type of saddle seems to be great idea for people who cannot sit well on the horse - like riding riding students, beginners and especially disabled children, who attend hippotherapy sessions. Comparing to the ordinary English saddles, it's very difficult to fall from the Kabardian saddle. While you sit on the saddle, your weight is keeping you "fastened" with the pillows. But once you raise a bit in the stirrups (or the horse falls down), they release you immediately. Probably that's the biggest secret and most interesting future for the Kabardian saddle in XXI century. Cost nowadays A complete set of Circassian tack is around 1500 EUR, a price comparable to a good Western saddle - amount of leather used is also similiar. Decorative saddles with silver elements can cost 3000 EUR or more. Important thing to remember is that these decorative saddles are very beautiful, but not very comfortable to ride and quite heavy. That's why most of people in Caucasus use nowadays use a mix between old and new technology - a Russian army saddle made with wood and steel plus traditional leather tack and - of course - pillows. Such set can cost less than 500 EUR.
Photos copyright by Catherine Michelet and Paweł Krawczyk