Breast Collars Throughout History

Breast Collars, in one form or another, have been in use since ever since riders began putting padding between themselves and the horse. The purpose: to keep the cinched saddle from sliding back and out of place. Ancient sculptures show Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman horsemen using a breast collar. The use of a breast collars pre-dates stirrups by several thousand years.

When the Spanish Conquistador Cortez invaded Mexico in 1519 his small group of cavalry men all rode the old centerfire rigged War Saddle. Since the saddle was prone to slip back on the horse, a breast collar was used, usually with a shoulder strap to hold it up. And, a crupper under the horse’s tail and attached to the saddle was also required to maintain stability (illustration a).

From the formation of the American cavalry in 1812 military saddles were single cinched and both a breast collar and crupper were used. Many Civil War photos show horses rigged with these pieces of equipment. It wasn’t until the McClellan saddle was adapted that they were discarded.

Early Mexican vaqueros soon moved the front cinch forward, hanging the rigging directly under the fork, and solved the problem of saddle slippage. The un-needed breast collar was discarded, probably because it would catch on limbs when chasing a cow through brush. Both North American cowboys and South American gauchos followed their example and breast collars were seldom seen. The Texas development of the full double rigging in the early 1800’s added even more saddle security (b).

Only on the Pacific Coast and Nevada ranges did the centerfire rigging remain popular. A martingale of the time (a leather loop around the horse’s neck with an additional strap down to the cinch) helped stabilize the saddle in addition to being a fashion accent (b).

The rise of contest roping in the early 1900’s returned the breast collar to popularity. While the first generation of contest hands didn’t use one, those that followed learned that a breast collar was necessary. It not only kept the saddle in place during a hard start but was a “plus” when they laid their slack behind a 900 pound steer and rode by for the trip. It was also a handy place to tuck up the 2nd rope that they carried. The calf ropers and steer wrestlers quickly followed by example. By 1940, the majority of timed event contestants used a breast collar (d).

The first contest breast collars used in the arena were simple leather straps (probably 2 inches wide) around the horse’s chest. A shoulder strap kept it from dropping down and the billets passed around the saddle’s tie straps. It didn’t take long for cowboys to realize that shaping the collar to conform to the horse’s confirmation improved effectiveness since it eliminated pressure on the windpipe. This was the prevailing style through the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

It was also learned that a strap running from the center collar to the cinch held it down and in place. Breast collar design was modified to three piece construction – two side panels and a hold down strap all connected to a center ring. This not only gave a better fit, allowing the collar to move with the horse, but secured the saddle better. This style has become the most popular style, available in widths from one inch to three inches depending on the rider’s preference and use (e).

Roping big, heavy cattle required single steer ropers to modify their breast collars.  The “tripping collar” follows the shape of the contoured model but is much wider (three to five inches) to spread out the shock of a steer hitting the end of the rope. Two billets on each side – one to the saddle dee and the other to the cinch ring – really hold the saddle in position. This style is also popular with team ropers.

Another contemporary style is popular with working cowboys and is called the “Pulling Collar” (f). It looks much like the martingale mentioned earlier but, instead of encircling the horse’s neck, the two tug ends are buckled around the saddle fork. Combined with the strap to the cinch, this collar really holds the saddle down on the horses back when it leans into the rope.

Regardless of the style or width, the purpose of the breast collar is to keep the saddle in its correct place. A large percentage of today’s western riders consider one an essential piece of equipment.

This history was written by my good friend and tack historian Phil Livingston. Phil is author of War Horse and The Driftwood Legacy among many other books.

Dennis Moreland Tack builds Pleasure, Show and Roper Breast Collars and Pulling Collars. Some are accented with beautiful hand braided rawhide, and are available with or without silver. Call or text 817-312-5305 or email dmtack@vrfmail.com to discuss your breast collar needs.

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