Almost every piece of tack we use today can be traced back to equipment that was developed centuries ago. Over time, some tack has changed in sizes, styles and purposes. At the root however, of most of our riding equipment still has the same functionality it was designed for. One of the unique pieces of tack that developed out of necessity and has adapted over the years is the tapadero.
Tapaderos, or stirrup coverings, have long been a part of the western saddle heritage. Like much of our horse gear, tapaderos trace back to the Spanish explorers who brought horses to the Americas in the 16th century. The primary purpose of tapaderos is protection from cactus, brush and limbs. Since the front of the stirrup is covered, the rider’s foot cannot go completely through and “hang up”.
Examples of early Spanish tapaderos include a stirrup/tapadero resembling a half-slipper and cast in iron. In colonial Mexico, vaqueros made their own equipment from native materials. Stirrups were carved from a wooden block into a circular shape and has a half-moon cut in the center to provide toe room. Covering the front of the stirrup was a unique three-piece tapadero, often a foot across.
By the late 1700s the steamed and bent wooden board stirrup had come into use. A large piece of leather with pointed ends was draped over the front of the stirrup to protect the foot. When the early American settlers in South Texas entered the cattle business in the 1830s, they adopted Mexican riding equipment, including tapaderos.
It was in California during the 1870s and afterwards that tapaderos reached their peak popularity. Tapaderos, in what came to be called the “Eagle Bill” pattern because of the sharp nose, were often up to 24” long. On Northern ranges where the California style was popular, a small piece of woolskin was sewn inside to warm the rider’s feet during the winter.
Because of the thick brush and cactus in Northern Mexico another style of tapadero was devised. The stirrup was completely enclosed with a pointed leather slipper which was laced together at the bottom. Called the “Monkey Nose”, they are seen on the traditional Mexican Charro saddle, frequently embellished with fancy laced leather patterns. North American brush hands also use them, made either of leather or rawhide to reduce weight.
Southwestern cowboys modified the Monkey Nose tapadero to meet their needs. It became smaller to reduce brush drag, and often a leather reinforcing strap was sewn over the top, nose, and bottom to strengthen it. The style is used mainly in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Like all horse gear, tapaderos reflect the primary use as well the user’s allegiance to the prevailing style in his area. As long as cowboys gather cattle in rough, brushy country tapaderos will have their place and be seen on saddles.
This history was written by tack historian Phil Livingston, author of War Horse and The Driftwood Legacy, among many other books.
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