Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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The McClellan Saddle: From American Civil War to Ethiopian Imperial Cavalry

By Yves-Marie Stranger

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“I am unsure of the date at which the McClellan saddle was adopted by the Ethiopian Cavalry (or Imperial Cavalry), but the saddle on display here is probably from a batch issued shortly after the liberation of Ethiopia from the Italians–perhaps in the early 50s. Many people find the rustic McClellan a little rough to sit in for many hours— but personally, having used it since I was a child ridding in the south of France, I have always admired it for its simplicity.

The story of the McClellan saddle starts back in America, just before the Civil War—but like many good American things, the McClellan also has European roots. For it was with an eye to the saddles of the Hussars, that he had admired while on a military study tour in Europe, that Captain George B. McClellan from the US Army, created the McClellan, a new cavalry saddle which was then adopted by the U.S. War Department in 1859—on the eve of the American civil war.

The McClellan, named after the captain himself, remained the saddle of choice of the US cavalry up until World War II. The saddle was both strong and light, and proved handy to affix saddlebags and other tack—as I have myself experienced while taking long treks, first in the south of France, then in Ethiopia where I ran horse riding tours with Equus Ethiopia over the highlands to the north of Addis Ababa, towards Ankober and Goha Sion.

The saddle on display here was bought from Ato Edgetu, a saddle maker from ‘koretcha terra,’ in the merkato. Ato Edgetu telephoned me one morning, insisting that I come and see some ‘a mountain of saddles,’ not in his Merkato shop, but at his residence, as ‘they were too numerous to be transported…’ I took Ato Edgetu’s exaggerations with a whole tub of greasy saddle soap, but, as the saying goes—never look a gift horse in the mouth—for, arriving at Edgetu’s home compound, I was ceremoniously taken to a backyard where, sure enough, stood a towering heap of saddles, stirrups and buckles some 2 metres high—all in all, there were 84 saddles in the pile.

I ended up buying this leathery mess, for a good price too (although I should point out that Ato Edgetu was the one who thought he’d made a monumental deal: he’d bought the whole lot for a handful of birr at auction from the Ethiopian Army—let’s just call it a win-win situation, with a Guragué saddle merchant no less… and leave it at that).

I then fixed, sowed up and greased this mountain of leather over the next ten years—and you can find many of these saddles to this day, being used in the rolling hills of the Rift Valley and on the plateaux of Shoa—The versatile McClellan was not only robust, but with its curious central opening it proved to be the perfect fit for the local horse breed, as they often have roach backs.

Curiously, one day in Holeta, while we were presenting some of our ponies at a local fair, an American diplomat walked up to me, and before even having introduced himself, exclaimed: ‘My great granddaddy designed that saddle—And what a thing it is to see it here, in Ethiopia!’ The American then pumped my hand, imparting, by way of explanation: ‘the name’s McClellan, by the way.’

And he was right, this McClellan. That was quite some mileage, for a standard US cavalry saddle, from the battlegrounds of the Civil War to the Ethiopian Imperial cavalry, and quite a sight to behold, as it sat with a perfect fit on the back of an Abyssinian pony.

Yves-Marie Stranger is a translator, writer and broadcaster. He is the author of the book Ethiopia through Writers’s Eyes, and one of the makers of the film documentary The Oranges of Prester John. You can find him at Uthiopia.com.

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