What is the point of owning a horse if you don’t go trail riding? Out on the trail, just me and my mare surrounded by beautiful wilderness and breathing in that fresh mountain air, well, that’s when I feel truly alive. And if there’s one essential piece of extra tack you’ll need out on the trail, it’s a saddle bag.
If you’ve been out hiking in the wilderness, you’ll be used to sticking all your essentials — food, drinks, cellphone, map, etc. — into a backpack. Obviously, that’s not a viable option on horseback, but you’ve still got to put those necessities somewhere. That’s where saddle bags come in useful. The two most common types of saddle bags are cantle saddle bags and pommel saddle bags.
Cantle Saddle Bags
Cantle saddle bags are the most popular type of saddle bags. You’ll have seen them in a thousand Western movies when dust-covered cowboys with parched throats stumble into the saloon each with leather Western saddle bags hung over one shoulder. As the name implies, these bags are designed to be draped over the rear portion of your saddle. Often D rings, grommets (holes reinforced by metal rings) or both will be supplied to enable these bags to be secured to your saddle. Traditional designs have a central strap that hangs over your saddle with two bags that hang one each side of your horse.
Pommel Saddle Bags
Pommel saddle bags, sometimes called horn saddle bags, are usually smaller than cantle saddle bags and attach to your saddle’s pommel, ie. the front of your saddle. They are often shaped in a similar style to cantle saddle bags, but have a hole in the center of their strap so that they can be easily secured to your saddle horn. Riders often use pommel saddle bags to store items they might need in a hurry because they can be easily reached while you’re still mounted. You sometimes have to dismount to access cantle saddle bags.
Leather or Synthetic?
These days there are hundreds of saddle bags available on the market, but all may be divided into two kinds: leather or synthetic. Leather is the traditional material used to manufacture saddle bags, but synthetic substitutes are now rife.
Okay, so my feelings about this are quite simple. I’ve bought my leather Western saddle, my leather bridle, my leather boots for riding in. I’m even wearing those leather chaps that make my daughter giggle and accuse me of being a wannabe rodeo star. So why would I want to add something synthetic to that ensemble? I mean, when I’m out in the wilderness with a few friends, and we decide we want a photo to remember what a great time we had, I think my horse looks pretty photogenic with her vintage leather horse saddlebags.
Of course you want to buy leather saddle bags for your horse. I think it’s a no brainer. But what kind of leather should you choose?
Types of Leather
You’ll sometimes see the terms skirting leather and tooling leather and wonder what that means. Well, skirting leather is tanned using techniques to make it more firm for added strength and durability especially for the manufacture of saddles and tack. Tooling is softer, so more easily marked with tools for decorative work, but also less durable than skirting leather.
All kinds of leather are sold in four grades: full-grain, top-grain, corrected-grain, or split. The two grades you’ll most often come across are full-grain and top-grain. Full-grain comes from the top layer of the animal’s skin, just below the fur, and is utilized for heavy duty purposes like footwear and saddles. Top grain is typically thinner than full-grain, making it more supple, and is used where more flexibility is required in a product, like for making chaps or leather jackets. All grades of leather have a rough side and a smooth side. When you see the term “rough out” applied to leather goods, this does NOT mean that the item was made with “rough” leather or poorly made. Nor does it mean that the item was designed to be roughly treated. It simply means that the product was made using leather with the rough side, rather than the smooth side, showing.
Best Leather Horse Saddle Bags
Now let’s take a look at a range of good quality horse saddle bags for sale so you can get to grips with what’s on offer.
This leather equestrian saddle bag is made by Weaver Leather, a company founded in Ohio in 1973 which has a well-earned reputation for high quality leather products. This cantle saddle bag features:
- top grain chap leather
- brass plated hardware including D rings and grommets
- inside stitching to provide a smooth appearance
- size: 11” x 12” x 4”
This product was designed to be spacious and practical. One young guy told me he keeps his iPad in there, along with other more necessary items, while on the trail. He stated that he preferred the more supple material used to manufacture this saddle bag when compared to other hard and stiff leather saddle bags he had tried.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend taking a tablet out on the trail. I don’t think Apple had “survives being rolled over by a half-ton of prime horseflesh” as a target when working out their design specifications for the iPad.
This is another well-made cantle saddle bag from Weaver Leather which features:
- distressed top grain leather
- scalloped flaps
- stainless steel designer buckles
- nickel-plated side D rings
- stainless steel grommets
- size: 11” x 12” x 4”
These are designed to function just as well as the previously described Weaver Chap Leather Saddle Bag, but with all the bells and whistles of the horseshoe brand patterned buckles designed by Jeremiah Watt, etched nickel brass spots along the scalloped flaps, and that beautiful distressed top grain leather — a little more expensive, but it looks great!
These custom leather horse saddle bags are supplied by JT International, a well-respected tack distributor based in Indiana that has been around since 1973. These cantle saddlebags feature:
- embossed basket weave design
- size: 12” x 12” x 4”
- secure buckle closure
These spacious bags are made from high quality leather with the aim of providing durable service.
A keen trail rider told me that she uses them to hold: an emergency first aid kit, maps, hoof pick, water, horse treats and a few other odds and ends. However, she did find the leather a little stiff in contact with her horse’s skin and needed to use a longer saddle pad to prevent chaffing.
It’s a great idea to take along an emergency first aid kit. One lady I know who is highly allergic to bee stings takes along an EpiPen in her saddle bag whenever she hits the trail.
This is another cantle saddle bag supplied by JT International. This bag features:
- premium quality skirting leather
- secure buckle closure
- size: 12” x 12” x 4”
- available in a choice of colors
Made from skirting leather, this saddle bag is designed to be extra durable.
An amateur photography enthusiast mentioned to me that he uses this for his camera and accessories. However, he warned me that the closure was slightly loose, and small articles might fall out, so he uses a lightweight bag inside these bags for extra security, placing his equipment first into the lightweight bag, and then slotting that bag into the saddlebag.
Skirting leather can sometimes be a bit dry. When you receive your product, if you’re happy with it but find it too dry, rub it down with coconut oil or some leather conditioner.
This is the last of the three bags from JT International in this selection. Unlike the others, this is a pommel saddle bag. It features:
- premium quality skirting leather
- buckle flaps
- easy fit to saddle horn
- size: 8” x 6” x 4”
Like the preceding cantle saddlebag, this is made of skirting leather to be especially durable. You’ll note that it’s smaller than all the other bags, but that’s common with pommel saddlebags. The advantage of these is that you can reach anything inside them with ease, so several folks I know keep their cellphones in their pommel saddlebag.
Just a word to the wise, though. If I were you, I’d use a fanny pack to hold your cellphone rather than placing it inside your pommel saddle bag. Fanny packs aren’t as useful as saddlebags because they can hold very little, but they will hold a cellphone and your wallet. You see, if you fall from your horse and get hurt, and your horse then spooks and runs away, is your horse going to dial 911? No! So keep your phone and your id on your person.
These black leather horse saddlebags are supplied by Horse Equipments. These cantle saddlebags feature:
- rough out split leather
- two buckles to secure each bag
- size: 10.5” x 11.5” x 3.5”
These bags are value for money, costing less than most other bags listed here, but they are slightly smaller.
I only know one teenage rider who had used these leather western saddlebags, but he told me that he had no problem fitting his raincoat, sweater, some towels, and a few other items into his bag when going trail riding. He also said that he’s happy with the quality, and the bag looks great with his black saddle.
These vintage leather horse saddlebags were manufactured by Outfitters Supply, a company based in Columbia Falls, Montana and founded in 1986. These cantle saddlebags feature:
- guaranteed US chap leather selected to give the vintage appeal of a bomber jacket
- solid brass hardware
- grommets and D rings for your saddle strings
- made in Montana
- size: 12” x 11” x 3”
This is the executive model in this selection of saddlebags. Outfitters Supply manufacture these heavy-duty saddlebags to high specifications and with practicality in mind but only charge affordable prices.
One guy told me that when he first fastened these to his saddle, his friends started mimicking that whistling tune from one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest Spaghetti Westerns. If you know the tune I’m talking about, you’re either as old as me or a classic Western addict!
This classic look bag is made by Showman, a saddle manufacturer mainly known for their show saddles who have been in business since 2001. This cantle saddlebag features:
- rough out leather
- double buckle closure
- size 9” x 3” x 10”
Showman made this bag to complement their range of saddles and other tack. This is the smallest cantle bag in this selection, but it is also the least expensive. A man I know who bought this said he liked the natural, unfinished and rugged look, and is easily able to fit a sweater, tablet, cell phone, keys and wallet into the bags together with a few other items when he goes out on the trail. He was happy with what he got for the price he paid.
Do note, however, that this bag is very basic, so there are no grommets or D rings you can use to securely attach it to your saddle.
One final word of advice about saddle bags. Whatever else you pack into them, make sure you enclose a paper that states very clearly your name and address and cellphone number. Imagine if your horse spooks and runs away and then you can’t find her. Anybody else who caught her wouldn’t know what to do other than calling the local ranger station or maybe the ASPCA for advice. But if they find your name and details in the saddle bag, reuniting you with your horse will be made so much more simple.
Now you know all about different kinds of leather horse saddle bags, and you’ve perused the quality selection reviewed here. In my honest opinion, trail riding is the most fun anybody can have on four legs. And if you’re going trail riding for the first time, you will need to store your essentials somewhere. Obviously, you need a saddle bag, and one of those above should suit you to a tee. I just hope I’ve helped you to choose the one that’s best for you.