Peruvian horse-riding tack, as well as that used by horsemen throughout the American continent, has its origin in fifteenth century Europe. Equestrian portraits by European classical painters like Vasquez, Titian and Van Dyck show saddles bearing close resemblance to the modern Peruvian saddle.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in America, they brought with them their European riding equipment. This was modified over the years in accordance with the uses to which the horses were put, and the availability of certain materials. In Mexico for example, horses were used extensively in ranching operations, and the use of the lasso resulted in the development of a saddle with a horn on the pommel. In Peru the need was to essentially maintain the features of a comfortable and secure saddle, as horses were mainly used for transportation. This gave rise to the montura de cajón or box saddle, thus named because the rider sits "boxed in" between the pommel and cantle.
Peruvian tack consists of the saddle, its accessories (cinch, stirrups, crupper and breeching) and braided headgear.
The saddle consists of a wooden frame (saddle tree) with a moderately high pommel and cantle. The tree is covered with tight-fitting pieces of rawhide, with the cinch, stirrups, crupper, breeching buckles and straps attached to the frame. To make the saddle more comfortable and protect the rider’s legs from rubbing against the buckles and straps, leather skirts are usually placed over the saddle tree and around the pommel and cantle. These skirts are often embossed with the beautiful designs for which Peruvian leather artisans have become famous.
Work saddles that do not have skirts use a leather pad (pellonera) as a seat cushion. The pellonera can also be used for added comfort over saddles with skirts.
To give saddles a better appearance, the pommel and cantle are sometimes covered with fine leather. More ornate saddles have rivets of nickel or silver on the borders of the pommel and cantle and along the edges of the skirts.
The carona is a thick leather pad that goes under the saddle and over the blanket, and is decorated with the same motifs as the saddle skirt. Besides enhancing the appearance of the saddle, it protects the back of the horse from the weight of the rider and also shields the saddle from the horse’s sweat.
To compliment Peruvian show tack, and as a sign of wealth and good taste, a pellón is sometimes used. The pellón is a type of tapestry used as a pad over the saddle, and is described by Verne R. Albright in “The Peruvian Paso and His Classic Equitation” as being "composed of thousands of hand tied spit braids made from black dyed wool and inserted into a rug type backing. The underside is lined with fine kid leather and usually contains pockets."
The pockets were used to keep valuable belongings in bygone times when horses were the principal method of transportation. The pellón itself could also be used as bedding when long journeys required the rider to dismount and rest.
One of the peculiarities of Peruvian tack is the use of the breechings called the guarnición. Much has been written about the origin and purpose of the guarnición, but it most likely derived from a harness first used to prevent the saddle from slipping forward when riding over rough terrain. Over time, the utilitarian purpose of this harness gave way to an ornamental use and the guarnición became a traditional part of Peruvian tack. It consists of long leather straps (retrancas) that encircle the rear of the horse and are attached to buckles on each side of the saddle. They are further secured by two lateral straps (caidas) attached to the base of the tail cover. The florón or tail cover is an elongated piece of leather fixed to the back of the saddle by a large, ornate buckle. The term florón, meaning “big flower” in Spanish, is probably derived from the round shape of the middle section of the tailpiece, traditionally embossed with floral designs. More recently however, the creativity of leather artisans has given rise to a variety of designs that include linear motifs, horses, seal of arms and other fanciful leather work. As a general rule, the guarnición should have the same embossed patterns as the rest of the tack.
Finally, a crupper is always used in conjunction with the Peruvian saddle. The crupper is attached to the same buckle that holds the tailpiece, and both crupper and tailpiece are held together by a short leather strap called a cruzeta.
The Peruvian stirrup has also undergone changes over time. The stirrups introduced by the Conquistadors were of two types: conventional triangular shapes and those shaped in the form of slippers and originally made of iron or copper. Because of the ready availability of silver and gold in Peru, these valuable metals were often used in place of iron and copper. Later the stirrups were made of wood and adorned with intricate carvings and ornamental nickel or silver pieces.
The typical Peruvian stirrup of today has the shape of a truncated pyramid with a toe hole in one of its faces. On the upper end, the stirrup has a metal cover in the shape of a bell (campaña) and a ring to which the stirrup strap is attached. The corners of the stirrup are usually covered with metal pieces (punteras). Rare exotic and native hard woods are sometimes used in the crafting of stirrups, but the most commonly used woods are olive and algarobbo (a variety of mesquite abundant in the coastal area of Peru). Some Peruvian stirrups are made of leather with a metal frame that closely resembles western stirrups with taps.
In Peru the headgear is called jato and consists of three pieces: the halter with its shank, the headstall and reins, and the eye cover and strap. The jato is crafted according to its purpose: working headgear is very plainly made and usually does not have metal decorations, whereas show headgear is finely made and adorned with metal pieces to give it a formal and elegant appearance. The headgear is made of braided strands of goat, deer or calf rawhide. The more strands used in the braiding, the finer the end product will be. Fine headgear is one in which twenty or more strands of leather per inch are used, making each strand one-twentieth of an inch (or less) wide. The braiding style is dependent on the skill of the artisan, and the number of metal pieces (rings and hardware) can vary from very few to one hundred or more.
Of the three pieces of the jato, it is perhaps the eye cover (tapa ojos) that calls for the most attention. This is a very typical element of Peruvian headgear, and is mainly used in the first stages of training. It serves the same purpose as conventional blinders, and is easily moved down to cover the horse’s eyes, permitting one to saddle or mount a nervous horse with great ease. It can also be used to keep a horse in place without having to tether it.
Complementing the headgear, a bozalillo (small bosal) is often used during bit training because it keeps the mouth of the horse closed when pressure is applied via the bit. The bosal is a very important tack piece during the breaking and early training of the Peruvian horse. It consists of a noseband held in place by the headstall, and the reins are attached to the top of the noseband. The bosal is also made of braided rawhide but is not as finely crafted or adorned as the headstall.
The Peruvian bosal differs from the Mexican bosal or hackamore in that pressure is applied to the nose rather than to the chin of the horse. When properly used, it trains a horse to respond to the slightest pressure from the reins, thus making it possible to use a mild bit. The Peruvian bit (freno or bocado) is indeed well known for it “soft touch”. It has a straight bar with a short curb or spade. Originally Peruvian bits were made of forged and burnished steel, handsomely inlaid with silver decorations, but modern bits are now made of non-rusting materials such as nickel or stainless steel.
The making of Peruvian tack is an art form passed from generation to generation within a family. This tradition has fortunately been kept alive for centuries, but only a small number of artisans remain dedicated to the profession today.
NOTE: The author wishes to acknowledge that most of the basic information for this article and some of the illustrations have been obtained from the booklet "La Montura o Apera a la Usanza Peruana" by Carlos Luna de la Fuente.