History of the Wade Saddle by Mike Wade2019-03-13T23:52:11+00:00

History of the Wade Western Riding Saddle Part 1:

Because of my occupation as a horseman and horsemanship school instructor, and because of my last name, I am often asked if I am related to, have intimate knowledge of or advice regarding the popular Wade western riding saddle. The only honest answer to these and other questions is both; yes and no. I will try to clarify what I know about the “Wade” saddle and add a little advice to anyone considering purchasing a “Wade”.

Most serious horsemen and horsewomen have at least heard of the Wade saddle. It is almost impossible to study natural horsemanship and not come across some mention of this saddle, especially in western horsemanship circles. Many top western clinicians today ride exclusively in a Wade and have helped to spread its’ popularity.

I too, was interested in knowing if there was any family connection between my immediate family line and Clifford Wade, the man most instrumental in developing the Wade saddle. In the July 1999 issue, Western Horseman magazine ran a highly-informative article by Frank Hendricks on the Wade saddle. I sent a copy of this story to my sister Jeanine, who is the unofficial family genealogist and record-keeper of our family tree and lore. As Clifford Wade was ranching near Enterprise, Oregon when he developed the modern version of the Wade saddle, Jeanine started her research in that region to see if we had any family connection to Clifford. After several false starts, she finally contacted a rancher by the name of Sam Wade, also from Enterprise, who was a great-nephew of Clifford. Sam turned out to be a great fellow and very helpful to Jeanine. At first, she thought there was no family connection to Clifford, but we have since figured out that there is a common relative a few generations back. Sam and Clifford were very close and Sam was a treasure trove of inside knowledge on the early Wade saddle.

Clifford related to Sam that the first Wade saddle prototype was developed in West Virginia. Clifford’s grandfather was a stockman in that state, and like many people of that era, if you needed a tool you designed and built it yourself. This first prototype was crude but very functional. A few years later, Clifford’s grandfather was bitten by the bug to “go west” to the fertile ranch lands of eastern Oregon, so he formed the Wade family wagon train to travel the Oregon Trail, many miles of which run across Wyoming. Much of the Oregon Trail is in the area that we take our Blue Sky Sage guests to ride, so we are traveling in the tracks of that clan of the Wade family that went through, on their way to greener pastures. After a successful journey westward, the Wade family developed several fine ranches in eastern Oregon, where the descendants still reside today as prominent and successful cattle and horse ranchers.

The first Wade saddle was then rebuilt and evolved over the generations until Clifford inherited the original. By then, years of hard use had taken its’ toll and there wasn’t much left of the original. At the height of the Depression, in 1937, Clifford took the old saddle in to Hamley’s Saddlery in Pendleton, Oregon, one of the most respected saddle makers of that time, and had that company build a new western riding saddle on the old pattern, with a few of Clifford’s own refinements added. Sam kindly provided Jeanine a copy of the original receipt for this new saddle, which cost Clifford $99 Depression-era dollars, which was certainly a small fortune in those days.

Clifford was a close friend and neighbor of the Dorrance family, who ranched nearby. The Dorrance’s were all good stockmen; the two men of the family that we are most familiar with today are brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance. Most people in the western natural horsemanship movement have studied or at least have heard of both men. Tom and Clifford were close friends and Tom was impressed with Clifford’s new saddle. Working together on the range, Tom and Clifford would discuss and then modify Clifford’s saddle until Tom was satisfied with the improvements, at which time Tom had a custom Wade saddle built for himself.

Most people know that Tom Dorrance was Ray Hunt’s mentor and that Hunt himself was an early user of the Wade-pattern saddle. Through Hunt’s worldwide clinics, in which he used a Wade saddle, many people were exposed for the first time to the advantages of the design for western style horsemanship. Today, many of the leading horsemanship clinicians in the United States are Ray Hunt students and they continue to use and popularize the Wade saddle.

The Wade saddle is not a fixed style, but a continuing evolution of refinements that retain the underpinning foundations that have made the Wade such a remarkable riding saddle. The advantages of this pattern are simply too lengthy to mention here in all but a brief synopsis but the foundation goes to the design of the saddle tree. The true Wade saddle fits a broad array of horses, allowing the horse maximum freedom of movement. The horseman sits comfortably and securely and has close contact with the horse. It may not be the perfect “weld” between horse and rider, but many think it is as close as anyone has come so far. If you are thinking about purchasing a Wade for your own use, I think I can offer some advice and maybe a few things to watch out for that may save you some trouble down the trail. 

I will go into more detail on the benefits of the true Wade, built on the original tree design that Clifford’s grandfather developed, and was modified by those horsemen who knew its’ benefits, and what the horse and rider both could benefit from.

Above: Original Receipt from Hamley’s Saddlery to Clifford Wade, for the new Wade saddle he designed, 1937, courtesy of Sam Wade.

Benefits of the Wade Saddle Design and the Development of the Blue Sky Sage “Double Wade” Women’s Saddle Part 2:

Today, as in Clifford’s and Tom’s day, the only true Wade saddles are custom or semi-custom built on a genuine Wade tree. While all saddle catalogs offer a so-called Wade-style western riding saddle, they are not built over a Wade tree. They are usually just standard stock saddles with the swells removed and sometimes called a “slick fork”, perhaps with a large post-style dally horn. Price is your first clue. Any commercial saddle advertised as a Wade for under $2000 can be assumed to not be built on the Wade tree.

It is important to understand what separates a true Wade saddle from the cheaper commercial knock-offs. The angle and dimensions of the bars of the tree are crucial and specific. While there is some “wiggle room” here, stray too far from the design and you lose the saddles’ ability to fit a wide array of horse confirmations. This is where the knock-offs miss the mark.  Secondly, a true Wade is designed to “get off a horse’s front end”, allowing maximum freedom for the horses’ mobility on his front shoulders. This is a well-known advantage whether you are a dressage competitor or a cowboy on a cutting horse. Any high-level horsemanship simply must allow the horse a full, free range of movement in his front end.

A true Wade saddle is going to be a handmade saddle, either from a production shop like McCall Saddle Company of Vernal, Utah or from an independent custom saddle maker.  The McCall is true to the original pattern, well-made, and reasonably priced, with a starting base price of around $3000 or so. Bobbi rode a McCall saddle for several years and it proved to be an excellent choice for her and her horses both in comfort and fit.

A custom riding saddle built by an independent saddle maker will be a more expensive option, often starting at $4000.00+ as a base price. Several saddle  makers in our region, including Harwood, Castagno, Fandek, or Pollat to name a few, can build a true Wade saddle with fine craftsmanship and the ability to customize everything the customer could want or need in a quality riding saddle, but every customization raises the price. And, it can take up to two years to have a custom saddle built so the wait time and cost can be prohibitive to many riders.

With the understanding that it is difficult and expensive for most people to own a true Wade saddle without resorting to the low-end knock-offs that are prevalent in the marketplace, Bobbi and I have collaborated with custom saddle maker Aaron Fandek of Fandek Saddles & Stirrups in Pinedale, Wyoming to design and build an affordable, true Wade saddle, labeled as the Blue Sky Sage “Double Wade” Women’s Saddle. We have converted all of our company saddles to the “Double Wade” for use by our ourselves, our guests, and our staff. These are custom-built saddles that will be affordable to most serious horsewomen and horsemen, starting under $2500. And, keeping true to its roots, the design retains the foundation of Cliff and Tom’s intent while continuing the evolution to take advantage of modern thought and materials. The “Double Wade” is our take on honoring and incorporating Cliff Wade’s original design, with the inputs from “us Wade’s”, Mike and Bobbi, for riders of today that have become part of the Blue Sky Sage following.

Bobbi and I have spent a literal lifetime using the good, the bad, and the ugly of saddles, and we have learned more about the development and use of the from Aaron Fandek than we could have imagined. Fandek knows what he is talking about with custom saddles and between the three of us, we have developed a design that I think may be the best of the best when it comes to a good, using western saddle at an affordable price. This design came out of a desire to help our horses perform better for our guests, and to give the guests a more comfortable and accommodating saddle to use during their riding vacation with Blue Sky Sage.

Like all good saddles, the “Double Wade” design starts with the Wade-shaped tree.  Made from hi-tech poly fiber, the tree is absolutely indestructible. The fiber tree allows incorporation of a cable rigging system, made of Kevlar material, the same material that bullet-proof vests are composed of. This cable rigging has three distinct advantages. First, it is fully adjustable, meaning the girth position can be easily adjusted forward or back to fit specifically to the horse you are riding at the time. This is a huge advantage over a fixed-rigging which is built in to most western riding saddles.  The second advantage is the slim construction of the design; a standard rigging is thick with layers of leather and steel, preventing closer contact with the horse. The close contact of the cable rigging is second only to the feel of riding bareback. Finally, the cable system reduces the overall weight of the saddle by 10 to 15 pounds.

In the photo, Aaron is gluing, shaping and “skiving” the ground seat leather. Note that he is using a mule deer antler as a tool to smooth in the leather as he is gluing. Bobbi was onsite during this process to be “fitted” into the seat, which will be narrower across the forward part of the seat where the femur bone contacts the saddle, allowing a woman’s leg to fall into the proper position on the horse. The ground seat leather has also been built-up in the center, providing a higher rise which also facilitates the straighter drop of the leg on a woman’s build, while the “pocket” or rear seat is a little broader, to better fit the wider hips of women.

The sheepskin lining has been eliminated on this saddle design for several reasons. It adds little to no cushioning to the horses’ back, and if you press down hard on the sheepskin lining of any western riding saddle with your thumb, you will be surprised at how little cushion is present. Cushioning is the job of a high-quality wool saddle pad. Eliminating the unnecessary sheepskin also reduces quite a bit of the saddle weight, bulk, expense, and construction time. The Blue Sky Sage “Double Wade” Women’s Saddle is designed to be used with a very good quality wool pad or blanket.

The third feature of this design is the very slim, quick-adjust stirrup half-leather and buckle, with the “buckaroo twist”. This design promotes close contact, with a minimum of leather bulk between rider and horse, and puts the proper twist on the stirrup to prevent knee and ankle fatigue.  The twist also helps the rider keep his or her legs and feet in the proper position with independent seat riding. And, these stirrup half-leathers also have contributed to reducing the overall weight of the saddle.

The complete design of the Blue Sky Sage “Double Wade” Women’s Saddle gives the close contact “weld” and security of a dressage saddle, the light weight and comfort of a trail saddle, and the durability and strength of a roping saddle. It is a design I think Clifford himself might have enjoyed riding.

The Blue Sky Sage Signature “Double Wade” Saddle has these standard features:

  • Built on a Chicago Stockyards Saddle Tree Lite-Ride Tree®, composed of high-density, poured resin material, with the Kevlar-coated Double H Ranch Cable Rigging™.
  • Lightweight (19- 21 lbs.)
  • Narrower Seat with Higher Rise (specially designed for women)
  • Close Contact (half leathers, flatter stirrup buckles, no extra layers of leather from skirting or rigging rings)
  • Custom hand-made Fandek Stirrups for better feel, balance, and grip. 4” standard, 3 ½” available
  • Buckaroo Stirrup Twist to let stirrups hang correctly, no knee twisting
  • Hardware in stainless or brass, stirrup covers also available in copper. Limited customizing available for additional cost.
  • Bar length: 22 1/4″ – 23″, depending on seat length
  • Gullet: Medium is 6 1/2″ W x 8″ H (deep) / Flatter is 6 3/4″ W x 7 1/2″ H (deep)

Saddles DO NOT include saddle pads or girths, though we have recommendations. We sell pommel bags, saddle bags, nightlatches, and bucking rolls as accessories above.

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