This fascinating exhibit swings open the gates to a grand era in Santa Barbara history, and it does so on horseback. Featuring more than two dozen classic, decorated, Western-style saddles dating from the 18th century to the present, In the Saddle: Horses, Santa Barbara, and the Way of the West looks at Santa Barbara through the eyes of ranchers. From the humble vaqueros who worked the stock to the fine folks who owned the land, everyone had to ride — and that meant having a saddle. The majority of the examples on display illustrate the tradition of decorative saddle-making, with its elaborate embossed leather designs and silver ornamentation. Some of these fancy saddles would now fetch upward of six figures at auction. As signifiers of status within the ranchero culture, saddles were second only to the beautiful animals to which they were strapped.
Looking at these saddles today, particularly in the context of this informative and elegantly designed show, they are a powerful reminder of the intimate connections between land, social standing, and the so-called “way of the West” that still underpins much of what counts as tradition in Southern and Central California. The men (and it was mostly men, although there are some women’s saddles on display here, as well) who built Santa Barbara loved to ride, and they loved a parade, as can be seen in two of the county’s enduring traditions: the Santa Ynez Valley’s Rancheros Visitadores and Fiesta’s El Desfile Histórico.
Cleverly crafted around an electric campfire, the show’s central pavilion displays the names and work of several of the most important saddlers in the region. The first saddle that comes into view as you approach is perhaps the most spectacular — a “Charro” style in black leather loaded with 1,500 silver buttons. This Visalia saddle was a gift from Will Rogers to Silsby Spalding, the oil and sporting-goods magnate who created Goleta’s vast Rancho Tecolote.
Spalding’s name keeps popping up throughout the exhibit and with good reason. As the first mayor of Beverly Hills and a founding member of Los Rancheros Visitadores, Spalding exemplifies the combination of big money and Hollywood glamor that infused what was, until the early 20th century, essentially a working cowboy’s milieu. It was only when people like Spalding and his friends Rogers and Leo Carrillo began participating in the festivities back in the 1920s that our current brand of Fiesta — one part genuine Spanish colonial tradition to two parts tequila-based make-believe — was born. Men such as Sam Stanwood, Dwight Murphy, and the Jacks — Rickard and Mitchell — stand tall in the fanciest saddles as exemplars of this aspect of our barbareño culture.
Perhaps the greatest of all these gentleman ranchers, and certainly the best known, former president Ronald Reagan appears several times in the exhibit. Both Palmer Jackson and Will Bernhardt discuss the man and his ranch in two of the informative videos that complement the objects on display. Reagan makes a hilarious appearance on horseback while drinking champagne served by a butler in a tuxedo, in a photo from the 1974 riding of the Rancheros Visitadores.
For its combination of lighthearted Santa Barbara style and rock-solid regional history, In the Saddle will be hard to top, but the Santa Barbara Historical Museum (136 E. De le Guerra St.) has plans to do just that on Friday, May 19, at 6 p.m. with the opening of a permanent gallery devoted to the work of Western artist Ed Borein. Between his gregarious participation in the early days of Fiesta and his marvelous drawings, paintings, etchings, and sculptures of Western subjects, no one did more than Borein to associate Santa Barbara with the American West. This new gallery is bound to attract many visitors, new and old, to the museum on East De la Guerra. For more info, visit sbhistorical.org.