Craftsmanship - Saddle Making Part 1
There are many saddles and saddle makers out there. I would like to explain how and why I make saddles, the way I do. I have ridden horses since I was 12 (I am now 36). I understand that every rider is different; has a different shape to their body, with his/her own style of riding, preferred riding position, meaning that some require a narrower seat or a wider one. For different riding styles, some people like a flat seat, others like a deeper pocket and higher front rise. Some prefer higher cantle, some others do not. When I make a custom saddle, I always ask as many questions as I can, to find out my client’s riding style and requirements to make sure that the saddle will be comfortable and functional for the purpose of riding. My clients can choose the horn size, seat length and shape, cantle size and of course, the type of the saddle they are looking for (wade, reining, roping, cutting, etc.).
A saddle is as good as its tree. The fit is the most important aspect of the saddle. Every horse is different. One saddle will never fit them all. Factory saddle trees are made in few basic sizes, based on the most popular shapes of horses used for western riding. They work fine on a typical Quarter horse in the USA where horses have very similar shape. Here in Europe, people use many other horse breeds and even quarter horses have a different shape. That is the reason why many American stock made trees and saddles don’t fit. When I am building a custom saddle, every horse’s back profile is measured. The custom tree is then hand crafted based on these measurements (and by the client’s requirements mentioned above) from laminated wood covered with rawhide. There are many new technologies and man-made materials used on some trees, including fibreglass, Kevlar and others. These are mainly used because they are cheaper and quicker to make.
All top custom saddle makers use traditional rawhide covered trees and so do I. They have the best strength/flex ratio and when properly made, last for decades.
Apart from the tree, the most important raw material in the saddle is of course, the leather. I only use the finest Grade A Hermann Oak Leather. It is one of the oldest tanneries in the USA and is considered the best choice among the top saddle makers. It is great to work with, has beautiful colour, strength, feel and holds the carving superbly. For every saddle I make, I use at least 2 sides of proper thickness and temper for each element of the saddle. I choose the best parts of the hide to ensure long life and function of the leather. Other materials that feature - bark tanned sheepskin shearling lining, stainless steel or solid brass hardware, solid brass Blevins buckles, top quality threads, pure neatsfoot oil and natural wax for the finish.
The actual making of the saddle, starts with a quality check of all materials used. The tree needs to be checked that they have been made as ordered, for that particular order. Then it is checked for symmetry and first lines are measured and drawn to get ready to build the saddle. I will prepare and make paper patterns for each tree. They will be used to cut parts from 2 sides of Grade A Hermann Oak Saddle Skirting leather. Each piece has to be cut from a different part of hide, with different characteristics and moulding requirements. Afterwards, the parts are installed wet and cased to the tree, ensuring a proper fit. I start with gullet and back cantle, following with building up the Ground Seat. This is the most important part of making a saddle, ensuring the best possible comfort and balance of the rider. There are at least 8 pieces of leather forming each part of my ground seat. They are strategically placed, depending on the requirements of the rider. Then the fork and (in this case, inskirt) rigging is installed together with skirts. For Skirts and the Rigging, the symmetry is very important; it ensures balanced position of the saddle on the horse. Again, Skirts and Rigging are fitted wet and let to dry, so they will keep the shape of the tree. When dry, I glue them together, hardware is riveted and sheepskin lining is sewn in. Sheepskin shearling is the best choice as the saddle liner, for moisture control and shock absorbing, and of course, it will last longer than polyester fleece.
In the Saddle Making Part II, I will describe the process of finishing the saddle, and some other features of custom making a saddle. I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and found it useful?
All the best from Ireland!