Scenes of whizzing conveyor belts and tool-wielding workers are the reason I love the TV show “How It’s Made.” Usually the show presents a behind-the-scenes look at many products we take for granted from bathtubs to belt buckles and other mass-produced items. It was originally created in 5 minute episodes that were used by broadcasters used to fill gaps in their schedules.
My favourite episodes are the ones that feature the hand-crafted or artisanal products, like stagecoaches, native drums, and jewelry. I love the back-to-back marathons in particular. I’d seen the episode on the making of english saddles, but I never made the connection that the factory that made the saddles in the episode – Schleese Saddlery, was only a few minutes from my house in York Region, Ontario. I had the opportunity to get a tour of the factory in July, and I was generously given master saddler Jochen Schleese’s book and DVD after the tour.
Have you ever wondered about the craftsmanship and precision that go into making a saddle? Craftspeople build about 15 custom-made saddles each week at the Holland Landing factory- these saddles are all designed and assembled from patterns using the rider and horse’s personal and often asymmetrical measurements.
The factory features modern industrial sewing machines and some “old world” craftsman and fabrication tools. I am walked through the production line where polyurethane saddle trees are matched to individual saddle orders. To reinforce the saddle tree, steel plates are placed underneath the tree from the pommel to the cantle. The steel panels disperse the rider’s weight over a larger surface, thereby protecting the horse from the weight of the rider. The stirrup bars are bolted onto the tree. The stirrup bars are made of two pieces: the bar itself, and a movable piece that works on the premise that it can be opened when the stirrup leather is put in position and should open and release the stirrup leather if the rider should fall.
Layers of sculpted padding and foam, wool stuffing, girth straps, flaps, and other leather components are attached to the saddle next both by hand and machine sewing. The craftspeople are each working on specific components of the saddles today, but production manager Ben tells me that they are all expected to learn how to craft and attach all the parts of the saddle, as well as perform quality control on both their own work and on the saddle overall before it is ready for the client. On that day, there were also several saddles of different manufacture being re-stuffed or altered to accommodate changes in the horse’s musculature. It is paradoxical to expect to buy one saddle with the anticipation that it will never require adjustments. In a well-fitting saddle the horse should begin to muscle up and change conformation so that at least annual adjustments will be required to accommodate this growth or to simply add additional stuffing after the padding has flattened down due to riding.
I’ve seen some pretty sketchy looking saddles offered for sale on Kijiji, Craigslist, and Facebook – some look like cast-off relics from the civil war era. Even if the saddles are made by a reputable company and the tree is the appropriate size, they will not necessarily fit all horses since the designs themselves vary and horses’ backs, ribs, and withers also vary widely in terms of size, shape, and muscling. I was not able to use my Stubben Roxane saddle on other horses I owned despite its quality and generic size. It still fit me and my high-withered Thoroughbred, but the cantle pitched backwards on my low-withered Arabian, and you only had to look at it to see that no amount of additional stuffing in the cantle area would make it sit flat or rest properly in the skapula area.
One of my takeaways from the plant tour and the book/video was how critical saddle fit was to a horse’s overall well-being. We should all know how to perform a basic evaluation of saddle fit when considering a new or used saddle, and the book and DVD explained how a poor-fitting saddle impinges on the shoulders, cartilage, skeletal muscles, and spine of the horse, to the animal’s detriment. Not only will the horse not move well, but he/she will be in physical pain.
Horse owners spend literal fortunes on veterinary attention, farrier work, pharmaceuticals, supplements, and physical therapies, all in an attempt to keep their horses healthy and sound. We invest time and money in finding boots, breeches, helmets, and chaps to ensure what we wear in the saddle is safe, comfortable, and right for the job at hand. But horse people will often buy saddles without understanding that it is the most fundamental means of connection with the horse and it must have proper fit initially and thereafter.
Thanks to Sabine Schleese and Ben for generously accommodating me……..