Imagine making shoes and clothes for someone who is unable to communicate how they fit, whether they are comfortable or how it feels to wear them. Welcome to the world of the saddler…
‘Once upon a time a time people would throw any old saddle on a horse and any old tack and expect it to get on with it, but things have changed,’ says Master Saddler Clare Barnett. ‘Fifty years ago you couldn’t insure a horse beyond twelve years old and most of them were dead by twenty – now horses are being ridden in competition at twenty-one or twenty-two and living into their early thirties.
‘And if we’re able to make their lives a little better with well-made saddles and tack that fits properly then I’m happy we’re doing our job.’
With her husband Peter, also a Master Saddler – ‘He’s a working gas engineer as well, he reckons it keeps him sane’ – Clare runs Bearhouse Saddlery from a satisfyingly cluttered studio workshop in Alderholt. With her are daughter Victoria and fellow apprentice Joanna Murphy.
Appropriately enough, Bearhouse (named after Clare’s collection of Steiff and her own hand-made teddy bears) is one of the country’s very few side saddle makers.
‘There’s less than a dozen of us making new side saddles,’ says Clare. ‘We also restore and repair and there could be a couple of dozen others doing that as well.
‘I love the new builds though, especially when you consider the new technology that goes into them. Plastazote and memory foam make much better saddles than the old layers of horsehair. Memory foam warms up and shapes itself to the rider then cools back to its original form without leaving a dent. If you get on a hundred-year-old side saddle, unless you fit the original rider’s contours you could be in trouble.’
On the wall above Clare’s head is a side saddle from the early 1800s and in front of her a later Victorian model stripped back for restoration, but her attention is focussed on the new build she has under construction.
‘They’re built to last the same as the old ones and I want a saddler to come along in a hundred years and look at my work and think I’ve done a decent job. It’s only when you peel back the layers you find the history and you can see from the punch marks where they had trouble – some saddles just don’t want to be made.’
Horse-mad as a youngster, Clare moved to Dorset with her family in the 1970s and had wanted to become a farrier, but a serious motorcycle accident destroyed her knee and derailed her career plans. She became a nurse and tried her hand at carriage driving while studying leatherwork and bag making with the intention of crossing over into saddlery.
‘I couldn’t get an apprenticeship as I was too old so I self-funded. It took about ten years to become a Master Saddler, but when combined with the bag making and repairs it means we’re able to offer a bit more. Funnily enough I don’t smell the leather any more, only if I go to the tannery – we only use English leather, the best, from Baker’s the last oak bark tannery in the country.’
Surrounded by the tools of her trade – ‘Saddlery is a trade because we sell, but also a craft because we design’ – Clare is clearly in her element, but she divides her time between leatherworking and getting out to meet her customers and, crucially, their horses.
‘It takes enormous focus and dedication to sit at a bench and concentrate on leatherwork for eight hours a day; it’s not for everyone. I really like the design aspect of the work and the challenge – no two days are the same. I made a bag for a lady not long ago who told me she wanted something she could carry her book and personal belongings in and plonked a washing powder box on the table. ‘That’s the perfect shape,’ she said and left me to it.’
Bearhouse started about twenty years ago and in keeping with Clare’s pride at being a QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) scholar, it was always planned that Peter and Clare would pass on their knowledge to new generations of saddlers. Little did they realise they’d start with daughter Victoria, a Society of Master Saddlers Millennium Apprentice and keen fell pony driver. On the wall is a piece of leather with an image of Dougal the dog from The Magic Roundaboutcarved by Victoria at the age of three; above the bench is a more recent piece, a finely decorated leather shield.
‘QEST funding enabled me to learn side saddle making and meant we could afford to press on with our own training plans when Victoria decided to go into the business. Alexandra, our other daughter, lasted about an hour before the knife went flying across the workshop, but she found her niche – she designs and makes the most beautiful riding habits.
‘Joanna is like one of the family and she’s more into the rehab of racehorses. She came into saddlery as a QEST apprentice having seen what a difference a well-made saddle can make to a horse and its performance. She’s also great at social media so she’s dragging us kicking and screaming into Facebook and Instagram.’
By taking a modern approach to a traditional craft Bearhouse has been able to keep up with emerging trends, for instance developing tack that takes account of better understanding of equine facial nerve clusters. A properly fitted bridle with a soft action noseband that doesn’t put undue pressure on the top of the neck, cheekbones or facial nerves will make for a happier horse.
As Clare points out: ‘A horse won’t run properly if it’s got a constant headache.
‘We do a lot of bespoke work with tack tailored to individual horses, although we sell off the peg as well. We’re trained saddle fitters so we’re able to take a break from the workshop by going out fitting – I love doing that because it means I get to play with our customers’ horses, but I never get on them because I still come home and want to ride my own.’
She pauses for a moment, as if to make sure before declaring: ‘This is actually the best job in the world.’
• First published by Dorset Life The Dorset Magazine.