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Custom Saddle Journey, Part One

Published: 4/9/2011
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By Julie Kenney

There are many expensive purchases we make to pursue our life with horses.  Usually the horse turns out to be one of the least expensive.
I’m not referring to the day-to-day expenses or a huge vet bill because our horse looked sideways at a fence. I’m talking about those large, often once-in-a-lifetime purchases, such as a horse trailer or a truck to travel to fun riding destinations. And there are other additional horse accessories that we find ourselves pursuing for the love of the ride, and some of them can get pricey.

I’m talking specifically about a custom-made saddle.

Last summer, I received an older, but beautifully made, western saddle that fit me fairly well. My previous saddle was a barrel saddle and, while very comfortable, it didn’t allow me to post easily. Given the fact that I was trying to increase my 4 year old's pace, posting was paramount to getting his energy level up.
So I switched saddles.
To my dismay, I realized the new saddle was pinching his wide withers. A wither pad was added. As December arrived and River fully filled in his winter coat, white hairs showed up interspersed on each side of his withers, indicating poor saddle fit. Again, I was dismayed. The saddle I was using was not going to work.

So began my journey for a saddle that would fit the both of us.

My barrel saddle had been custom made and I knew the value of a well-built leather saddle. I remembered that my sister-in-law, Kim Stone, had given me the name of a saddle maker, Tom Lamprey and that he was the only one here in the East who provided customers with high-quality, hand-made western gear for riders and their horses.
I checked out his website, reviewed the information, prayed about this decision for several days, then took a deep breath, and made my first contact with Tom. I decided to try and sell three of my saddles to help cover the cost of the new saddle that would be ordered from him.

Tom sent me many pages of literature on saddle fitting and saddle making. The information was valuable, albeit overwhelming.
Two of my horses, River and Eli, are my primary mounts and they are built quite differently. River is my sorrel pinto-quarterhorse with wide withers and Eli is my black QH who has narrower withers and a shorter back. I decided to haul those two horses to Tom’s workshop for his expert help in taking measurements.

Upon arrival, I introduced myself to Tom, then unloaded the horses after their 2 ½ hour drive up into the New Hampshire foothills. The road names should have clued me in before I got there. The last two roads I traveled had the name “hill” in it!
Anyway, Tom currently had a saddle in production and needed to go check on his gluing, so up to his second floor workshop we went.

The saddle he had in production was just getting its first few layers of leather applied. He had it strapped down to an old barber chair that had been converted into a stand just for this purpose.
The saddle tree was from a Canadian tree maker, a husband and wife team, and to my surprise part of the tree was made from cowhide and stitched together with rawhide lacing.
The bars and cantle were formed from poplar, while the swell and horn were laminated birch or maple for increased strength. The whole tree was then covered in a marine-grade varnish. Tom already had a few pieces of leather that he was building upon the tree.
Each layer is carefully applied, fitted, glued, stretched, and sometimes nailed while the leather is wet for pliability. The swell of the pommel (the underneath side) already had the finished tooled layer on.
Tom does all the tooling himself, with many different designs available.

The work is simply beautiful.

Back outside to the horses, who were patiently waiting at the trailer, Tom carefully and methodically took measurements of my boys and we found that, not surprisingly, Eli was consistently one size smaller than River. We would have to compromise to get the best fit for both of them, without compromising their comfort. Tom felt that the Canadian saddle maker would work best with the two size differences. Tom had me sit in several different saddles and took my measurements before we began talking about my options for the new saddle.
As we went over all the choices, I tried to carefully weigh each decision with the cost it was associated with.
Some options had very little price difference, or none at all, and others had more cost involved. I opted for very little tooling to keep the overall price down, because in the end I was looking for comfort before beauty. Plus, the most simply made pieces can be the most beautiful anyway.
I made my choices, we went over the total cost, I gave Tom my deposit to get the ball rolling, and then I tried to breathe deeply and calmly to still my beating heart. I was committed now and excited beyond imagination.

Now for me to patiently wait the eight weeks that is expected for the tree maker to complete the carefully crafted tree and get it to Tom for building the rest of the saddle!

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"If the horse does not enjoy his work, his rider will have no joy." - H.H. Isenbart