Salute to Saddle Makers

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Creators of Functional Art

By Margaret Evans

Two of the most intriguing questions about our relationship with horses are when were they first domesticated, and when were they first ridden.

We will never know for sure, but some of the most fascinating evidence comes from the ancient Botai culture in northern Kazakhstan. Almost 6,000 years ago, the people living in a community of villages were foragers and hunter/gatherers. While the abundant wild horses were a staple part of their diet, the Botai came to see the horses as valuable working stock. 

In the village of Krasnyi Yar, there is evidence the Botai were keeping horses in corrals. Mares’ milk was discovered soaked into pottery shards, evidence they were being milked. But most telling was that, of the thousands of animal bones found at the archaeological sites, 99 percent of them were horse bones.

At first, riding would have been a bareback affair. The earliest known saddle-like equipment was used by Assyrian cavalry around 700 BC, and consisted of fringed cloths or animal hide held in place with a surcingle, which included breast straps and cruppers.  

Likely, it was the Scythians, or Saka people (nomadic Iranian people of the Eurasian steppe) who put actual saddles on the map. In a 5th century BC Scythian tomb, a cushioned saddle was discovered completely decorated with animal motifs made of leather, felt, hair, and gold. This wasn’t just a saddle; it was a status symbol expressing the owner’s wealth and social position in the community. Further embellishments were added to saddles including leather work, metals such as gold, and carvings in wood or animal horn.

The Scythians took saddle making to the next level as they developed a basic frame, which included two parallel leather cushions, pommel, cantle, leather thongs, girth, crupper, breastplate, and a saddlecloth (or shabrack) adorned with animal motifs. Saddles dating to 500 to 400 BC were discovered in tombs in the Pazyryk burial finds of the Ukok plateau in the Altai Mountains, Siberia, south of the Russian city of Novosibirsk and close to the borders with China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

Around 200 BC, Asian designs of the earliest solid-tree saddles appeared in the Han Dynasty while, in the west, the earliest solid-tree saddle was the four-horn design used by the Romans in the 1st century BC. During the Han Dynasty, improvements were also made in horse harness, in particular replacing a hard yoke with a breast strap for pulling chariots.

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Reconstructions of one of the earliest solid-treed saddles, the four-horn Roman military saddle without stirrups, used as early as the 1st century. Photos: Wikimedia/Matthias Kabel (top); Wikimedia/Wolfgang Sauber (bottom)

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However, what was still missing from the saddle were stirrups. As horses were used more and more in warfare, it has been said that the third revolutionary development after the chariot and the saddle were stirrups. They would provide the stability and balance riders needed, especially during battle. Warriors were less likely to fall off and get trampled while fighting, and they could more accurately deliver a blow with a weapon. 

Stirrups first appeared in India in the late 2nd century BC. They were actually toe loops. They were made of rawhide and hung from the bottom of the saddle. In the warmer climate of southern India, riders rode barefoot so having a toe placement gave them some sense of balance.

Full stirrups first appeared in China and began as a short mounting stirrup on one side of the horse. One of the earliest double stirrup sets was discovered in the tomb of a Northern Yan noble, Feng Sufu, who died in 415 AD. However, Buddhist carvings in the temples of Sanchi, Mathura, and the Bhaja caves dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC show horsemen riding in elaborate saddles with their feet looped under girths, hardly a stirrup but a form of foot support of questionable safety. The Sarmatians, a nomadic central Asian people, are also credited with developing the first stirrups.

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This yellow-glazed pottery horse from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 - 907), was excavated at Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, in 1957. It includes a carefully sculpted saddle, which is decorated with leather straps and ornamental fastenings featuring eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves. It is from the Exhibition "Treasures of China," Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2007.  Photo: Wikipedia

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Antique Japanese kura, from the “Samurai: Armor of the Warrior” exhibit 2011, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris France. “Kura” is the generic name for the Japanese saddle, and the word is most commonly associated with the saddle used by the samurai class of feudal Japan. Over time, the Japanese added elements of their own until the Japanese saddle became an identifiable style, also known as the samurai saddle. Photo: Wikimedia/Thierry Bernard

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An antique samurai kura (saddle), showing the stirrup strap, saddle seat, double saddle pads, saddle tree, and tie downs. Photo: Wikimedia/SamuraiAntiqueWorld

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Antique samurai stirrups. Photo: Wikimedia/Lord Ameth

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This Mongolian saddle from China dates to between 1271–1368 AD, when China was ruled by the Yuan Dynasty. Photo: Flickr/Gary Todd

By now, saddles had taken on a life of their own as they were improved upon to meet social and military needs. Over the centuries, saddles went through a steady evolution of shape, design, and function, from a higher pommel and cantle to support the Knights of the Middle Ages, to the English style of saddle for classical dressage and fox hunting. Saddles were developed with a different angle of the saddle flaps, which allowed riders to achieve a forward seat for jumping. In time, saddles were developed for military, police, endurance, sidesaddle, stock, and Western purposes, as well as saddles for various functions in Asian countries. All found a place in the expanding equestrian world.

Western saddles arose from the saddles of the Mexican vaqueros, the early horse trainers and cattle herders of Mexico and the American southwest. With the development of the horn atop the pommel, or swells, they were functional, sturdy and appealing, and met the needs of a working cowboy in the saddle for many hours a day.

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The McCellan Saddle was a riding saddle designed by George B. McClellan, a career Army officer in the US Army, and adopted by the Army in 1859. The saddle remained in continuous use until the US Army’s last horse cavalry and horse artillery was dismounted in World War II. After that, use of the saddle continued with ceremonial units in the US Army. Photo: Wikimedia/McCellan Saddle Fort Kearny

Today, saddle makers are not only passionate about the quality and look of their saddles, but they are part of an exclusive community of craftspeople producing custom saddles for riders around the world. 

“When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be a guide and outfitter in the Canadian Rockies, so I was pricing out saddles and horses and leasing land,” says Jason McKenzie, who owns Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles in Alder Flats, Alberta. “I talked to a saddle maker the family knew in the Sherwood Park area. As soon as I walked into his saddle shop, I knew that was what I really wanted to do. I focus on Western saddles and build about 18 different styles.”

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A 16-inch Cliff Wade saddle with bucking rolls, by Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles. Photo courtesy of Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles

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This ranch saddle is by Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles. Many working cowboys come to McKenzie for a good, average-fitting custom saddle to be used on several different horses. Photo courtesy of Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles

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Jason McKenzie of Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles, and his son Cody. Photo courtesy of Jason McKenzie Custom Saddles

McKenzie says that it takes about five to eight weeks to make a custom saddle. While riders begin with an off-the-rack brand, as their riding skills develop, they get more specific about their needs and invest in a custom saddle.

“That’s what we have seen over the last 20 years,” he says. 

But there are many, often personal, reasons why riders choose a custom saddle design specifically for their needs.

“I was approached by a judge back in the early 1990s, who confided in me that she was experiencing extreme issues of discomfort and pain – and ongoing bladder infections – and suspected that her saddle was the cause,” says Jochen Schleese, master saddler and founder of Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd., based in Holland Landing, Ontario. “I conferred with my wife’s gynecologist (also a rider), who confirmed that indeed these were ongoing problems she had been dealing with as well. I always try to involve other professionals – equine or medical – in my research, and I came to the conclusion that, although the demographics in the industry had changed to where more and mostly women were riding, the saddles they were using were made for men. We started doing ‘butt casts’ (plaster cast molds) and compared female to male impressions. We also discovered that the anatomical differences in the male and female pelvis led to obvious differences required in the design to accommodate the female form, things like extended stirrup bars, higher cantles, narrower twists, etc.”

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Plaster cast image provided by Schleese Saddlery shows the differences in pelvic structure between a woman (left) and a man (right) and how these affect their position in the saddle. As you can see, the woman’s pubic symphysis supports her position like the third leg in a tripod, whereas the man sits comfortably on his two seat bones. Photo courtesy of Schleese Saddlery

African-born saddle maker Franco Cloete, founder of Cloete Saddles based in Gray Creek, BC, with a manufacturing facility in South Africa, spent many hours in the saddle during his growing years. He learned that the saddles in use back then did not meet the individual needs of riders. He applied his experience to understanding the function and mechanism of equine equipment, which led to a desire to create better saddles to serve vastly diverse purposes.

“As a saddler, I am acutely aware of the dynamic nature of the products we design as riders’ needs advance and evolve, and new, innovative ideas keep urging me to create a more durable product that would work better than before,” says Cloete.

So often, the onset of a lifelong career as a craftsman starts with family connections.

“When my dad gave me my grandfather’s saddle, it was in need of repair, so I tried my hand at leather work,” recalls Alan Cossentine, who owns Cossentine Saddlery as well as CF Fence, in Oliver, BC. “From that starting point, I began building saddle bags and chaps. At the same time, I practiced on an old saddle tree until I got the courage to order a new saddle tree and my saddle-making career began.”

For John Visser, who owns John A. Visser Saddlery in Manyberries, Alberta, his launch into saddle-making was a gift of a leather craft kit from his grandparents when he was ten years old.

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Above/Below: John Visser, a saddle maker for 36 years, is respected for his finely-detailed leather work in the California style. Photos courtesy of John A. Visser Saddlery 

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“By 15, I was able to get a job in a local saddle shop doing repairs and small projects,” he says. “Seeing those saddles inspired me to try making a saddle, which I did at [age] 16. Around the same time, I spent two summers working for Warner MacKenzie Outfitters in Banff as a wrangler doing week-long pack trips in the Park. Warner had over 300 horses and mules, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn about horses’ backs and saddle fit.”

Saddles are all about the proper fit for both the horse and the rider. Much of that comes down to the ground seat, the part of the saddle that is wedged between the visible leather seat and the saddle tree. It is usually made of galvanized sheet metal called a strainer plate, then covered with leather trimmed and shaved to the desired shape. This shape is what determines the usability and longevity of the saddle. Many mass-produced saddles have the ground seat built into the tree, while custom saddlers will make the ground seat of leather.

“I put an all-leather ground seat in my saddles,” says McKenzie. “It is the traditional way of building a ground seat. It’s all leather instead of tin or fibreglass. An all-leather ground seat ends up taking the shape of the rider over time. It will shift and mold to your shape and give you a really comfortable seat.”

Schleese has made saddles for almost every discipline. While dressage saddles have been their specialty, they are entering the jumper market. They have also developed an innovative Western saddle, with interchangeable male/female ground seats, adjustable in the bars. Schleese has also made saddles for children, ponies, and endurance riders.

Prestige Italia, headquartered in Trissino, Italy, produces English saddles for a wide clientele. The company was formed in 1974 and, after much research, produced their first saddle in 1977. They used a nylon tree reinforced with fibreglass and today continue to use a synthetic fibre frame covered in Italian leather.

“Our main objective is to produce comfortable saddles, first of all for the horse, and second for the rider,” says Carolina Rossi with the marketing department. “The secret of making this real is the saddle tree. The X-Technology was created to make the rider sit more deeply on the saddle maintaining a high level of comfort, always in total respect of the well-being of the horse. It is a system that allows [the closeness] of the animal to its rider through the interventions made to the saddle tree, studied with precision and in respect of the human anatomy.

“Another key feature is the panels. The traditional panels are replaced with a more modern version. They are flocked in Dacron and, in addition, they are made with a honeycomb fabric with elasticity. [They are] breathable and ultralight to bring the rider closer to the horse and ensure all necessary stability without stressing the animal’s back. The benefit of this type of flock compared to classic wool is a zigzag fibre that does not harden and allows the homogeneity of the material.”

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Prestige Italia pays attention to the form and the flocking of the panels. They use steam to soften them before fixing them on the saddle tree, and to give the right shape to the panels. Photo: Prestige Italia

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At Prestige Italia, leather is checked many times before it is used to produce the saddles. The high quality of the product is of utmost importance. Photo: Prestige Italia

Rossi says that their latest innovation in the saddle tree is the CPS technology, or Coccyx Protection System. It has an injected-membrane geometry with the capacity to absorb stress and movement. The concept was developed to protect the ischium bones, the coccyx (a small bone at the base of the spinal column), and the back.

Visser says that the biggest issue is for the saddle to fit the horse.

“Horses are like people, they come in all different sizes. Their backs are as different as people’s feet,” says Visser. “Mass produced saddles typically go the one-size-fits-all approach. My trees are made with wider bars that distribute the rider’s weight over a larger area, thereby reducing pressure points. My tree bars actually twist to follow the transition from the withers to the loin. As far as the rider goes, it is all about keeping the rider sitting in a natural, comfortable position that is as close as I can get to the horse’s centre of gravity. On the tree, the placement of the stirrup slots and the cantle is crucial in determining not only the rider’s comfort, but also how close I can get them to the horse’s centre of gravity. A properly-fitting tree should create harmony between the rider and their mount.”

In the process of making a saddle specific to a rider and their horse, many factors come into play.

“When a person orders a saddle, we can take a look at their horse and get a good fit for them,” says McKenzie. “We can talk about what they need. We can build a saddle with bigger bar pads for people who rope heavy and pack heavy, so a bigger bar pad in the bar of the saddle tree will distribute the weight more evenly. With a higher-withered horse, we can make higher gullets. If a person wants a deeper seat, we can change the height of the cantle. This will give them a really good custom fit. 

“People are of different heights, so a lot of off-the-shelf saddles will have a longer fender stirrup leather,” McKenzie explains. “But when a shorter rider tries to shorten up the stirrup leathers enough, they lose all the movement in the fenders, which ends up tipping them forward in the seat and they can’t sit properly. It puts a lot of extra pressure on their knees, because it shoves the stirrup leather further back. So, we make different lengths of stirrup leathers for people with various leg lengths, to give them a really good fit so they can ride balanced with the saddles working for them, instead of against them.

“People who have broken their backs need a specific seat that keeps them in a perfect spot so they can keep riding,” says McKenzie. “People find our seats are narrow and that takes the pressure off their hips and knees. We get a lot of people who are maybe a little bit older and who have had, or are getting, hip replacements. A narrow seat isn’t going to pry them apart. Once you’ve ridden in a seat that really fits you, you know what you are looking for.”

Cloete says that an imbalanced saddle seat, one that is too wide, results in posterior/anterior rotation of a rider’s pelvis, causing back pain and/or knee pain.

“It also puts the rider behind the fulcrum, causing the rider to fight the saddle and in turn the horse fights the rider, and both performance and their relationship are jeopardized,” says Cloete. “Finding a mass-produced saddle that fits a horse and its rider well is rare, as two particular dynamic bodies need to be taken into account during saddle production in order to accomplish a good fit.

“That said, a saddle’s custom fit is superior in that the unfortunate possibility for injury is minimized, if not eliminated,” explains Cloete. “When a saddle does not hurt the body it bears, or the body that bears it, it successfully combats the risk of injury and a true equilibrium is accomplished. Thereafter comes enhanced comfort, optimal performance, and balance.”

Schleese says it is the rider who is more difficult to fit, which is where the true custom saddle comes into play. 

“Custom fit should never be an issue for the horse,” says Schleese. “A saddle needs to be fully adjustable in the tree/gullet plate to accommodate shoulder width and angle, and have the proper length to accommodate the saddle support area. Flocking needs to be adjusted to fit the horse’s back. Length is the most difficult thing to change after a saddle is purchased, although as a horse grows and muscles up, his saddle support area can actually decrease in size.”

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Natural and brown saddle (above); Celtic edge tooling (below): Photos courtesy of Cloete Saddles

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“The making of our saddle trees definitely involves a technique in that the saddle trees are constructed based on a set of unique back profile measurements using a customized chemical formula of polyurethane, which meets my requirements of a strong, tough, extreme-weather resistant saddle tree with an ideal flexibility where it’s needed,” says Cloete. “Our saddle trees have an uninterrupted cable infused into the tree, which offers an auto-adjustable girth positioning mechanism. Then there’s the dual-foam combination technique we use to construct our three-piece seat, which is contoured and shimmed for balance and comfort. Even though we build custom saddles for individual horses, our removable bar pads make it possible to fit one of our saddles to more than one horse within a similar conformation range. We use the best quality Chahin leather, stainless steel or solid brass hardware, and give our saddles a unique serial number for insurance purposes.”

In making saddles for the safari market in South Africa, Cloete focuses on a specific market niche. That includes basically a “minimalist” saddle that offers maximum functionality. In that market, a durable, lightweight saddle is highly sought-after, and it’s expected to last at least a decade and endure 3,000-plus kilometres a year. A safari saddle in South Africa would likely translate into a sought-after endurance or long-distance riding saddle in Canada.

“Safari saddles do best with minimum hardware, washable parts, low-cost maintenance, practicality of the design of heavy-wearing parts, and strategically-positioned saddle and water bottle bags,” he says.

Pragmatically, Cloete says that while safari clients don’t always know what they want or need, they know what they don’t want and what does not work for them. 

A lot of McKenzie’s clients ride several different horses and want a really good, average-fitting saddle that will fit several different horses. McKenzie builds Western saddles for many working cowboys who consistently maintain a string of horses to serve them for the many ranch and cattle management commitments they have all year round. 

“They want to be able to use that saddle on several horses,” McKenzie says. “We have some trees that tend to fit 95 percent of horses they will ride, with the exception of a super-narrow or super-wide horse. Those horses are tough to fit, in general. So, if you want a custom saddle that will fit most horses, we’ve got some trees that will allow you to do that. If you have a horse that’s difficult to fit, we can take your horse’s measurements and build a tree to fit your horse. For people with special needs, we can take that into consideration as we are building the saddle. We build a lot of saddles for working cowboys and ranchers around Alberta and Saskatchewan and into the United States as well, and we ship saddles to England.”

Of huge distinction on custom built saddles, and especially Western saddles, is the trim and decoration. The precision, artwork, and attention to detail is stunning; it is a craft unto itself that goes beyond the actual saddle construction. 

“I have been a saddle maker for 36 years,” says Visser. “I began making my own silver saddle trim 26 years ago, and making saddle trees for my saddles 15 years ago. My motivation for making my own silver and trees was quality control. At the time I started doing my own silver work and trees, there were limited sources of the quality I wanted, so I decided to do it all myself. 

“I suppose the other thing I am known for is my leather carving in the California style,” Visser says. “It is a more realistic, lifelike representation of the flowers as compared to other styles of carving. I am a detail-driven craftsman and spend a lot of time on getting the fit and finish of everything I do just right.”

At Prestige Italia, Rossi said that the selection of their materials is a blend of traditional methods and modern technologies.

“There are many types of leather and ours comes mainly from the districts of Veneto and Tuscany,” she says. “They are all companies of trust that not only know how to manage the skins, but do so using the most advanced technologies, while respecting the traditions and, of course, they consider the well-being of both the horse and rider. Lux and Super leather for high-end saddles are produced using natural tanning processes with the highest standards to reach the typical softness of calfskin. We made the decision to use water-based colours and glues for our leather in order to respect all the people who produce our products and, of course, the well-being of the animals.”

All the saddle makers interviewed for this article have seen a growing interest in customers wanting a custom-designed saddle. 

“When I started out in my career, my primary customer base was ranchers and cowboys, those who made their living with their gear and rode long hours,” says Visser. “They already knew that a custom saddle was what they needed so they and their horses could put in those long hours, day after day. But in the last 14 years or so, the recreational horse person has become more and more my primary customer. That has been influenced by research on the Internet or by taking classes offered by clinicians. 

“People have discovered that a custom saddle can give them a completely different riding experience than a factory-made saddle. Some of these folks thought their factory saddle was comfortable and working for them — until they had a chance to ride in a custom saddle and could feel the difference. I know that I have 35-year-old saddles out there that are still being used every day on big ranches by serious horse people who put on a lot of horseback miles.”

Cloete says that, in the 26 years he has been actively involved in the saddle industry, he has seen a remarkable increase in customers wanting a custom-designed saddle. They are not as concerned about the cosmetic look as they are focused on the custom needs of their horses. 

“Contemporary horsemen and horsewomen are more knowledgeable due to the increase of available information through social media and the Internet, and therefore are naturally more sensible and critical when it comes to their choice of saddles,” says Cloete. “They are very much aware that the days of slapping on a saddle and taking off, then dealing with problems on the go, are long gone. They are done with generic, substandard saddles and ready to invest in individually-engineered, designer saddles, which not only fit well but also express their individuality and display informed horsemanship.”

McKenzie recognizes that many riders have their own favourite saddle maker. “There are not a lot of saddle makers around,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it a dying art, but it is a rare art.”

While Cossentine is not currently building saddles due to the commitments with his fencing company, he recognizes that a custom fit saddle is an heirloom to be passed down to those who will continue to appreciate its quality. “A custom fit saddle will continue to work for you as long as it is cared for,” he says.

In keeping knowledge, values, and expertise at the forefront of the saddle industry, Prestige Italia provides training for all employees. “Periodically, internal training [sessions] are organized with the experts in the field to show the benefits of our saddles not only on a theoretical level, but also a practical level,” said Rossi. “We also try to convey advice and practices with respect to the proper aging of the saddle, with products dedicated to their care and maintenance.”

For many riders, the dream of having a custom-built saddle is often hampered by cost. But that cost should be regarded as an investment.

“I cannot even count the number of people who have confessed that they have a tack room full of saddles that don’t fit their horses, and finally came to the realization that they should have purchased a custom fit saddle in the first place!” says Cloete. “It is hugely frustrating for them, but honestly the frustration for me as a custom saddler is real. I totally get it — we all want to save our dollars and buy cheaper (not by much) mass-produced saddles, but when we repeatedly spend our hard-earned dollars on products that just don’t work or fit, we end up sour and reluctant to invest in a custom-designed product that will serve our needs.

“If every rider applies a long-range point of view to their choice of saddle, we will save more money in the long run, our horses will be happier, and the saddle industry’s carbon footprint will shrink considerably!” Cloete says. “People often have a tendency to live for the present with a vague idea of future investment or long-term consequences of our decisions. This, more often than not, costs us dearly. I want to encourage horse folk to adopt a longer-term perspective on custom fit saddles, which I guarantee would serve them well.”

More by Margaret Evans

Main Photo: Franco Cloete of Cloete Saddles understands that as riders’ needs advance, the products they create must also evolve, and this inspires him to continually improve. Courtesy of Cloete Saddles


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