The intricacies of saddle-making

​Saddle-making is an art form. Carefully crafting leather into a piece of essential horse riding equipment takes skill and lots of training.

Posted: Aug 17, 2018 4:39 AM
Updated: Aug 17, 2018 4:50 AM

Horses might be big and powerful, but they are sensitive creatures and won't put up with any old saddle.

Just ask the students at London's Capel Manor College, which boasts Europe's first full-time saddlery course.

These leatherwork apprentices are learning the impact a finely-tuned saddle has on a horse's athletic performance.

And it all starts with quality craftsmanship, according to course leader Line Asser Hansen who was trained by Queen Elizabeth II's harness and bridle maker Frances Roche.

"Horses are very sensitive, they can feel a fly on their skin," the 50-year-old Hansen told CNN Sport.

"If we put anything on like a strap or anything that rubs against them, they are not going to perform.

"The saddle, the bridle and all of the equipment must be comfortable. If not, they are not going to jump towards it -- if there is any pain or discomfort, they will run away and not perform.

"It is so important to spread this knowledge and improve, especially if we ask so much from these beautiful animals."

READ: Queen Elizabeth II's undiminished love of horse racing

The college welcomes a mixture of students from the UK and overseas, including from Hansen's native Denmark as well as Finland, Korea, New Zealand and Japan.

Hansen, who first came to the UK as a rider, credits the Japanese culture for having strong creativity skills, which she looks for at the interview stage.

"One of my key questions is, 'What sort of toys have you played with as a child?'" she said.

"If they have played with 'Lego' or 'Meccano' they would know how to build things together.

"If they have only played with action figures or barbie dolls, they cannot see how things go together -- creative toys is a must."

Although Hansen's hands show no signs of wear, she explains the most crucial part of her student's training is developing the muscle between the thumb and forefinger, and she spends six months strengthening this.

The students craft their saddles with British cowhide leather, and Hansen admits to being fascinated with the distinctive smell from a young age.

"I remember buying my first school satchel and that really set me off," she said.

"I must have been about six years old and we walked in to this shop, I smelt the leather and it had a certain smell - it just stuck."

Across the world saddlery schools equip students with the skills to craft equestrian accessories. Some move into the fashion world.

READ: Meet the teacher who handicapped the world's biggest races

READ: From Vogue cover model to jockey for one day

'Saddles are the soul of Hermès'

Long before the fashion house Hermès was designing lifestyle accessories, leather and saddlery was its foundation -- reflected in today's horse and carriage logo.

"Saddles are the soul of Hermès," Marion Larochette, director of the brand's equestrian line, was quoted as saying by The Week.

"For almost a century, equestrian products were the only activity for Hermès, which is why these roots are so deep."

As long as there are equestrian sports, the future of saddle making remains secure.

For future trainees, Hansen has one message.

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"Do it for the horses -- If you want them to perform as athletes, you have got to give them the best," she said.

"Think about football players, if the shoes do not fit or the pants rub they are not going to do it as well as if everything was fantastic."

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