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A saddler’s primary job is saddle-making, which can include everything from leather tanning to custom fitting and design work. Saddlers often also perform repairs and restorations of antique pieces. Most of the work is done on an individual, special order basis and often requires a great deal of skill and expert craftsmanship.
The art of saddle making is an ancient one. Although techniques and tools have advanced over the years, many of the basic tenets of the craft have remained constant. The best-made saddles are usually crafted for specific animals, usually horses but sometimes also mules, donkeys, or camels. A saddler will also usually take care that the saddle fits a specific rider.
There is some work that a saddle maker can do more generally, but most saddler jobs depend at least in part on clientele. Saddlers take measurements both of the animal and the rider, and make note of any of the rider's preferences. Leather color, softness, and overall design can almost always be customized. Stirrup length and style are also malleable.
The most traditional saddlers will tan the leather for the saddle seat themselves, though many modern craftsmen purchase pretreated and ready-to-use leather sheets. Still, the leather must be cut and fitted over the saddle base, which is known as the “tree.” Saddlers can either make their own trees or purchase them commercially. Trees are generally available in several standard sizes, which can then be adapted and modified for a range of riders.
Saddlers without fixed clients often make basic saddles that can be adjusted for a range of riders and beasts. These are often sold in leather shops or equestrian centers, and purchasers are usually referred back to the original saddler for fitting and any needed adjustments. Along with being experts in saddle construction, saddlers must also intricately understand the proper use and care of saddles and be able to pass this along to riders.
Specific saddler duties usually vary somewhat depending on the type of saddle at issue. A seat designed for basic trail riding is usually built very differently from one worn to jockey a race, go on a fox hunt, or round up cattle, for instance. Show saddles and rodeo saddles must also be built to particular specifications. Saddlers usually focus on one specific type of riding scenario and tailor their services only there.
Saddle repair is also a part of a saddler job description in most cases. In some markets there is a high demand for equestrian supplies and riding tools. Most of the time, however, once a client has bought something like a saddle, he is not likely to need one again for many years. He will need that saddle maintained and repaired from time to time, however, which is where saddlers reenter the scene.
A great many saddlers also teach their art to students, often in the form of apprenticeships. Saddler requirements are often somewhat vague, and there are rarely organized schools or formal education programs that teach this kind of leatherwork. More often, students learn by studying under masters. Offering apprenticeships to select individuals is a good way for saddlers to keep their skills sharp and contribute to the future of the profession while bringing in a bit of extra income.
Some saddles are made in saddle factories, often on assembly lines with some human interaction, but a lot of mechanical processing, too. A person who works in of these operations is not not usually referred to as a saddler. The term is usually reserved for craftsmen.