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Rebuilding Saddles


By Tommy Brannon

Every horseman knows that saddles and tack, no matter how well cared for, will eventually wear out and sometimes break. They also understand that well-made saddles will last longer than poorly made ones, and poorly cared for saddles will deteriorate faster.  I asked expert saddler Russell Langley of New Hope Saddles and Tack in Ripley, Tennessee about the details of rebuilding and repairing saddles. Russell was happy to share his knowledge of the construction and techniques used in the manufacture of any saddle, new or used.

Russell specializes in the restoration of older and antique saddles. In his shop one may find works in progress, such as an old McClellan saddle, the type used by the U.S. Cavalry, or an heirloom saddle, as well as also quite a number of working saddles being restored.

Russell said that many of new saddles today are manufactured in India or China and are of poor quality. These imported saddles are built on a hollow fiberglass tree instead of wood, and the leather quality is so poor that these saddles do not hold up. One tree he was rebuilding in his shop had the entire horn ripped from the tree, with an open gash of fiberglass where the horn had been. He explained that the horse owner was leading the horse from the ground at a walk and the saddle broke when it hit a tree limb. Another saddle with a similar, necessary repair was damaged when a rope tied around the horn was pulling children riding on a scoop.

When one is considering the purchase of a saddle, new or used, there are a few things to look for. First, look for a top name brand. The best western type and field trial saddles are made in North America. Tucker, Circle Y, Billy Cook, and Hereford saddles all have a reputation for top quality. The brand name may be on the latigo or keeper. Circle Y and Hereford stamp their names on the fender. Circle Y saddles have a steel plate with the serial number; that number tells the type of tree leather and manufacture date. He had a Circle Y saddle in the shop that was built in 1968 and still looked close to new condition.

If there is no brand name on the saddle, it may be custom made. Look under the jockeys to see if the tree is wood or fiberglass. The fiberglass or partially fiberglass tree may not be all bad in a custom made saddle, but wood is better. A true handmade saddle is done by one craftsman.  The tree usually comes premade on a jig from a manufacturer, such as Hadlock and Fox or Steel. Russell said that tree making is an art all on its own, a separate skill from leather crafting. The saddle maker selects and cuts the hides for each purpose. Many high end manufacturers hand cut and match the hides, but in an assembly line process. Russell said that for most riding purposes, a factory built saddle is fine.

He related an example of when custom building is necessary. A lady who commissioned a custom saddle was very petite, but rode a draught horse to trail ride. She needed a saddle that would fit her horse, but she could not lift and tack her large horse with a heavy 50 lb. saddle. She also liked the fit and feel of a barrel race saddle, so Russell sent the horse’s measurements to the Steele Saddle Tree Company in Texas to make a tree with a wide a fork front, Arabian bars on the back, and different twist to fit the horse. He then he built a barrel style saddle on that tree. The weight was only 25 lbs. and did not pinch the horse’s withers as did every other saddle that she tried.     
When starting a repair, Russell said he needs to first assesses whether the saddle is repairable. He pushes down on the seat to see if there is give in the middle. The bars could be broken. He checks for movement in the swells. They could be broken or loose from the front of the bars. Any of these things may keep it from being useful again. He then removes the skirts and seat to inspect the tree.

When making repairs, he tries to match the leather to make it look as original as possible. Matching the tooling sometimes can be a challenge. It is can be hard to determine which tools the original craftsman used. He said that most 20 to 25 year old saddles can be made usable and safe. He can also do some improvements to comfort, such as adding jell or memory foam seats.

When restoring an heirloom saddle, it may be best to do nothing but clean it. He said that Grandpa’s saddle may be worth more as a collector’s item than as a riding saddle. Collectors will devalue a saddle if leather pieces have been replaced. Besides, this is not the saddle you want to use when breaking colts!

For cleaning saddles, he suggests using a sheepskin trimmed so as not to leave fuzz, and a small, soft bristle brush that will clean around the rosettes. Depending on the condition of the leather, he likes to use Feibing’s Bag Kote, two coats of pure neatsfoot oil, plus two coats of glycerin saddle soap. This will soften the leather and give it a light shine, but not a gloss finish.    
Photo cutlines:
0721 a working saddle broken down to the seat in the process of restoration
0728: a poorly made saddle with a fiberglass tree that was severely damaged when the horse walked under a tree branch 
0734 two repaired saddles with improved comfort seats
0736 a vintage1968 Circle Y saddle in mint condition

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