Back in my showing days (dating myself again), the standard of “cool” was measured by the brand and shade of your show saddles. The ideal being a leather so pale it may have been made of vampire skin, given the lengths people went to to protect them from exposure to daylight. While the lighter shades were pretty to a degree, and complimented darker coated horses nicely, it was a bit unrealistic to obtain and maintain such a standard. Just limiting it’s time in the sun was one thing, cleaning and conditioning the leather was a nightmare of worry over whether the products would darken the leather or worse, leave spots if applied unevenly.
As our ring time came to a close, the fashion rules were starting to soften a little, starting with english tack and equipment. Darker shades of brown were becoming socially acceptable without creating a wave of gossip or collective clutching of imaginary pearls.
Fast forward a decade or so, trend-setting riders are going polar opposite and taking to the show pen with the darkest shades of brown and even black. Inspiration strikes Michigan native, Morgan Warda, after pulling together a black on black ensemble for riding and deciding it needed a little something extra. She and fiancee, Michael Jennings, stripped down her 20 year old Dale Chavez saddle and gave it a makeover. The gamble paid off, and the once well-worn saddle was widely praised as looking brand new again. When you consider how much money we’re willing to invest in a key piece of equipment like a saddle (hint, not unlike the cost of a Ford Focus), it’s not at all unreasonable to consider getting a little work done to it, rather than scrapping it and starting completely over.
I had the pleasure of meeting this young business mogul at Quarter Horse Congress last year, through my involvement with the Queen Competition. Long gone are the days of ditzy darlings covered in sequins and talking about world peace. These ladies are hustlers in and out of the arena, and Morgan is no exception. Not long after they transformed her saddle, the requests for work started to come in. Working on one saddle at a time, slowly letting word of mouth do their advertising, they’ve built a steady little business.
Morgan and Mike are the sole employees, and every saddle receives the same attention to detail as her own. Every step is completed by hand, while the entire process is shared between them. Each saddle presents a new set of challenges and new opportunities to develop their skills and techniques. Lead time is usually a couple of weeks or so, depending on the condition of the saddle, and how busy they are at the time. In addition to this, the couple both have full time jobs, and are regulars on the Michigan Quarter Horse circuits.
Q&A with Morgan-
EIM-Are you strictly accepting business from QH/stock breeds at this point, or have you seen business being generated in other breeds and disciplines?
MMW-We have done 2 saddles for people that show Arabians! I think we tend to have more people in the stock breeds simply because that’s where I show and can market. We were so excited to have a new group come in that will show our saddles in a different breed circuit.
EIM-So far, I see black (or dark brown?), is that the end goal for each piece, or are you working on developing a variety of dark shades? Have you been asked to simply strip and refinish anything to it’s original (or close) shade?
MMW-The most popular colors are chocolate brown and black. We have not yet worked on developing a new range of colors; the traditional colors have kept us busy!
We have had 2 cases where an old saddle is brought to us in very poor condition: moldy, dry, discolored. For those we are able to clean and condition the leather, and then put a new finish on it.
EIM-In the process, you mention leather condition is a factor when it comes to the dyes being applied and absorbed, what about amount of tooling; hand or machine?
MMW-Tooling, or lack there of, definitely plays a role in the longevity of the dye. Smooth leather is the most difficult because it allows for more direct leg to saddle contact, which increases the likelihood that dye will rub off. Dye performs the best when the surface area of tooling is added.
Leather quality is the biggest factor. Some saddles actually have a ‘plastic’ feel. I can tell immediately which ones will most likely dye perfectly and which ones will require more work. The overall end result is the same. Wear time is usually different.
After doing over 80 saddles we have seen some never need a touch up for over 4 years, and some that need it after a few months. If there is wear its usually directly under the leg and we have found that it correlates with leather quality. Sometimes, its just the amount of leg pressure people use when they ride.
EIM-What’s been the biggest surprise?
MMW-I’m a statistics girl. I like being able to have a ‘sample’ size large enough to make informed decisions about how we apply dye and how leather is treated for the best result. We are at that point. I can rank almost every saddle brand by how well it will dye based on experience, and I know what we are dealing with before it even arrives at the shop. Its very rare that we have come across a brand that we have not dealt with before.
The most surprising thing for me is the tiny details that separate the different saddles. There are features that set them apart, and sometimes affect dying- even among the highest end saddles.
MMW-KNOCK ON WOOD! So far no oops…but we take the time to fill out a form before starting the dyeing process that indicates what color it should be and if there is any damage to the saddle when it arrives. All tack is also labeled with a tag.
My biggest fear is somehow dyeing something the wrong color, but that’s what the form is for!
As a competitor myself, I understand the connection people can have to their saddles. This practice has given people a chance to affordably revitalize older or well worn show saddles instead of buying a new one. As much as we would all like to buy new, it’s not always possible. It was this realization that our name Revitalized Saddles was penned. -Morgan Warda