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Saddled up for a labour of love

Peter Carlisle at work at his saddlery in Greytown. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

GIANINA SCHWANECKE

Peter Carlisle has been riding horses since he was 16 years old.

He had been working on a dairy farm in Taranaki when he was encouraged by a neighbour to give bareback riding a go.

“The horse took two steps and I fell off his backside,” he says.

But the fall didn’t put the Wairarapa College old boy off and he’s been riding horses ever since – though these days saddles are his preference.

“They get under your skin. They’re really a great animal.”

He has eight horses which graze in paddocks next to the saddlery on his home, about 4km out of Greytown, and about about 35 years ago, the former concrete contractor began experimenting with leather working and making saddles of his own.

“It was the 1970s – men were walking around with carved leather belts and women with leather handbags.”

Carlisle reached out to other leather-makers in the country but was turned away out of fear he would copy their patterns.

Instead the self-taught saddler learnt from a single chapter in a library book, and from taking old saddles apart.

“You can’t believe how much was missing about Western saddle-making in that chapter,” he laughs.

The work started as a hobby but soon became his main form of business when he purchased Ross Wyatt’s saddlery in Greytown 15 years ago, rebranding as Maverick Saddlery, with an exclusive focus on Western styles.

“I figured putting the Western in it would be more viable.”

He used to work from Cobblestones Museum before purchasing and relocating two former Wairarapa College classrooms to be used for his saddlery workshop at home.

“It’s just boomed from there.”

Nowadays he exclusively makes Western riding tack.

Each saddle takes Carlisle about a month to complete and he makes an average of 12 custom saddles each year, also selling custom harnesses and breastplates through the saddlery.

The saddles are made from wood, rawhide, tanned leather, rubber, suede, sheepskin, steel and silver.

A wooden ‘tree’ covered in rawhide makes the base of the saddle. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

He starts by building the ‘tree’ or base of the saddle from wood, before covering it with rawhide.

“It’s like shrink-wrap. That’s what gives it the extra strength.”

He then builds the rest of the body including a bar and cup to form the seat for the rider, before covering it with leather.

Shaping the leather requires patience and a steady hand.

He said saddle-makers in the United States had begun experimenting with fibreglass, carbon, plastic and other tree bases but he would stick with wood.

“These [designs] have got 200 years behind them.”

Fitting the saddle was first and foremost about comfort for the horses, then the rider. This can be difficult as horses change shape as they work and age.

“We try and fit them to the horses. If the saddles are uncomfortable the horses aren’t moving.”

Of late, Carlisle has seen an increase in saddles purchased for the South Island trekking market for Clydesdale cross breeds.

“They’re so broad you can’t just buy a saddle off the shelf.”

The finished products range in price from $4000 to $5000 for a plain saddle, but some have sold for more than $8000.

“They’re all built to the same quality, but some are just jazzed up.”

For decorative pieces, the price of silver overseas was one of the main factors influencing price.

Much of Carlisle’s work is sold online or at horse shows, but recently he made 18 stunt saddles for an upcoming live remake of the Disney movie Mulan.

“They do all the training with the Westerns and then they put pads over them.”

The detailed leather working on riding tack from Maverick Saddlery. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

He said a lot of other saddlers in the region have done the leather work for Lord of the Rings.

“The movie industry is huge and the budgets for them are out of this world.

“It’s a lot of work, not all necessarily Western.”

Carlisle said there were fewer leathermakers in the country now and saddlers were no longer able to source good saddle leather from New Zealand producers – most saddles today are made with leather imported from the US.

“It’s a sign the times.”

He said horse-riding had also changed and most riders today were in it for pleasure – for show jumping, dressage or racing.

“All the farmers used to go out on their horses and the kids would follow dad on their ponies.

“Then they all got motorbikes.”

He said the horses had been great for his three boys, who are also all confident riders, and have competed in international Western riding competitions.

He said the beauty of horses was they taught people about responsibility.

Carlisle, 71, said his sons now ride circles round him.

The appeal of saddle-making remains, however.

“You do it for the love of it. It’s a lifestyle.”

 

 

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