insight - Patrick Keane
Written by Ron Toft
Occupation - Saddler
As a student, Patrick Keane was always very good at practical subjects, such as woodwork and technical drawing, but mediocre at everything else.
So when he left school at 15, “it was natural for me to do something that involved working with my hands, although what I actually wanted to do was to join the Army. But because of my age, my mum had to sign me on and she wasn’t prepared to do that.”
The turning point in his young life came when, quite by chance, he attended a job interview at Jabez Cliff, one of the oldest and most respected saddle-making firms in Walsall, in the English West Midlands, where he was born and raised. “As soon as I entered the factory, the thing that hit me was the smell of leather. I thought ‘wow!’ I had never experienced anything like it before. I think it drew me in.”
Master saddler Oliver Morton told Patrick he was looking to take on a couple of apprentices. “I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at this’, although initially I wasn’t convinced that I would ever be able to make something as complex and as beautiful as a saddle.”
But he decided to give it a go, signing up for a six-year apprenticeship. After qualifying as a saddler, Patrick continued to develop his skills, moving from firm to firm. His long-term ambition, however, was to set up his own business, which he duly did in 1996. Today, award-winning Patrick, 53, is one of the world’s most sought-after bespoke saddlers, lovingly crafting beautiful saddles for some of the top dressage and other riders in the USA and Europe.
“Back in 1972, when I began my apprenticeship, you could have sold virtually any saddle. Now customers are far more discerning. What’s more, the whole business has become technical, top riders wanting bespoke saddles made and fitted to their precise requirements.” Patrick, who has won no fewer than nine Society of Master Saddlers awards, told me that making top-of-the-range saddles requires a range of different skills, care, and patience.
Basically, a saddle starts as a skeletal wooden ‘tree’ to which a seat, stirrup bars, and stirrups are attached. Leather is bought in as ready-finished ‘butts’, which are cut as required to create skirts, flaps, and other components of the saddle.
“Hides are available in different qualities, a lot of them coming from China at present,” said Patrick.
“We always buy ‘A’ grade leather, the cutting of which is a skill in its own right. Robots are used heavily in the manufacture of cars and many other things nowadays, but that
is not the case as far as bespoke saddles are concerned. Saddles are started and finished by hand. I would say 90% of the work involved is done by hand and only 10% by machine.
Patrick Saddlery makes four main kinds of saddles: dressage, jumping, cross-country, and Icelandic. “Most of our customers are three-day eventers, buying saddles for dressage, cross-country, and jumping. Although we can make any kind of saddle, our biggest sellers are the dressage and jumping models.
“The saddles we make specifically for Icelandic horses are completely different from all the others. Icelandic horses, which are such tough horses you don’t even have to put a blanket over them during cold weather, are very big in the US. The guy I am working for over there has a licence to breed them.
“The only way to understand a horse fully is to get on it and ride it. I couldn’t believe how different riding an Icelandic horse was.”Patrick Saddlery, which employs five people, makes between eight and 10 saddles every week. Most end up in the USA. “The American market is vast,” said Patrick. “Our saddles are in demand all over that country, from California in the west to Florida in the east. Basically, they don’t have any bespoke saddle-makers in America. Most people who want upmarket British-style saddles come to us. We have a reputation for being a high-end, top quality saddlery. People don’t come to us for cheap saddles.
A typical Patrick Saddlery dressage saddle costs around Ј2,500 (US$3,850). A top-of-the-range saddle takes up to a week to make from scratch. But customers have to wait much longer than that before they can saddle up with one of Patrick’s sought-after products. “There is a waiting list at present of about eight weeks.
Patrick sells directly to customers. “We wouldn’t want our saddles just sitting in shops. Everything we make is sold.” Such is the demand for Patrick’s saddles that his business recently built a new factory adjacent to its existing one.
Arguably, Patrick is the UK’s top bespoke saddler, not least because he has entered the British Equestrian Trade Association’s saddle-making competition on four occasions and won each time.“The main aim of our business this year is to take on a couple of apprentices,” he said.
“We could recruit saddlers from other firms, but they wouldn’t work the way we do. We are such a small trade compared with when I started out in the '70s. Anything made by hand has become smaller over the years. We’ve got to keep saddlery alive and, above all, pass on our skills to the younger generation.
Patrick considers himself “a bit of an artist”. Every time he completes a saddle, he looks at it and takes enormous pride in what has been achieved. “I like to think that every saddle is so good I would buy it myself.” Does a master saddler earn good money? “Well, I drive a BMW X6, take two annual holidays, and have always got money in my pocket! My wife, Janet, and I enjoy a very, very comfortable living.
Patrick never rests on his laurels, and is always looking for new markets. To that end, he is attending his first trade show in Dubai in December, and also hopes to break into the Australian market.“Endurance riding, I feel, is an area that offers considerable potential by adapting our new and very successful Icelandic saddle”, he explains. “We have also recently developed a brand new type of stirrup bar.
” Patrick says he finds it hard to describe the depth of the passion he has for being a master saddler. In fact, he loves his job so much that he would continue to do it even if he won the lottery.
“I would take the week off and then be back at the factory the following Monday morning. I can’t ever see myself retiring. After all, what would I do?”
Patrick makes several different kinds of dressage saddles according to customers’ style and leather preferences. Each one involves at least 40 to 50 hours of skilled work. “Our aim is individual quality for both horse and rider.”
The award-winning Calibre Dressage Saddle “is hand-crafted to customers’ specifications with a unique block flap and no visible stitching.”
The Ellie Dressage Saddle incorporates a traditional dressage flap "but embodies all the same features available in the Calibre Saddle.”
The newest dressage saddle is the Decorus, incorporating an outside block, “which works fantastically well with our new perfect positioning stirrup bar.”
Tools of the trade
Round knife: A very sharp tool used for cutting and shaping leather.
Bone: For smoothing out creases in leather.
Tack hammer: The main tool for assembling a saddle.
Flocking iron: A long piece of flat-ended metal used for putting wool into the panel.
Bulldogs: For pulling on seats and also for webbing the saddle ‘trees’.
Patrick Saddlery Ltd
1 Box Street, Walsall WS1 2JR
Tel: +44 (0) 192 261 0956