Inspiration for natural saddles

COLOURED COBS, Aberdeen Angus cross cattle and White Faced Dartmoor sheep all happily shelter under the same barn roof at Tom and Sarah Widdicombe’s organic farm at North Bovey, Devon and have to a greater or lesser extent lead to the development of the latest enterprise – the design and sale of high quality treefree saddles to the growing natural horse care market.

The inspiration for Dartmoor Treefree Saddles came from the Widdicombes’ own experiences with young horses that they work with and breed. In the past when horses started bucking or napping, saddle fit was often felt to be the cause. For a long time Tom and Sarah looked for a solution. “We wanted to be able to put a saddle on a youngster and know that it wasn’t going to be part of the issue,” says Sarah.

A couple of years into their search the Widdicombes came across treeless saddles (a saddle without a rigid stabilising structure of a fixed width) and started using them. They were impressed by their effectiveness but quickly identified some improvements that could be made. A common myth among treeless saddle enthusiasts at the time was that one size would fit all horses, however, the Widdicombes experiences suggested differently.

Treefree saddle

“Although with a treeless saddle you haven’t got the fit issues that you’ve got with a treed saddle, we felt that there was no way that one size of any saddle that has got hard parts, such as a pommel, was going to be comfortable or suitable for every horse,” says Sarah.

At the time all treeless saddles were imported into this country, an often long and complicated process with no back-up. So, deciding that the easiest way to obtain the saddle they wanted would be to design and make their own, Tom consulted Viking Saddlery in Buckfastleigh.

Right from the start the key features of Tom’s designs have been a gullet and an interchangeable pommel offered in different widths. Both are departures from the early designs of competitors that ensure that Tom’s saddles fit comfortably and securely on almost any shape horse including Thoroughbred types with more protruding spines.

Through their involvement in natural horsemanship Tom and Sarah witnessed a general rise in interest in the methods pioneered by Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli and knew that there was a growing market for treeless saddles. At the time the complete lack of back-up from the foreign saddle manufacturers meant that people had to spend over 500 on a saddle that they had never tried on their horse let alone sat on themselves.

Starting in a small way the Widdicombes made a prototype and began to “quietly sell it” to the people whose horses they worked with. Feedback from customers allowed Tom to make improvements to the designs and add products to the range so that people can now buy a complete package to get going with.

Despite an increase in European imports the Widdicombes have sought to maintain a competitive edge by offering a seven-day trial, ongoing back-up service and a number of local agents around the country ready to help with advice and fitting if required.

Balancing act

All this has to be balanced with the other enterprises on the Widdicombes 45 acre organic upland holding and Tom admits that the hardest part can be getting the service right to the customer particularly when things get a bit frantic at times such as lambing.

Tom’s design time and Sarah’s involvement with saddle customers has also meant less time for direct selling and marketing some of their other products including organic meat.

As a result the more traditional farming side of the business is currently less profitable than it could be although the Widdicombes are clearly committed both to farming organically and to the benefits of a small mixed holding in terms of grassland management and stock health.

“The farming is a kind of constant thread, even if it doesn’t take as much time, in a way it’s the most demanding of the lot because you can’t just go off,” Tom says. “An advantage of that of course is that it gives the whole thing a rhythm, which I like.”

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