Have you ever wondered what goes into the creation of a custom-built saddle? Master saddler IAN LANCASTER has been making them for 40 years, and knows a thing or two about his craft.
Binda is a village on the NSW Southern Tablelands. The population numbers a mere few hundred people, one of whom is Ian Lancaster, a master saddlemaker and these days, one of a fairly rare breed.
Born in Dapto in the NSW’s Illawarra region, Ian’s family later moved south to Berry, and it was there that he visited a local saddle and shoe maker to have the metal studs in his football boots replaced. He left with not only his boots, but also the offer of an apprenticeship. Fifteen-year-old Ian jumped at the opportunity, which proved to be the start of a life-long career.
Ian makes saddles for all disciplines, bringing an admirable degree of artistry to his work. Over his 40-plus year career, he has created saddles and harness for several movies, and is the only saddler to have won the Overall Showcase of Excellence at the Melbourne Royal, which he achieved in 1998 with a stunning two-tone dressage saddle.
When a client contacts Ian wanting to purchase a custom-made saddle, it’s the start of quite a complex process: “I take into consideration the size and shape of the rider and the horse. If the enquiry is from a local, I’ll go and take measurements myself. If people ring from interstate or overseas, I give them a list of measurements that I need for both themselves and their horse, as well as photos of the rider. From this I can gauge their size and shape, and then I work things out from there.”
Ian has an adjustable saddle stand that he sets up to match each saddle’s shape and size. “I don’t make the saddle trees myself,” he explains, “but I do have them made to specifically fit each individual saddle. I have hundreds of leather cutting patterns in the workshop, so I pick one that I think will best suit the rider. For example, if the rider is a little wider in the thigh, they may need to have the flap cut wider, if they’re short in the leg the flap should be made shorter, and for someone with a long thin leg, I’ll choose a pattern for a longer, narrower flap.”
But when you’re custom fitting a rider for a saddle, there’s more to it than just the length of their legs. “The width of their hips and the shape of their rear also have to be taken into consideration. When you shape a saddle seat to suit a rider who’s a little bit heavier behind, padding has to be taken out of the seat to allow them to fit into the saddle with their hips rotated into the correct position. But if their body build is fine and slender, then more is left in the back of the saddle so that they are correctly positioned,” Ian says.
And let’s not forget the horse! “When I’m measuring a horse’s back for a saddle, I ensure that the bars running along the side of the tree will fit the horse correctly, and the angle at the front of the gullet must match the angle of the wither so it sits parallel without touching at the top or the bottom. If it does touch, the tree is either to wide or too narrow, and once you add the rider’s weight to it, it’ll wind up causing pressure points in those areas. To some extent you can make minor adjustments with the bottom panel to make it fit, but if the angles aren’t correct, you’ll still have a pressure point in those areas. Finally, the cantle has to be sitting up at the right angle too, to suit the rider as well as their discipline,” he says.
Over the years, Ian has developed a couple of pet saddle–making peeves, one of which has to do with riders and the horses they choose. “There are too many riders who are not suitable for the size horse they’re looking to ride. They’re heavier people who still want to ride a smaller pony, and that’s a real problem when it comes to the saddle. If the saddle is made to suit the rider, it almost certainly won’t fit the size and shape of the horse’s back correctly.”
Ian often comes across this problem when someone’s been given a horse, or has bought one that they fell in love without considering whether or not they’re a good match. “The build of different breeds and cross breeds has an effect on their weight bearing ability. For example, your Arabian has two ribs less than a Thoroughbred, Warmblood, or other larger breed, which makes their back shorter in length. So the weight bearing area is less in an Arabian than a larger horse. It’s not just a case of ‘I like that pony, that’s the one I want to ride and I’ll get a saddle made for it’, you have to match the horse with the rider,” he says.
Yet another issue arises when a horse has been bred from two essentially incompatible breeds, resulting in anomalies in their conformation that make it very hard, or nearly impossible to correctly fit a saddle.
Ian points out that most standard saddles are made to suit an average size, and very few people are of an average size. “My main customers are usually people who’ve had trouble getting a saddle that’s a good fit for both them and their horse. Although a top quality saddle is a 40 to 50 year investment, one that will certainly outlive their current horse, I always suggest that they get the saddle made to fit that horse anyway. If they have several horses, the saddle should be made to fit the widest horse, and then saddle cloths and shims can be used to adjust the saddle to fit the narrower horse. But of course you can’t go the other way, you can’t make a saddle to fit a narrow horse and then expect it to fit a wider horse,” he adds.
If you can’t afford to buy a custom made saddle right now, Ian has some advice to help you find the best possible saddle in your price range. “I’d suggest you go and sit in the best quality saddle you can find, one that’s the best shape for you and is the most comfortable – and that doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive, because the mark–up on saddles can be more than the saddle’s really worth. And if that saddlery doesn’t have a similar saddle in your price range, shop around. Look at different brands until you find one that’s a close match and is in your price range.”
Ian uses only the best quality leathers in his saddles, and he strongly suggests that if you aren’t buying an Australian made saddle, you should choose one that’s been made in either the UK, Europe, or the US. Saddles made in Mexico, India and similar countries may be cheaper but, for a number of reasons the quality of the materials is significantly less.
And Ian has one final word of advice if you’re in the market for an off-the-peg saddle. “If you can, find a reputable saddle fitter who can measure the saddle and fit it to your horse. Always look for someone with plenty of practical experience. You need a saddle fitter who knows how to put a shim in, how to change the gullet, how to move the girth points if they’re not set in the correct position, and how to adjust the stuffing in the saddle to get it to fit correctly.”
To see more examples of Ian’s extraordinary work, visit