Saturday, February 22, 2014


A year ago I was in an antique shop on the outskirts of town and found this hanging in the farthest corner of the back room. It was the weirdest-looking saddle I had ever seen, and I was quite convinced that parts of it were missing. I looked at the price tag and was astonished that the asking price was $200. For a grubby old half-missing saddle? I thought. No way. 

Picture I took last year. Ah, memories. 
Then I got home and looked around the internet and learned that what I had found was a charro saddle -- a traditionally-built saddle from Mexico. The exposed wooden tree with its giant plate-like horn are its hallmarks. I was intrigued, and went back for a second look. There was so much stuff piled around it, it was hard to get near and really inspect it. I was shuffling things aside when one of the shop owners came to see what I was up to. She didn't seem to know too much about the item. I asked if they'd be willing to come down on the price. She admitted it had been there for quite a while, and said they'd take $100 for it. That was still more than I was willing to pay so I thanked her for her time and left.

I don't visit this particular shop often, because it's out of my way and a bit of a drive (and I also think they can be a little pricey, but maybe that's just me) but every time I went, I'd take another look at this piece. There was one time I even chuckled a bit and congratulated myself on having the good sense not to buy it.

I've been reading a lot about saddle history and construction recently, and suddenly it seemed like I was missing a great opportunity by not taking a closer look at this rig. I decided to see if the shop's main buyer would be interested in doing a little trading. I had a pair of Victorian baby shoes that I'd gotten at a thrift shop for two dollars (I know! Crazy!) and I'd seen similar ones sell online for over a hundred dollars, so I wrapped them in tissue and went to the antique shop.

I traded the baby shoes and fifteen dollars for the saddle and felt like I'd gotten a good deal. The dealer had to help me dig the saddle out of its corner, where it had a wooden chair sitting on top of it and was now fenced in by a bookcase, a box of cookbooks, a moose head wearing a sombrero, and a brass bedstead.

At home, I took pictures and started taking it apart, cleaning and conditioning as I went. It's not the fanciest or best-made example of a charro saddle, but it's very typical and has some charming features: the stirrup covers, or tapaderos, for one, and also the tiny pockets on the saddle skirts. Well, here -- let me show you what I mean!

The poor thing was so mishandled and unappreciated that the stirrup straps were twisted around and the fenders -- which should be laying neatly alongside -- had slipped down the inside and got scuffed along the floor.

The leather was thickly coated in dust (and the occasional bird droppings!) and was very dry. A good wash and a rub with leather conditioner was the first order of business!

Clean, and with the first coat of conditioner.  Dig that tiny pocket! <3

I got this wonderful stuff called Dr Johnson's Hide Rejuvenator at the horse expo last weekend and I wish I'd bought more than one jar. It actually does all the stuff they claim, and it smells nice, too!  I was pleased to discover that, despite being dry, the leather was actually in very good condition and it responded well to my ministrations.

The thirsty leather sucked up the conditioner as fast as I could spread it on. I apply a light coat once or twice a day until it seems happy.  It's while doing those sorts of things that I get to know a new saddle and notice little details like this tiny star on the rivet at the very bottom tip of the tapaderos.

The only leather on the saddle that didn't get conditioned was the suede seat. I cleaned it with my suede brush and ran the shopvac over it to clean up any residue. 

Once the saddle was clean and conditioning was underway, I needed to make a few minor repairs. The long leather saddle strings were weakened and tatty, so I replaced them all with new. And a section of the skirt pocket on the off side had come unstitched, so that needed to be redone. 

I used natural-tone waxed linen thread, but it still seemed very white compared to the old stitching. So I rubbed with a little conditioner and one of the old saddle strings, and that blended it right in.  See for yourself. 

I love these tiny pockets. Most of the other charro saddles I see pictures of have big saddlebags on the back, I wonder why mine has these little pockets instead? They're about the right size for a deck of cards or half a sandwich. Who knows? 

The underside of the saddle had a rather mangy-looking bright orange material on it that I first assumed was fleece (like every western saddle I've seen) but on closer inspection turned out to be wool felt. I spoke to a restorer in Missouri via email who told me that yes, charro saddles usually have thick felt padding rather than fleece. The stuff on this saddle looks like it's been chewed up by a wolverine and definitely needs to be replaced. 

I looked at pictures online and saw that usually a decorative edge is cut into the felt: scallops or pinking. I took a careful look at what remained at the edges of my saddle and sure enough -- evidence to support this, and a pattern I can reproduce. Behold! Only a few lobes remain intact, but it's enough. 

The bright orange is horrible, in my opinion. I can see that the original maker had a theme in mind, as the suede seat is stitched into a sunset sort of pattern, with a half-circle and "rays" in it, and I suppose the orange felt was a conscious choice to add to this warm sunset theme, but I just can't stand it. Ordinarily I'd stay true to the original as much as possible, but in this case, I'm going to tone it down a bit and try to find something more gold-toned. How I'm going to cut out all those tiny lobes remains to be seen. 

Once I get the new felt on and tie it all back together, I'll post an "After" picture for you all. And lest ye think this is turning into a total saddle blog, I have pictures of Dave's Jedi ensemble coming up and more sewing projects in the works for the coming weeks. So stick around for that! 

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