The Evolution of Kent Saddles
Traditional Australian stock saddles such as these pictured in retirement at Kamaron Downs in Bedourie, south west Queensland, were adapted from English saddles brought to Australia by the early settlers. This saddle style featured flaps, a seamed seat and horse hair lining, and was made on a wood and steel saddle tree.
Although styles have changed continually over the last two hundred years; they have mostly been influenced by the English tradition. Knee Pads have varied greatly in position, size and shape, and cantle heights have changed from low to high.
Thigh pads became very popular, and were sometimes almost as high as the knee pads.The advent of felt lined saddles which replaced the horse hair lining, began to take hold in the 1950's. Fender saddles for stock work gained acceptance extremely slowly, and were uncommon until the 1980's. During our first saddlery trip to the Kimberleys in 1991, I saw only one fender saddle. By far the majority were felt lined flap saddles, with a fair number of hair lined saddles still in use, whereas Fender saddles now outnumber flap saddles.
In the main, Australian fender saddles have been adapted from American saddles. The Americans followed the model of the Mexican / Spanish saddles, which have a saddle tree closely aligned to the shape of the finished saddle. The saddle tree shape is designed to follow the contours of the horse. Most Australian fender saddles have American style tree bars with traditional Australian knee pads and seat, with the result that they are often called half-breeds.
My first 5 or 6 years of saddling were spent mainly in repairing saddles, and this experience was valuable when it came to designing our own saddles. The older style saddles were very high maintenance. The seamed seats and knee pad covers were frequently in need of repair, and the saddles constantly needed counterlining or refelting. Kent saddles have evolved with high priority placed on strength and low maintenance.
It's 21 years since I made my first fender saddle and our saddle tally now stands at close to 2100. Our first fender saddles were made on rawhide covered wooden trees and at that time, most fender saddles had the fender straps looped over the tree, a design which puts the rider in a dressage, or more upright riding position. Most people, given time, adapt to the different riding position of over tree fender saddles. However, riders who have ridden in flap saddles with the stirrup leathers attached to spring bars, are used to more freedom and forward movement with their legs, and at that time we were still making flap saddles for those who preferred this style.
About the year 2000, our tree maker Bob Wattus started building trees with spring bars, and that is when our fender saddle sales really took off and the demand for flap saddles declined. This innovation, with fenders swung from spring bars, gives the rider all the movement they want, with a safety bonus;……. the fenders should slide off if the rider gets hung up.
Currently, we give riders the option of spring bars or over-the-tree, with the vast majority of customers choosing spring bars. We often hear the comment that our fender saddles are very comfortable, and riders don't get so tired because the fenders are designed to move with the legs.
Always open to new ideas, Bob was in contact with saddle makers in the USA where cable rigging had been used successfully. (Click here for detailed information about cable rigging.) (There's a legend that Genghis Khan, over five hundred years ago, used a similar system of adjusting the saddle to fit the horse, using a loop of twisted rawhide.) I liked the idea, but was a bit hesitant when Bob sent us the first cable tree.
As with all innovations, we had a few teething issues. The main concern was the PVC coating on the cable which wasn't thick enough, with the result that there was some wear. We changed to a heavier cable with no more problems.
The introduction of the cable rigging tree has been a great success especially where there is a need for saddles to fit a wide range of horse shapes. Our cable rigging saddles are often used in steep mountainous country without the need for a crupper or flank girth. We also discovered that 2 inch cinch laces (used with cinch girths) with a leather sleeve, works much better than a 1 inch lace. The 2" lace with the leather sleeve moves freely along the cable, allowing the saddle to find its own balance.
We had a brain storming exercise at that time to come up with a suitable name for the cable saddle, and while lots of predictable descriptions came readily to mind, our son Jamie came up with “The Equaliser”. At first it sounded too “out there” but we soon took to it, as it describes perfectly the function and purpose of the cable rigging, which is to distribute the weight of the saddle and rider evenly on the horses back.
Kent Saddles at Elsey Station, NT
Another major innovation has been the change from rawhide covered wooden trees to carbon composite trees. The trees are reinforced with carbon fibre used in engineering, marine and aviation industries. Saddle tree strength is guaranteed. Other advantages of the synthetic saddle trees are that they always sit square and don't twist, are resistant to moisture, and are light weight.
Knee pad shapes have also evolved over the years as we've responded to riders' feedback. The knee pad options that we have settled on at present are:
We recommend the same height as the knee pads to give balance to the saddle.
Each year we think that we're fairly settled on our saddle styles, but there invariably seems to be some way that we can improve. It's important that we are open to what our customers are saying, and are on the look out for ways in which new technology can be used in the design of Kent saddles.
Stockcamp at Lissadel Station, Kimberleys WA, 1995 - Kent Saddles