Saddling up with a true master of his trade

Warren Newcombe with one of his saddles in his South Grafton workshop Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner
Warren Newcombe with one of his saddles in his South Grafton workshop Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner Adam Hourigan

A GOOD Australian stockman's saddle made by Warren Newcombe is about $6,600, depending on current cost of materials.

But for those who spend as much time on horseback than their own two feet the money is no problem compared to getting to the front of the waiting list.

The best materials are used and corner cutting is sacrilege in Mr Newcombe's store, who takes three weeks to make one saddle.

Like all masters of their trade, it took Mr Newcombe years to learn and years more for people to accept his designs.

He said it should take an apprentice three years to be confident at making only the panel and another seven years to become a competent saddle maker.

Brought up on the land, Mr Newcombe was right into show riding and pony club and started his saddle making career doing basic repairs and modifications on his own gear.

"One day I swapped my pocket knife for an awl and that was the beginning of my sewing," Mr Newcombe said.

"I didn't know how it worked and I started sewing back to front."

After looking for work in Sydney Mr Newcombe landed an apprenticeship with a Tamworth saddler.

"I started at 19, I'm 70 now."

"When I first started I was copying Bob Furlow and Frank Thrift's styles.

"They were very popular and all the good horsemen wanted them."

But Mr Newcombe did not settle for following trends and tried to improve their designs

"In the beginning I copped a bit of flak, but I believed in where I was going.

"No one thought my saddles would sell."

All the riders and saddle makers of the time thought Mr Newcombe's new techniques went against tradition and were too radical.

But as the years went by the Newcombe name became synonymous with quality and soon his designs were influencing Australian saddle making.

Mr Newcombe spends hours with clients and taking a horse's measurements to make the perfect saddle.

However, like any product that takes time to make, it is more profitable to make a faster and cheaper version.

And like in many markets the cheaper version is taking over.

Saddle and harness maker Jim Beaton, who met Mr Newcombe in 2003, has also made saddles all his life and even ended up in the Kingdom of Tonga teaching saddle making.

He said the saddle market was flooded with inferior American designs that were easier to make.

The American fender saddle uses a minimally padded panel that rests on the horse's spine, hurting the horse's back after a day of riding.

The fender is rigid and does not adapt to the horse as it gains and looses condition.

Beautifully engraved leather 'fenders' make it difficult for the rider to feel the horse but make it a highly sellable piece.

An Australian stockman's saddle uses a heavily padded panel with a channel that sits over the horses spine.

The panel is flared for a better fit and the webbed seating has less clearance so you are closer to the horse and have more control.

"That's the difference between the Australian and Yankee saddle. The Australian saddle is made to fit the horse and rider," Mr Beaton said.

While it takes three weeks to make one of his stockman's saddles, it only takes a week to make a fender.

"The fender is just a bit of wood with a piece of leather stretched over it.

"People are learning to make saddles out of a book. The old way of making it is getting lost.

"The new Yankee saddles can be made quick."

Mr Newcombe said the irony was when he first started it was impossible to sell a fender.

"No one wanted them," he said.

Instead of abandoning the Australian way of making a saddle, Mr Newcombe has settled on making a stockman's/fender hybrid that uses his channelled panels to satisfy demand.

"I never wanted to go into mass production because you lose control over the quality.

To this day Mr Newcombe has made 1814 saddles.

Mr Newcombe made a saddle in 1963 that is still used in shows today.

Only basic maintenance is ever needed.

"I would tell you how long one of my saddles last but I would have to live longer than 70."

Topics:  local faces south grafton

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