Learning the Art of Saddlery

equestrian saddlery

Sophia, who you may know as mainlydigger on Instagram, left New Zealand in 2023 to move to the other side of the world to study the wonderfully named Worshipful Company of Cordwainer’s Diploma in Saddle, Harness and Bridle Making at Capel Manor College in London. 

Why did you choose to move to the other side of the world to study saddlery?

I didn’t have much choice in the “where” to be honest! As far as I’m aware, this is the only full time saddlery course in the world and finding apprenticeships is difficult these days - especially in New Zealand. Having said that, I think it’s been amazing for me and I’m really glad this wound up being my best option. Saddlery was a bit of a no-brainer for me, though it definitely took both myself and my parents a while to actually take it seriously. I’ve always enjoyed both crafts and maths, which are both large parts of saddlery, and when I was trying to find a saddle to suit both myself and Digger I kept thinking how much easier it would be if I could do it all myself. 

What have you done in your course so far?

Quite a lot. As I write this, I’m in my last week of the first year (absolutely crazy, the time has flown by) so I’ve almost finished making a general purpose saddle almost completely by hand. The first year is split into three units: bridle, harness, and saddle. During the bridle unit we learned all of the basic leatherworking skills, then moved on to making a foal slip, leather halter, drop nose bridle with laced reins, Irish martingale and stirrup leathers. This was definitely the easiest - trying to write notes for the saddle unit is next to impossible! The harness unit was probably the one I enjoyed the most though, we made a breastcollar, neck strap and false martingale. The neck strap was the first thing I was genuinely proud of making, but the false martingale might be my favourite out of everything I’ve made. We were allowed to do our own thing so I put koru on mine - very special and meaningful to me!

What are you looking forward to doing/learning?

I’m really looking forward to getting more experience in the saddle fitting side of things. I’m now officially a trainee saddle fitter along with the saddlery course, I just need to get to work! In college though I’m really looking forward to everything that comes along with second year. Both the pace and expectations pick up quite a bit by the sounds of it, which will be a great challenge. We also make a harness bridle at some point, where we have the same level of creative freedom as the false martingale, so that’s quite exciting too.

What is your average day like?

To be completely honest it’s pretty cruisy. I live quite far away from college (London is unbelievably big), so I’m out of the house at 7:30 to be at college by 9:30. I’m there until 4:30 four days a week, and we spend all day in the workshop making things! Sometimes I’ll head into central London after college to do something fun or hang out with friends. I spend up to four hours a day travelling but it’s so much easier on public transport, and totally worth it. 

What has been the best part of the experience?

Can I say almost all of it? I think it’s been incredible for my growth as a person, and being able to see more of the world is amazing. London is certainly not for everyone and it’s not for me long term, but it’s so different to any city at home and there is always something to do or somewhere to go (even if that’s another country). I’m also really appreciating the amount of concerts here - I don’t think any of the artists I’ve seen here have any plans to tour NZ any time soon! I also have some pretty awesome family friends over here and I’ve loved getting to spend more time with them.

What has been the worst part?

There have been two worst bits in different ways I think. The worst bit about leaving home was of course selling my beloved Digger - it took me several years to be able to think about it without crying! But I think a combination of how well he’s doing now, how stressful it was in the last few months with him, and how much I cried about it beforehand, has made it a lot easier to accept. I’m so incredibly proud of the horse he is now and he will forever have a shrine on my wall. 

The worst bit about actually being here is being so far away from my friends and family - I have an amazing group of friends at home & there is so much I want to share with them. I’m very grateful for social media and my family came over just last month to see me, but it definitely shows the strength in your relationships!

Do you have any advice for other people who might be considering a saddlery diploma?

If you’re coming from NZ (or any sunny country really), invest in vitamin D pills. Seriously though, it’s an amazing course but I think you get out what you put in. You have to be really committed if you’re coming from outside of London to make it worth it. If you’re super keen and can get a visa, I say 100% go for it - it’s a craft we need to keep alive and we all know how valuable a good saddler is!

How much does the diploma cost and how long does it take?

It’s technically a two year course but it’s split into two separate courses for each year. The first year cost approximately NZD$28000 as an international student and I haven’t had the bill for the second year yet but let’s just say I’m not looking forward to it! However this doesn’t give you the title of qualified saddler, you need to complete your level 3 skills tests and have been practicing for four years before you can be qualified. 

What are your plans for after you finish your degree?

Go home!! I want to get my level 3 skills tests and finish qualifying as a saddle fitter before coming home, but that suits my timeline perfectly because I intend on going from the end of the UK summer to the start of the NZ summer. I went from winter to winter when I came here and have exactly no desire to do that again. There are a lot of ideas I’m playing with at the moment, but whatever happens I will be coming home in the next few years ready to get to work as both a saddler and fitter!

After this interview Sophia completed her first year of studies and won the Master's Lorinery Achievement Award for Best Overall Student, 2nd prize in Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers Harness Martingale Making Competition, and the Saddler’s Company Capel Manor College Undergraduate Bursary.