David Baxter on the diverse skills of being a master saddle fitter and his early encounter with a budding top event rider
My father worked in hunt service in Scotland so I grew up with horses and learnt to ride at an early age. I was expected to sit tight over small walls when I was three. We moved to Huddersfield when my father bought a riding school advertised in Horse & Hound. I joined the Rockwood branch of the Pony Club and experienced a lot with them.
Huddersfield was quite a wealthy area in the 1960s and ’70s with a lot of competitive and talented riders including the Whitakers, so there were a lot of good shows. My father, Charlie, was a judge at Horse of the Year Show and we originally had show ponies, then showjumpers before I fell in love with eventing.
After leaving school I went to Cordwainers in London where I had fantastic training. I returned home and established Throstlenest Saddlery in 1979. At first, I did repairs for racing and hunting yards, and made hackney harnesses, but I branched out into saddle fitting and then qualified as a master saddle fitter.
I was asked by an Italian furniture designer to shape and stitch some leather for a chair he’d designed and its photo made it on to the front cover of The Sunday Times Magazine. I also made a harness for a donkey who appeared in the TV programme Last of the Summer Wine.
I’d known Jayne, my wife, for some time, because she used to come to our riding school. We got together some years later when I went to fit a new saddle. She’s my fellow director in the business and is constantly developing new ideas. In the past we’ve had some great showroom openings with stars like John Whitaker and Milton, and Bob Champion and his Grand National winner Aldaniti.
I fell in love with eventing and competed to intermediate level. I always wanted to run a horse trials, so in the 1990s, Jayne and I, with a group of friends, established Bretton Hall Horse Trials, which ran for six years. We would have a Pony Club day after the British Eventing (BE) event and young riders like Oliver Townend and Matthew Wright came to compete. I still love eventing and Throstlenest Saddlery supports BE horse trials at Frickley, Epworth and Speetley.
I’ve known Oliver Townend’s father, Alan, since Pony Club days and we asked him to find a horse for us. Initially Alan rode Measure For Measure (Milly), but then Oliver popped up and asked why he wasn’t riding our horses! We hadn’t thought we were “proper” owners but when we started to support him, we had a fantastic time.
It’s incredibly rewarding to be in at the beginning of a talented rider’s career. We bought Golden Hue for Oliver and had dreams of London 2012. He won at Chatsworth three-star and went to Luhmühlen four-star, but ultimately didn’t stay sound so he came home to us. Jayne did some dressage and showjumping with him. He’s 20 now and definitely a character, but I still ride him.
As a master saddle fitter I’m on the road four days a week from Derbyshire to North Yorkshire and do fitting at home another two days – and still enjoy finding the right saddle for people. I like to see a good picture between rider and horse and the saddle is the key to that.
I stock a wide range of saddles and know my stock – different ranges work for different horses and disciplines. Much of what I do is by eye and instinct after 40 years, but the Society of Master Saddlers keeps me trained on all the latest scientific and veterinary advancements in saddle fitting.
I get as much reward from fitting a child’s first pony as a professional’s horse at the top of their game.
During the pandemic, we’ve been redesigning and refitting the shop, and setting up a cafe. The saddles are going to be in a separate showroom and when we’ve upgraded the arena, we hope more people will come to us rather than me being on the road.
We also still have dreams of starting again with a young competition horse, so maybe it’s time to start looking again…
H&H, 24 September 2020
You might also be interested in…
Finding the right saddle can often be a confusing process of trial and error — follow our advice to make
Sue Carson, founder and managing director of Sue Carson Saddles explains why autumn is an important time to check the
Unqualified saddle-fitters have been slammed by the Society of Master Saddlers as being frauds who are damaging the craft
Expert advice on what to look for in a well-fitting saddle
Ronnie and Penny go through one of the processes we all encounter when owning a horse