Alan Ward – Master Saddler
Alan Ward is a remarkable man. When he was just ten years old, his teacher asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. His reply was simple-“to make saddles”. His life path was set,and today he continues to fulfil his destiny from his base in Ballinasloe, County Galway. Alan, his wife Georgina and their two children Pierce and George are happily settled in nearby Creggs,County Roscommon-just a short hop from Alan’s thriving business. ‘Saoirse Saddlery’ is located just outside Ballinasloe town at the Ward family home and offers a range of exciting services – these include saddle fitting, repair and manufacture, rug wash and repair and a busy tack shop.
Growing up, Alan enjoyed woodwork and art at school. After completing his leaving cert, Alan approached the family-trained saddler Rory Kilduff and begged him for an apprenticeship. Willing to work for free, it came as a blow when Mr Kilduff turned him down. Undeterred, Alan completed a two year business with equine diploma in Enniskillen and then wrote a six page letter to Cordwainers College in Hackney, London, hoping to achieve a training position on this most sought after saddlery course. Despite the seven year waiting list, Alan was accepted immediately. He remained there for three years where he learned about saddle manufacture and fitting, harness and bridle work and even lorinery. Alan returned to Galway and set up Saoirse Saddlery in 1999 and recently achieved his official title – he is a ‘Society Of Master Saddlers Registered Master Saddler’. He is the ONLY person carrying this qualification within the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland.
“Leather is such a forgiving medium, so you have a lot of scope when working with it. Saddles in particular are special-they have to look nice, be tough enough to last and be comfortable to use. Making a saddle is like creating a pair of shoes that two people have to wear at once” says Alan.
Alan has been fitting, repairing and modifying saddles for twenty years. He has seen trends come and go and has observed carefully the things that work and the things that don’t. His approach is an amalgamation of experience and innovation and these days he offers a saddle fitting service that is complimented where necessary by the latest in saddle fitting technology-the Equiscan. Alan saw the Equiscan at a trade fair and so captivated was he that he waited over an hour for a demonstration – “It just made so much sense”.
The Equiscan is a sort of exoskeleton with moveable and lockable joints. It is put onto the horse and his exact measurements are recorded by fitting the Equiscan into position. The saddler is then able to use the measuring system and horseback saddle stand in his workshop to accurately represent the horse’s back. This allows him to work as if the horse were there in person and eliminates the additional stress and difficulty of many repeat visits. It also allows measurements to be sent direct to the saddler for personalisation, from saddle retailers located anywhere in the world.
Pooling his skills, equipment and vast experience has allowed Alan to develop a truly unique saddle fitting, alteration and manufacturing business. He believes that there is no such thing as a perfect fit-your aim is to achieve an appropriate fit for both horse and rider. Alan follows the same methodology for every client. He begins with an assessment of the saddle fit and suitability. He places particular importance on really listening to your client – “If someone doesn’t want to buy a new saddle, then you respect that. If they are looking to do something far reaching or different, then you respect that too. Whatever the client wants and requires is always the main priority.”
Between talking to the client and completing the initial saddle assessment, Alan is then able to ascertain what is needed. A standard refit is one of the most commonly required services and in this case Alan aims to have the saddle back with the client within five working days. He will then follow up at the six and twelve week stages. He likes to extensively photograph the saddle at each stage, as this provides a detailed history of both the horse and the saddle going forward.
Alan calls himself ‘a Master Saddler who just happens to fit saddles’ and it is here that the real Jewel in the crown is found-the person assessing and analysing the saddle fit is also the person who will be working on the saddle. More normally in the saddlery business, a saddle will be sent away to a saddler for works required. Most often, those working as saddle fitters are not capable of saddle repair, adjustment or manufacture. Alan cuts out the various middle men and offers a truly unique and effective way of achieving functional comfort for horse and rider.
This year, Alan has launched his own range of jumping and dressage saddles. The saddles come in two different styles, depending on rider preference -with the knee roll amalgamated into the top flap, or with the knee roll underneath the top flap. They are incredibly comfortable and of course Alan provides a full saddle fitting and adjustment service to achieve the best fit possible for horse and rider. They are available in black and brown. Alan also has a monoflap saddle in the pipeline and aims to launch it later on this year.
Alan has a large client base in Ireland, England and Wales and travels regularly. He also has clients in America and Japan, making Saoirse Saddlery a truly international business. With an upbeat and personable manner and with the most fantastic ability to work with his clients to truly understand and deliver on their requirements, Alan really takes the difficulty out of saddles and saddle fitting. His innovative ‘can-do’ attitude has taken him on some amazing journeys – one such example was in being asked by The American Three Ring Circus to make a circus harness for an elephant. A more recent and slightly unusual project required taking a much loved foam panelled saddle previously used on a wide backed horse, transforming it into a traditionally flocked saddle and then successfully fitting it to a far more narrow framed horse. Alan never shies away from a challenge. It’s all in a day’s work.
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Article by Christa Dillon.